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Too few hands to make light work: women’s unequal access to labour and tools in agriculture

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Oxfam’s new campaign on inequality promises to look at different dimensions of poverty and injustice, as well as answers to tackle them. One which I hope will be firmly on the list is the unequal position of women in global agriculture. Many who work in agriculture – men and women usually combine lots of different activities on and off their plots of land or the plots where they work as casual labourers. They might be full-time subsistence farmers growing crops for home consumption (or even locally brewed beer), employees on plantations; small producers growing export commodities for cash, like cotton or fresh veg; day labourers or part-time farmers and seasonal employees who have other income generating activities liking selling items or food in a local market. For women, any of these activities are also usually combined with family and community responsibilities.

We’ve certainly seen more attention paid to women in agriculture and the various ‘gender gaps’ in recent years – many summarised in a great Farming First and FAO infographic. But some obvious issues still seem to be off the radar.

Women’s unequal access to labour and tools

One significant gap is understanding women’s access to labour – their own in terms of having time to work their plots, and other people’s. Women’s unequal access to land, credit, size and quality of plots, inputs such as fertiliser, tools and seeds are increasingly understood. And there are reports on women’s (and other marginalised groups such as poorer or less literate farmers) access to training programmes such as Farmer Field Schools, and whether more equitable access is possible through targeted approaches. Yet access to labour, and labour-saving tools, barely gets a look-in – it is not present in the infographic, for example.

How labour and productivity relate (no surprises)

Today’s women (and men) in high income economies know how much of a difference labour-saving devices made to our mothers and grandmothers – decimating the time taken up by household chores, helping reduce the domestic work load and liberating time for other tasks on the land or for paid work elsewhere.  One excellent report earlier this year from the One campaign and the World Bank did actually look at access to labour and labour-saving devices for women in six African countries in detail. Their research found that in each country, women’s reduced access to labour was the main barrier to equality of productivity. Women’s problems in mobilising help begins at home – women farmers in the study lived in smaller households with fewer men than their male equivalents – probably caused by migration, divorce or widowhood.

[Source: Levelling the field: Improving opportunities for women farmers in Africa, One campaign and World Bank, 2014]

In other words they simply had fewer people to help out, as well as a higher ratio of children to adults, which translates into more time looking after children and households and less time managing their farm labour, either their own or someone else’s. This, combined with cultural norms where male farm workers may work less hard for a female boss than a male one, and women typically have less money to pay wages to labourers, paints a tough picture.

Community tool libraries and other answers

The One campaign/World Bank report’s top suggestion is to pay more attention to this issue and prioritise it in policy terms. Their practical recommendations include some familiar ideas e.g. community based-childcare and some less familiar such as developing financing programmes to help women access hired labour more easily. Finally, they mention improving access to tools and equipment that reduce the amount of labour required. That is an area that WIEGO – Women in the Informal Economy Globalising and Organising – have long prioritised through programmes to develop accessible and appropriate tools to help women be more productive in their jobs. WIEGO member, SEWA (Self-Employed Women’s Association), in India has been behind the development of libraries of tools and equipment in Gujarat, where items such as hand hoes, ploughs and ox-carts are available for a nominal rate (they also stock things like solar lanterns and flood rescue and first aid kits) helping increase productivity and income.  When not in use, they are loaned out to other farmers at the market rate, generating income for maintenance, repairs and new tools or simply for profit for the SEWA members operating the scheme.

Let’s hope that Oxfam can help shine a light on some of these inequalities, and spread and generate ideas for how to reduce them, and that others, from governments to farmers’ groups to companies buying and exporting crops can help to implement them.