The challenges facing women and youth in agriculture are different by country but there are some underlying factors across the developed and developing world. In the UK, farming women who are now in their eighties and older faced deep-seated institutional inequality because of:
lack of access to agricultural education, (many educational institutions were male only or women in farming communities were expected to develop the home skills because they fed so much of the workforce),
social structure, (women were expected to give up work and care for their husband and children when they married),
rural society (womens’ unpaid contribution runs much of the structure of rural society, especially as a result of rural isolation from welfare services e.g. through informal systems centred around the church, pastoral people care systems, and civil networks such as the Women’s Institute and other women’s groups) and
access to the capital asset itself (If the capital asset of a farm is reduced it impacts on the ability to have a viable farming unit as is seen in many parts of Europe where inheritance laws are different to say the UK) as male offspring were seen as the natural inheritors.
There are other technological challenges in that generation manual labour (the difference in physical stamina for some women meant they were unable to do certain jobs at the same productivity level), the introduction of electricity reducing the drudgery of some household chores compared to the start of their lives.
Women in their late fifties and sixties in UK agriculture faced a different set of challenges. Lack of viability in agriculture meant that the businesses had to find an alternative source of income. In short, women had skills the non-farming labour market would buy. Therefore many women worked off the farm as well as contributing to the running of the farm business itself or ran an alternative enterprise on the farm. Many of their children grew up in farming families and saw what their parents had to do to keep their businesses afloat and often just standing still in the 1990s. Increasing legislation, and administration demands in many small family businesses also fell to the women and at the time there were little in the way of computerization to support. Agricultural family businesses would have collapsed over that time period if women had not taken up the gauntlet that was thrown down to them. Generally women (and men) involved in agriculture across the 1990s/early 2000s simply said to their children who were in their late teens onwards – don’t be involved in farming get a good job which pays well in the towns and cities. Thus in the UK, a whole farming generation looked for other jobs, which meant many agricultural colleges closed and the circle of gloom in agriculture perpetuated and the average age of farmers remained high. This female response is true in the developing world too where many women see the real opportunities for their children as being away from rural areas.
Until women see a better life for their children at home in rural areas they will still give the message – go where the grass is greener.
However in some agricultural sectors profitability turned a corner in the UK, and subsidies at least meant the family farming business broke even whilst the farm asset kept rising in value, as did the opportunities increase through technology – improved equipment, computers, reduced number of farm workers so less of an onus on women in the farming business to feed them daily, access to agricultural education for women and a desire to be the “farmer” as opposed to the farmer’s wife.
There is a resurgence of youth reentering agriculture with men and women in equal numbers. What they need above all as with all young people entering a career in any field is mentoring and support. They also need people to give them opportunity and this presents a challenge because very often they enter an industry where career progression is not well mapped, they have low experience, low asset base and are seen as high risk in a low margin environment. Therefore they need to be underwritten by their own families or a sponsor and there may not be a willingness to do this.
Access to finance is the biggest challenge and whilst margins remain low so does financial viability in agriculture and the ability to pay back loans.
Empowerment and equal rights
The question to ask first is whether there is greater empowerment of women and youth in agriculture compared to other business sectors? If not why should agriculture be a special case or be able to break the general mould of the number of women leading business sectors? The question also that needs to be asked is whether women in leadership roles in policy organisations or food/farming related businesses in the supply chain reflect the empowerment of women in actual agricultural businesses.
In the UK, overall women account for only 17% of all business owners. That does not mean that they are not highly involved in the business they are just not identified as the owner. Between 2008 and 2011 women accounted for 80% of the new self-employed. (Labour Force Survey, Office of National Statistics 2013). This is at a time when statistics also note a rise in the number of women identified as the main farmer in farm businesses. The rise in women business owners is a trend therefore across all industries. Self-employment offers far greater opportunity for women than employment because they themselves are setting the structures and dynamics within their businesses and in doing so will drive greater personal empowerment compared to the dynamics of employment. Also as they are self-employed, at a certain stage in their lives an employer does not have to face the cost of their childbearing so potential “clients” might offer them greater sub-contracted opportunity as there is less risk to their business of carrying maternity costs.
Women involved in farming businesses across the world face a challenge between their contribution to the business (physical and mental) and their role of carrying and birthing children. The demands of the family farming business does not stop just because of giving birth on any given day. Many women involved in farming businesses have to give birth literally between job tasks and carry on. This requires great mental and physical resource within the women themselves, and the integration of their partners and extended family to look at how childcare is shared amongst them so that the women can continue to actively contribute in the role they have chosen. Many of the women in agriculture now in their eighties empowered the women in their fifties by providing childcare so they were free to earn income on and off the farm. Those women in turn will struggle to continue to work full time, care for their grandchildren to empower their own daughters and daughters-in-law to continue to provide income and also care for the elderly members of their family. This is further compounded by an expectation that women will still deliver the unpaid social and cultural support on which the rural areas depend.
There are many developing societies across the world where the children are being cared for by grandparents, whilst their mothers are hundreds or thousands or miles away earning cash to support the families. Within farming operations at least women are not geographically isolated from their children.
The most important mechanism for engagement of young people and women in agriculture is for more of the value of the food to be retained at the farm gate. This will encourage more parents to believe there is a future for their children in agriculture. Fathers across the world need to believe that daughters can run viable farming businesses so that they see them as a part of their succession plans and not just their sons. The example of their own wives and mothers and what they have delivered to agricultural businesses over the last four decades is now changing perceptions in the developed world, but old attitudes are still entrenched because of the need to retain the capital in one individual to make a viable farming operation. On marriage women’s farming businesses need not to be seen as becoming part of a husband’s wider property asset rather that women retain ownership and control and many young women at agricultural universities and colleges will expect this in the future. There are a number of cultural challenges to this becoming the status quo. Credit and financial support agencies needs to consider the wider challenges of property rights and how women can assess funds.
Organisations need to recognise that collectively women have far more opportunity to take an active, engaged role in agriculture in family businesses, self-employment and smaller scale business models than they do in large agribusiness operations. However, women will also continue to do much of the repetitive labour in the developing world unless technology replaces those activities as it has done in the developed world thus enabled men and women alike to progress their businesses and increase productivity.