Gender and development People
Asia's women in agriculture,
environment and rural production


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Key Facts

Pakistan's population is 47.5% female and 52.5% male
The literacy rate for women is 16%. This is less than half the rate for men (35%)
79.4% of rural women are engaged in agriculture as against 60.8% of rural men
Women extensively participate in the production of major crops; the intensity of their labour varies by crop and specific crop management tasks
Women have active, intensive involvement in livestock production and forest product harvest
Women's heavy work load - with dual responsibility for farm and household production - is increasing as agriculture is feminized
Women's work is getting harder and more time-consuming due to ecological degradation and economic crisis
Women contribute to household income through farm and non-farm activities, particularly through cottage industry
Women's work as family labour is grossly under-reported

General profile


Pakistan's population was officially estimated at 131.6 million in January 1996, comprising 47.5% women and 52.5% men. The population growth rate remains as high as 2.8% per annum. Based on a 1993 survey, 46.1% of the population is under 15 years of age and 4.1% over 65 (EIU, 1997). According to the 1981 census, 72% of the population live in rural areas. A 90% of the households are headed by men and most female-headed households belong to the poor strata of the society (ESCAP, 1997). The population density is 106 persons per square km (EIU, 1997). The total fertility rate was 5.4% in 1990-91.

  Sex ratio by residence
(males/100 women)

Source: ESCAP, 1997
The main ethnic groups in Pakistan are the Punjabis of Punjab, the Sindhis of Sindh, the Baluchs of Baluchistan and the Pathans of the North-West Frontier Province. The Punjabis are the principal ethnic group comprising two-thirds of the population. There are also a number of small tribal groups in remote areas. Pakistan is an Islamic country and 97% of the population follows Islam. The important religious minorities are Christians, Hindus and Parsis. (ESCAP, 1997). The sex ratio in Pakistan is such that there are 110.6 men per 100 women (1981 census). This phenomenon is attributable to male-favoured sex ratio at birth and higher female mortality. Further, in urban areas this sex ratio is 115.3 men to 100 women, whereas in rural areas it is 108.7 men to 100 women. Such a difference could be attributed to a large male out-migration from rural to urban areas (ESCAP, 1997).


  Literacy rate in different residence
by gender

Source: ESCAP, 1997
In Pakistan, educational attainment shows poor results. Particularly the educational status of Pakistani women is among the lowest in the world. According to the 1981 census, the literacy rate for the population of 10 years and above is 26.2%. However, there are distinct gender and rural/urban differentials concealed in the literacy rate. Women have a literacy rate of 16%, as against 35% for men. Similarly, the literacy rate for the urban population only is 47.1%, whereas the literacy rate for the rural population is 17.3%. Moreover, this rural/urban differential is more pronounced in the case of women than men. The literacy rate for urban men (55.3%) is more than twice the rate for rural men (26.2%). However, the literacy rate for urban women (37.3%) is more than five times the rate for rural women (7.3%) (ESCAP, 1997).


In Pakistan's economy women play an active role. But their contribution has been grossly underreported in various censuses and surveys. Consequently, official labour force statistics show a very minimal participation of women. For example, the 1991-92 Labour Force Survey revealed that only about 16% of women aged 10 years and over were in the labour force and in comparison, the men's participation rate was 84%. On the contrary, the 1980 agricultural census showed that women's participation rate in agriculture was 73% and that women accounted for 25% of all full-time and 75% of all part-time workers in agricultural households. Also, the 1990-1991 Pakistan Integrated Household Survey indicated that the female labour force participation rate was 45% in rural areas and 17% the urban areas. Thus it is clear that if women's contribution to economic production is assessed accurately, a conservative estimate of women's labour force participation would be between 30% and 40% (ESCAP, 1997).

According to the 1991-92 Labour Force Survey, agricultural and allied industries absorb the largest proportion of employed persons, both women and men, particularly in the rural areas. However, the proportion of the persons engaged in the agricultural sector is higher among rural women (79.4%) as compared to rural men (60.8%). The Human Development Index (HDI) rank of Pakistan is 119 th of 146 countries, indicating low life expectancy at birth, low educational attainment and low income. It demonstrates that Pakistan is faced with a difficult task in human resource development. The Gender-Related Development Index (GDI) rank of Pakistan is 120th of 146 countries. This illustrates that the human development gap is further aggravated by substantial gender disparities. The difference between HDI rank and GDI rank is -1, indicating that the country performs relatively worse on gender equality than on general achievements alone (UNDP, 1997).


Agriculture occupies a strategic place in Pakistani economy. It directly supports three-quarters of the population, employs half the labour force and accounts for one-quarter of Gross Domestic Product (EIU, 1997).

Pakistani women play a major role in agricultural production, livestock raising and cottage industries. Women often devote more time to these tasks than men do. They participate in all operations related to crop production such as sowing, transplanting, weeding and harvesting, as well as in post-harvest operations such as threshing, winnowing, drying, grinding, husking and storage (including making mud bins for storage). Rural Women in Pakistan carry out these tasks in addition to their normal domestic chores of cooking, taking care of children, elderly and disabled, fetching water and fuel, cleaning and maintaining the house as well as some of its construction.

Obviously, these women work longer than men do. Surveys have revealed that a woman works 12 to 15 hours a day on various economic activities and household chores (ESCAP, 1997). Women from an average farm family remain extremely busy during the two farming seasons in sowing and harvesting. In some ethnic groups, especially in the southern regions of Pakistan, a husband may marry more than one woman to supply additional farm labour (PARC, 1988). In Barani (rainfed) agriculture, where crop production is not sufficient to meet subsistence needs of the households, men have traditionally sought employment in the non-farm sector. As a result, women have to take over a substantial burden of the work in agricultural production. Moreover, dramatic growth rates in cotton production have generated tremendous demand for female labour. Such production-labour interactions have led to the increasing feminization of agriculture (GOP, 1995). Though Islamic laws do not deny equality between the sexes, women receive differential treatment due to misinterpretations of religious teaching. Due to various social beliefs and cultural bias, women's access to property, education, employment, etc. remain considerably lower compared to men's. Purdah norms are followed in most communities (ESCAP, 1997).

Crop production

Gender roles in upland crop production
TasksFemale Male Both
Land preparation x 
Applying manurexxx 
Applying fertilizer x 
Weeding/hoeing  x
Harvesting  x
Drying  x
Preparing storagexx 
xx/x = relative involvement
Source: ESCAP, 1996
sugarcane, etc. are the key components of Pakistani cropping systems. Punjab Province accounts for the bulk of agricultural output in the country. However, Baluchistan and North-West Frontier Province are poor and backward (EIU, 1997). Endowed with fertile lands, Sindh Province produces 30% rice, 25% of the rice cotton, 23% of the sugarcane and 18% of the wheat in the country (Baluch, 1988).)

In Pakistan, women participate extensively in the production of major crops, but the intensity of their labour depends on both the crop in question and the specific activities related to that crop. Women's participation is particularly high in cotton, rice, pulses and vegetables (Mumtaz, 1993). Rice and cotton cultivation in Sindh jointly account for more than one-third of women's annual agricultural activities (Quadri and Jahan, 1982). Similarly, women's participation is the highest in cotton production in Punjab. Picking cotton is exclusively a women's task. Their participation is the lowest in sugarcane production (Zaman and Khan, 1987).

In the rainfed areas of Punjab, women contribute to almost all of 22 identified crop tasks with the major contribution to seed preparation, collection and application of farmyard manure, husking maize and storage (Freedman and Wai, 1988). Men's involvement is higher in the early stages of cultivation such as field preparation. Men also monopolize mechanical work. For example, they carry out mechanical threshing (with animal or fuel-powered machines), while hand-threshing is a women's domain of task. Driving tractors and watering the fields are also men's job. Food processing and storage is an area where women's participation is considerably higher than men's (Mumtaz, 1993).

A survey conducted in five districts of NWFP reveals that 82% of women participate in agro-based activities. They spend 45% of their time and are responsible for 25% of the production of major crops. They produce 30% of the total food (Shah and Jabeen, 1988). One study in rice and cotton producing villages in Pakistan showed that in agricultural activities women spent 39.34% and 50.42% of their time in rice and cotton growing areas respectively (United Nations, 1986). Even invisible activities take almost as much more time as visible ones. Invisible activities include carrying meals, drinks, etc. from the house to men working in the field; kitchen gardening (in cotton areas); cleaning and drying farm produce for storage; and making clay storage bins. Actually, women provide 29% of the labour input in rice and 24% in cotton production (United Nations, 1986).

An example of gender involvement in crop production in the uplands, which represent 40% of the country's land base, is presented above.


Forest and woodland amounted to only 4.4% of the land area in 1993 (UNDP, 1997). Many of wooded areas are severely depleted as a result of overexploitation. Forestry production declined from 1.07 mill. cubic metres in 1990/91 to 377,000 cu.m. in 1995/ 96 (EIU, 1997).

Rural women in Pakistan use forests as a source of items essential for survival of their households. Fetching water and collecting fuelwood for cooking and fodder for domestic animals come in the daily routine work of rural Pakistani women (Mumtaz, 1993).

Grazing animals is a very important component of the daily work life of rural women (PARC, 1988).


Marine fisheries in Pakistan engage some 90,000 people. They operate mainly from Karachi and the cost of Sindh. The export of fish and fishery products, particularly shrimp, is an important source of foreign currency (FAO, 1989). Fisheries is an area of interest to women (Paton, 1986). It has been found that traditionally, women were involved in fishing business as entrepreneurs. But presently with the expansion of fishing business into an industry, women no longer manage the business as they did in the past. Rather they are involved in peeling shrimps, weaving nets, making fish baskets, etc. as labourers (GOP, 1995).


In Pakistan, livestock is an important component of farming systems. It accounts for 26.4% of all the value of agricultural production (Mumtaz, 1993). Livestock is raised for draft power, milk and meat. Poultry, sheep and goats are very important to rural women for they are often the only source of income fully under their control (ESCAP, 1996).

Women make a considerable contribution to livestock production and this contribution is more visible than their work in crop production. A rural woman in Pakistan works 15.50 hours a day, spending 5.50 hours in caring for livestock, but provide only 50 minutes for the care of her own children (Hashmi, 1988). Women involved in caring and rearing of livestock and poultry, carry out wide range of tasks such as making feed concentrates, feeding, collecting fodder, grazing, cleaning animals and their sheds, making dung cakes, collecting manure for organic fertilizer, as well as milking, processing and marketing of animal products (making ghee, selling eggs, etc.) (ESCAP, 1997). In Pakistan, women are responsible for 60% to 80% of the feeding and milking of cattle (ESCAP, 1996). Women in Sindh and Punjab spend from one-fifth to a quarter of their daily working hours in livestock-related activities (Anwar and Bilquees, 1976; Freedman and Wai, 1988; Quadri and Jahan, 1982). Dairy production is very important for women in most provinces except Baluchistan where the climate is not favourable to dairy cattle raising. With the exception of a few large cities, all fresh milk consumed in Pakistan is based on small domestic production run and managed by women (Paton, 1986). Women are playing a crucial role in rural poultry farming. Over 90% of the rural families keep an average of 12 adult birds per family and hatch chicks under a brood hen. The women apply their own methods of rearing, brooding, breeding, and management based on the experience handed down from the elder family members (Qureshi, 1988).


Land, forests and pastures have been degraded by prolonged misuse. The rich soils of the Indus basin are experiencing water logging and salinity, wind and water erosion and rapidly spreading desertification. Forests are near extinction. Rangelands are being denuded.

Such ecological resource depletion has profound impact on women's basic roles of obtaining fuel, fodder and water. Shrinking of mangrove stands caused by scarcity of fresh water after the barrages were built, has made coastal women walk longer for the collection of fuelwood for the household and fodder for the livestock. The women of Baba and Bhit islands say that it often takes them nearly half a day to gather fuelwood. They sometimes have to bring back the young branches (GOP, 1995). Growing desertification caused by changed farming practices in fragile ecosystems has made women walk for miles in search of water. Women in Sindh walk up to 10 miles to fetch water (Mumtaz, 1993). Moreover, as soils degrade due to deforestation, salinity or waterlogging, and food and income decline, women are found to become marginalized. They are left with the responsibility of taking care of degraded land holdings when men migrate from the villages (GOP, 1995) Women cotton pickers in Pakistan suffer from blisters and skin rashes caused by the chemicals sprayed to protect cotton plants from pests (Mumtaz, 1993).

Women of Pakistan play an important role in environmental conservation. They take care of farmyard manure collection and its application, which has important consequences in soil fertility management. Women posses knowledge of herbs for medicine for both general and reproductive health, food and fodder. They also know the location of pastures and water sources, etc. (GOP, 1995).

Rural production

Women generate income through various non-farm activities. Cottage industry is one of the major areas of involvement of rural Pakistani women. Weaving cloth and rugs, and sewing constitute important components of rural women's non-routine tasks. Rural women in Sindh are skillful in producing Rilee (hand-made bed sheets) and Sindhi Topees (caps), etc. of export quality (Baluch, 1988). Women also generate cash income through the sale of livestock products. Though to a lesser extent, rural women also work on others' holdings outside their homes. They account for 16.1% of the total agricultural labour and 10.2% of non-agricultural labour (Mumtaz, 1993). Nonetheless, there is significant variation by agro-ecological zones in opportunities for wage employment. The demand for female labour which is seasonal and limited to specific tasks, is mainly concentrated in the southern cotton belt and irrigated regions (GOP, 1995).

Food security

Nearly 34% of the population lives below the poverty line in Pakistan (UNDP, 1997). When it comes to rural areas, this proportion becomes one-third to one-half and women disproportionately share the burden of poverty, which has a twofold impact. On one hand, the women's workload for family survival increases and on the other, their share in food and nutrition intake decreases further. A 70% of rural women does not have an adequate calorie intake in their diet, and 90% of pregnant women suffer from anemia (Hashmi, 1988). In addition to being poor and malnourished, the mass of rural women in Pakistan suffers from too many pregnancies. Women share only 20.8% of total earned income in the country (UNDP, 1997).

The divergence between economic growth and human development is greater in Pakistan than in most other countries and the country treats it women very poorly, with some of the lowest achievement on indicators of gender development (Haq, 1997). In Pakistan women considerably contribute to the food security. Women's overall involvement in crop and livestock production has a direct bearing on household food security. They dominate food processing thereby contributing to diversity in diet, supplying important vitamins and minerals and reducing food losses. For example, Sindhi women indigenously practice drying vegetables and preparing different kinds of pickles (Baluch, 1988). Moreover, women prepare food for their households and thus are responsible for ensuring nutrition and healthy lives in the family. Women as wage earners provide cash income to purchase food for the families. In the poorest families women's earnings are critical to the subsistence of the households and considerable number of working women are the principal income earners in low income families (ESCAP, 1997).

Policy and planning focus

In order to support effective and equitable agricultural and rural development, policy makers and planners in Pakistan need to:

Programme focus

Agricultural and rural development programmes in Pakistan need to include the following areas of intervention in order to address both women's and men's priorities:


EIU, 1997. Pakistan Afghanistan: Country Profile, The Economist Intelligence Unit, London. ESCAP, 1997. Women in Pakistan: A country profile. United Nations, New York.
ESCAP, 1996. Rural Poverty Alleviation and Sustainable Development in Asia and the Pacific, United Nations, New York.
FAO, 1995. Gender Issues in Agricultural and Rural Development Policy in Asia and the Pacific, FAO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific, Bangkok.
GOP, 1995. Fourth World Conference on Women, Beijing, September, 1995: Pakistan, National Report, Ministry of Women Development and Youth Affairs, Government of Pakistan, Pakistan.
PARC, 1988. Rural women in Pakistan Farming Systems Research. Proceedings of the Workshop on 'Role of Rural Women in Farming Systems Research', Pakistan Agricultural Research Council, Islamabad.
UNDP, 1997. Human Development Report, Oxford University Press, New York.

For more information, contact:

Regional Rural Sociologist/Women in Development Officer
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific
Phra Atit Road, Bangkok 10200, Thailand
Telephone: (662) 281-7844; Facsimile: (662) 280-0445; E-mail:

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