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Women work the land, but do not inherit it

By Lalitha Sridhar

Human Development in South Asia 2002, released in Chennai in May 2003, stresses the importance of agriculture as a development priority. It also points out that the ever-increasing contribution of women in the agricultural sector continues to go unacknowledged

High levels of human development and poverty alleviation cannot be achieved if agriculture, the mainstay of the South Asian economies, is not a development priority. This is the principal message of the new Human Development in South Asia 2002 report which was launched in Chennai, India, on May 16, under the aegis of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the M.S.Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF). The report, part of the annual series that focuses on the state of human development in the South Asian region since the mid-1990s, assesses the performance of agriculture and its potential for enhanced human development in South Asia. It has been prepared by the Mahbub ul Haq Human Development Centre, Pakistan.

Despite South Asia's stunning performance in agriculture during the Green Revolution, the region still hosts some half-a-billion poor people. The report argues that South Asia's strategy of economic growth needs to be reoriented to address the needs and concerns of the majority of its people. This is a unique perspective as most analysts tend to be concerned with the growth of per capita output without analysing its source and distribution. Delivering his keynote address, Chairman of MSSRF and 'Father of the Green Revolution', Prof.M.S.Swaminathan said, "The report highlights the need for greater mobilisation of social and natural capital in areas characterised by high levels of poverty and under-nutrition. Poverty will persist so long as human resources are undervalued and material resources are overvalued. The growing fatigue of the Green Revolution, as well as the growing decline in the rate of growth of employment in both farm and non-farm sectors, brought out in the report, are matters of serious concern."

Emphasising that the wealth of data collected for the report on South Asia's agriculture will be valuable for policymakers and academic researchers, he said, "Only a bio-village paradigm of rural development, characterised by productivity improvement, without the associated ecological harm can result in an 'evergreen revolution'."

Most pertinently, the report places significant emphasis on the marginalisation of women in rural areas. Apart from being at the receiving end of backward and feudal traditions, women have had to take on a large burden of physical work because of the migration of men to urban areas or abroad. Women's work remains unrecognised and unaccounted for, lost in tasks that they perform both within and outside their homes. The report brings to light the fact that in most South Asian countries, women agricultural workers as a percentage of total employed women exceeds that of male agricultural workers as a percentage of total men employed. In most regions they perform more agricultural tasks than men. Women are active participants in all operations pertaining to livestock management, crop production such as sowing, transplanting, weeding, harvesting as well as post-harvest activities such as threshing, winnowing, drying, grinding, husking and storage. Says the Report, "Unlike their male counterparts, their tasks are not only limited to agricultural activities; they are also responsible for fetching and managing water and fuel, cooking, cleaning, maintaining the house and taking care of the young and old. It has been estimated that a working class village woman in South Asia works from 12 to 16 hours a day. In Nepal, for example on an average, women work for 12.07 hours, 47% higher than men who work on average 8.21 hours."

Traditionally, agricultural activities were more gender-segregated but in recent years women have started to participate in a greater number of activities as labour shortages increase. For instance, the earlier phases of the production cycle involving field preparation are more male-intensive whereas the latter phases of crop production, including fieldwork of harvesting cotton, drying and storage are mainly the responsibility of women. Specific activities, which are more traditionally female responsibility, include parboiling of paddy and cinnamon peeling in Sri Lanka, manual weeding in rice fields and beedi manufacturing in India, and cotton-picking in Pakistan. In India, women constitute one half of the labour in rice cultivation. They are also significantly involved in the plantation sector. The Senior Deputy Resident Representative of UNDP,.Maurice Dewulf also agreed that, "Despite the critical involvement and contribution of women in agriculture, their presence is officially largely invisible."

The India launch of the Human Development in South Asia report was attended by over 60 experts from various parts of the country representing the Union and state governments, voluntary and research organisations and the media. The themes covered during the day-long consultation included rural employment, food security, rights of women and marginalised communities to land, water, globalisation and trade.

Women are mostly denied their right to own land, says the report. In South Asia, land is not only an economic factor of production; its ownership also reflects the economic power structures within society that guarantee access to important agricultural inputs. Both laws and customs prevent women from owning land. Under specific religious laws women are entitled to smaller shares than men. Islamic law in South Asia (and some Christian sects) provides for a half-share for daughters. Even when women inherit land, certain additional conditionalities may be attached. In Nepal, for instance, only unmarried daughters above the age of 35 can inherit land. Also, customarily, women do not want to risk incurring hostility from male family members that may result in violent acts committed against them. The report cites land-motivated 'witch killings' in Bihar, India, as one example.

Rural remuneration also shows that women are not compensated commiserate with their work. A study found that in the more developed district of Karnal, Haryana, women received Rs 12 a day for weeding while men received Rs 28. In threshing season women receive Rs 20-25 in contrast to men who receive Rs 40-60. The low wages paid to women cannot be linked with any perceived inefficiency on their part. In fact, tests conducted in India by the Punjab Agricultural University at the Indian government potato seed farm found that women were four times as efficient as men. In the tests, the picking rate per labourer per minute was 1.6 for men and 5.2 for women. As Prof. P C Kesavan, Executive Director, MSSRF put it, "All these statistics and studies are but a true reflection of our reality. Our challenge is to translate them into real change at the grassroots level."

InfoChange News & Features, May 2003