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The situation of women in rural areas

The situation of women in rural areas

The situation of women in rural areas is very precarious, and should be studied taking into account the changes that have occurred over the past decades in Brazil: expansion of the salaried system, rapid modernisation of agriculture, and landownership concentration, factors which have brought about a widespread impoverishment of rural families. An increasing number of members from a same family are hence obliged to enter the labour market in order to guarantee the survival of the family.

Men normally migrate from one rural area to another during the harvest period, with the result that a growing number of rural households remain under the control of female rural workers. This situation is aggravated by the violence generated by land conflicts.

Women's work in rural areas is characterised by noncontinuity, since the absence of social services leads them to keep a balance between their productive and reproductive roles. In 1989, 33% of rural families had monthly per capita incomes of up to ¼. of the minimum wage, which means absolute poverty. (Annex IX)

From the 60s, with the enforcement of labour legislation for the rural worker and technological modernisation, migration from rural areas to cities reached a rate of half a million people a year. A great part of this "expelled" contingent of men, women and children was thrown out to the outskirts and continued to carry out rural activities as itinerant farm labourers, at a much lower salary.

The female rural labourer does not use the new agricultural technologies, which represent savings of the labour force. Besides, work on the land is given to men. Biotechnology has brought about a longer harvest period as well as an increase in production of some agricultural products such as oranges, sugar cane, coffee, and corn. As long as the harvest is not completely mechanised the work done by women can be carried out over a longer period of time, and thus the women can benefit from this situation by increasing the duration of their remunerated engagement.

The modernisation of agriculture has brought about significant changes in labour relations, with new dynamics in the labour market. In the nation as a whole, as already mentioned, the economic policies adopted resulted in a gradual increase in the size of property, in land concentration, and in an expansion of the salaried jobs.

The smallholder units continue to be swallowed up by the larger ones and, during the process, acquire a more mercantile nature. Simultaneously, rural hands are either overworked or, alternatively, part of the family acquires the status of temporary wage-earner, and the migration of some members of the family is rendered almost compulsory. As an alternative for survival, smallholders will either sell their land and attempt to purchase another property in the agricultural border areas or will in the end be absorbed by the salaried system.

Tenants, minor partners, sharecroppers and landholders gradually lose territory, and the salaried system acquires a steadily increasing significant role.

The implementation of free work in Brazilian agriculture in the mid-1 9th century resulted in the predominance of the family unit. Women began to participate in general activities, mainly in the coffee harvest, along with children who from 5-6 years of age were already taking active part in the work. The unitary costs of the work force were sharply reduced by subsistence agriculture (Antuniassi, 1983).

The preference of the small-scale farmers for family work fed to a reinforcement of the family organisation: the head of household mobilised, allocated and co-ordinated the work force, leading to a specific gender division of the work and reproductive behaviour (Stolcke, 1986).

In the tenant system the labour force was employed in family units which reinforced the co-operation, whereas in the wage system the workers sell their work force, and families are no longer a labour unit as such, but are defined as the sum of each member's income.

In the tenant farmer system, the family contract was signed by the male head of household who also received the family wages. He had the authority to coordinate the activities: children would take care of the small animals and help in the harvest; women would do the domestic work, cultivate the subsistence plantation and cooperate in the harvest.; Payment was determined by the number of "hoes" - representing the adult workers -, which should be at least three. The productive behaviour of the families was to a large extent guided by the thought that the more numerous the offspring, the greater the possibility of future gains, because the higher the number of people involved in the family work force (lanni, 1976; Stolcke, 1986). Woman, family and housework, which includes child-care and education, appear as essential elements for the daily and generational reproduction of the rural work force (Barroso, 1982).

The current interest to acquire a better understanding of the issue of female work must necessarily take into consideration the work-family relations.

The family earnings begin to stem both from rural work as such and urban activities. In almost all cities, the new migrants live in the outskirts. Consumption grows in many aspects: electricity, water, rent or purchase of housing, firewood or gas, food (no longer generated by subsistence farming), etc. The family wages must be much higher in order to guarantee a certain standard of living which, as a rule, has decreased considerably (Rossini, 1988, 1990).

The rural proletarianization process progressed slowly while the coffee crop was predominant in São Paulo state. It then advanced rapidly with the expansion of the sugar cane crop and more recently with the development of soybean and wheat crops, which allowed significant changes in the structure of the capital, and finally created the rural proletariat (Oliveira, 1977; Graziano Silva, 1981; Cano, 1986).

Land concentration, the intensification of mechanisation and use of fertilisers and pesticides, the quasi-extinction of the rural resident, and the temporary salaried labour force contract typify this new production system based on agroindustry.

The unification of the rural and urban labour market has led workers to alternate their rural and urban activities. The family organisation has changed very little, however. What has changed to a certain degree refers to the authority issue, since the activity to be developed by the family members is no longer decided by the "head of household"; each individual organises his/her life according to the individual opportunities.

The subordination of women to men still exists, but it has been clearly reduced, since women's share in the labour market has increased.

There has also been an increase in the responsibilities of women within the family: she has a job to "complement" the family wages, but still does the housework. Her responsibilities regarding her children have increased, since she has to leave them with someone else or lock them inside the house while she is at work. The family is now smaller, for children are no longer a family investment, on the contrary, they represent an increase in expenses. The number of single mothers and female heads of households has also increased. As to men, loss of authority, followed by the loss of the job or of the wage that can guarantee the family survival, has led to the breakdown of marriages, alcoholism, violence, etc.

These contradictions are a consequence of the economic pressures and of the change of values, thus weakening the family ties. Children often consider their family home a boarding house, as they contribute to its maintenance and also demand things that they never used to. Many of them leave their parents' home to constitute a new family, and they are able to migrate more easily (Mièle, 1987).

Due to salaried work, women have become part of the work force and are not merely an available and remanageable labour force within the domestic unit. The relation between labour reproduction and the work force are dependent on the wages and lead the family group to organise itself as a unit of consumers (Guimarães, 1990).

These preceding considerations regarding the new work relations enable us to emphasise that the labour market dynamics will reflect this new stage of Brazilian agriculture, especially where women are concerned.

On the one hand, it is true that some crops offer less labour opportunities due to the mechanisation of agriculture, on the other hand genetic and scientific engineering permit that some crops which were otherwise harvested only in one period of the year can be now harvested practically throughout the year. As a consequence, problems related to the quality of life and of the environment are intensified.

The remaining smallholders, tenants, partners and landless labourers will also engage in temporary wage-earning activities at "peak" moments. In these cases, there is little demand for women as a labour force.

It should also be noted that temporary migration which basically involves men plays an important role in avoiding an increase in salaries during "peak" moments: (Graziano da Silva, 1981).

The fragmentation of small property implies the reduction of the capacity of retaining the labour force. Children normally leave home when they are aged 14. But it is not only the children who leave; the male heads of households themselves also migrate; and the girls leave at even earlier ages to enter the wage system, working as urban domestic staff (Targino et al., 1990; Martine and Garcia, 1987).

The remittance of part of the salaries by the migrants permits the survival of small property for a little longer. The work on the land, through the cultivation of subsistence crops, is a precarious complement to the basic needs of the family, which are guaranteed by those who remain on the land, especially the women, the children and the aged.

Land concentration eliminates a considerable part of the small family units and brings about a reduction of the labour force, especially the female work force. For this reason, subsistence agriculture tends to become an activity in extinction.

Finally, there is an overall tendency towards less engagement in activities related to agriculture, as a consequence of modernisation. The urban sector is not able to employ the rural labour force which has migrated to the cities and not even all the available urban labour force. The informal market seems to be the solution for the survival of the family in severe poverty conditions. Squares, commercial streets, and major cross-roads have been the stage for this survival. A number of "Persian markets" proliferate in the cities. While the government does not commit itself to reduce the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few, the present situation will be maintained, with great part of the population making a living out of odd-jobs in the cities and/or in the fields.

The rural women and migration

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