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Asia-Pacific Analysis: Asia’s invisible women farmers
  • Asia-Pacific Analysis: Asia’s invisible women farmers

Copyright: Mark Henley / Panos

Speed read

  • Women farmers provide up to half or more of the labour input in rice production

  • Women’s contributions to agriculture and household income are often unrecorded

  • Technology support needs to keep pace as urbanisation expands women’s rural role

Women hold up half the sky, so goes the Chinese saying.

Yet in the developing countries of Asia, they do not get half the credit for it. In the field of agriculture, women have been especially invisible to scientists.

“The work women do, no matter where it is, doesn’t count. If the work goes unpaid, it is ‘housework’, and if it is paid, it is simply ‘farm labour’. Neither term recognises the true value of the contributions women make to the food-producing capacity of Asia,” say social scientists Michael Collinson and Hilary Sims Feldstein, who produced a gender study on rice farming systems for the Consortium of International Agricultural Research Centers (CGIAR). [1,2]

Yet, both stress: “Women are major participants in the rice growing regions of Asia. In Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines, women provide up to half the labour input in rice production.” In India and Bangladesh, women do as much as 80 per cent of the work.

Invisible women’s role in farms

Other scientists have also pointed out that women are often the most important decision makers in the household. They manage the household budget, decide the amount of rice to be kept for consumption and for sale, and buy farm inputs like pesticides when they go to the town market. [3]

The role of women in Asian rural life is growing with urbanisation. As men are drawn to the cities to find jobs, the women are left behind to manage families and make decisions on the farms.

But Asian agricultural scientists were slow to recognise this, and in the isolation of their labs, continued to develop technologies for men on Asian farms. [1,2]

These scientists could not see that technology is not necessarily gender neutral, Thelma Paris, a gender specialist at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), tells SciDev.Net. Consequently, “women farmers are excluded in technology design, testing and dissemination, and agricultural extension services. This has left untapped the potential capabilities of women as farmers and as leaders in agricultural development.”

Paris adds that she had a hard time convincing engineers at IRRI to develop machinery that would help ease the work of women as this was not considered a research priority.

But after years of persuasion, IRRI engineers finally designed an ultra-light transplanter in pink colour to help women with the backbreaking task of transplanting rice seedlings, Paris recalls.

The same narrow focus characterises agricultural extension workers. Typically, their advisory services on improved crop establishment techniques involve only men, although in most rice communities, women take care of seed nurseries as well as uprooting/pulling seedlings.

Even social scientists have fallen into this trap. When doing surveys on rural poverty, they interview only the men as heads of household. The wife’s occupation is automatically recorded as housewife although she provides unpaid labour in almost all agriculture-related activities (crop production, postharvest and livestock management activities). Women’s contributions to household income, although small, are also often unrecorded.

Broadening gender perspectives

Thankfully this narrow-mindedness on the part of agricultural science research is changing. Since the mid-1980s, Paris notes, “social scientists led by IRRI have started making Asian women in farms visible in agricultural statistics by quantifying their labour inputs in rice production per hectare and by disaggregating unpaid family and paid hired labour of male and female workers.”

These data, she says, have provided evidence that although women’s contributions vary across countries, their contributions total to about half in Cambodia and Indonesia, up to half in Thailand, and more than half in Vietnam and Laos. In the Philippines, women participation in rice production is about a quarter but their participation in farm management decisions about inputs and hiring of labour is higher than the women in other countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). [3]

Programmes like Women in Rice Farming Systems (WIRFS) have worked to address gender issues in agriculture, enhance gender analysis in research for technology development, recruit and train more women scientists and professionals, and develop and disseminate teaching and communication materials to promote understanding of gender analysis in research.

WIRFS launched a model project in a Philippine village in 1986 to demonstrate how a gender-sensitive approach to science and development could work.

Among the outcomes of that project was the design of a micro rice mill powered by a small motor — the first technology intentionally designed for women. The micro rice mill meant the women did not have to pound the unhusked rice to process the rice for cooking, reducing the drudgery of women’s work on the farm. [1,2]  

In Thailand, the WIRFS project on integrated pest management primarily involved women. IRRI entomologist Kong Luen Heong narrated how they were surprised when visiting farming villages to find only women farmers since the men had all gone to the cities to work. [4]

But they found out in a survey that the women did not know how to properly use agro-chemicals on their rice crops. Only the men had attended government training programmes on pest management.

Heong, however, noted that women farmers tend to be more receptive to new ideas while men tend to be more dogmatic. Women are more sensitive to the health effects of spraying. This realisation led to the inclusion of women in pest management training programmes and projects.

The pioneering work of the WIRFS programme since its inception 30 years ago should be a model for others. It has raised awareness about the role of women in rural Asia and made people realise that Asian women, hitherto invisible, may even be holding up more than their half of the sky.

Crispin Maslog is a Manila-based consultant for the Asian Institute of Journalism and Communication. A former journalist, professor and environmental activist, he worked for the Press Foundation of Asia and the International Rice Research Institute.

This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's South-East Asia & Pacific desk.


[1] Consultative Group of International Agricultural Research From Field to Lab and Back: Women in Rice Farming Systems (CGIAR Gender Analysis Program, 1995)
[2] Hilary Sim Feldstein Gender analysis: Making women visible and improving social analysis In: Michael Collinson (ed.) A History of Farming Systems Research (FAO and CABI Publishing, 2000)
[3] Thelma Paris Bringing women from the margin to the mainstream of rice research and technology development: Strategies and lessons learned (Unpublished Ph.D thesis, November 2000)
[4] L. Meenakanit, M. M. Escalada, K. L. Heong Changing Role of Women in Rice Pest Management in Central Thailand In: K. L. Heong, M. M. Escalada Pest Management of Rice Farmers in Asia (IRRI, 1997)
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