Asia-Pacific Analysis: Women are taking over Asian farms

Copyright: Sanjit Das / Panos

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  • Women’s roles are shifting from unpaid family workers to de facto farm managers
  • An index showed women’s empowerment was higher among households with migrants
  • With their new roles, women’s technical skills and knowledge have to be upgraded

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Women are slowly edging men away from farms in Asia and other developing countries.

The male farmer has been traditionally perceived as the head, main decision-maker and technology user on farms. However, this is no longer true as males are increasingly becoming part-time farmers, gender specialist Thelma Paris tells SciDev.Net.

“Studies on labour out-migration from major rainfed and irrigated farm households in India, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam have revealed that males are moving away for non-farm jobs,” according to Paris, a social scientist at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI). [1]

As a result, women are taking over responsibilities that traditionally belonged to men in households where the men have out-migrated from rural to urban areas or abroad to find jobs.

“Women’s roles are beginning to shift from unpaid family workers to de facto farm managers as they take on farm-related decisions and managerial roles,” Paris stresses. [2]

In the rice farms of Asia, she adds, “women contribute from 25 to 80 per cent of the total labour used in production. Except for land preparation and spraying chemicals, rice operations are dominated by women.”

What are some implications of this social development?

Impact of out-migration

Out-migration from Asian farms, driven by widespread poverty, is gradually changing the social landscape of rural communities in the region. [3]

Such off-farm migration impacts on agricultural productivity, household incomes and women’s work loads and farm management duties. As husbands, sons and daughters migrate in search of employment and income, the roles of the wives and mothers left behind change.

Paris cites a study that she and a team of social scientists did in 2009 on labour out-migration on rice farming households and gender roles in the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. [2]

The team surveyed 2,374 households in rainfed- and irrigated-system villages in these three countries. Their study gave valuable insights into the dynamics of the changing Asian rural landscape.

According to the survey, the incidence of migration is higher in northeast Thailand than in the Philippines and Vietnam. As expected, the survey showed that remittances from the migrant workers helped reduce the poverty of their families left behind.

Wives in northeast Thailand continue to contribute substantially as unpaid field workers in rice cultivation.

In the north of Vietnam, a higher proportion of wives are left behind and assume traditional male tasks such as irrigating the fields, spraying chemicals, and hauling and marketing farm products.

In the Philippines, women’s field activities declined greatly but their duties in managing their farms increased. When husbands migrated, the pressure of assuring rice productivity falls on the females and other family members left behind.

The problem was that women did not have enough expertise, experience and training in handling technologies. So they have to be upgraded in their technical knowledge to improve rice production.

Training for women farmers

Women need training in all aspects of farm production such as rice production, Paris notes.

Towards this end, IRRI has collaborated with the national agricultural research and extension systems and non-government organisations in rice-producing countries using participatory approaches for men and women farmers to validate technologies (e.g., stress-tolerant varieties and associated crop and management practices) on their own fields using their level of management.

While this is laudable, I think the programme needs to be broadened and adopted by national agricultural extension systems to include other agricultural crops— wheat, corn, sorghum, pearl millet, chickpea, and many others.

Towards women empowerment

The gender study also measured women’s empowerment in relation to the presence or absence of a husband, using the women’s empowerment index (WEI).

The WEI showed that women’s empowerment was higher among households with migrants than among those without migrants. Apparently, this is because the women left behind learn to make on-the-spot decisions when men are away.

While this can be seen as positive because it empowers women, the women seem to have mixed feelings and cite the increased stress it brings. Women are used to making joint decisions on children’s education, although women dominate in decisions on spending the money from remittances.

The study recommends that women left behind should be given training to assist them in making informed decisions on crop management and remittance allocation.

Women with migrant husbands faced problems in managing their farms because of lack of access to new seed varieties and technical knowledge on improved methods of crop management.

Times are indeed changing. The Asian woman farmer is coming out of the shadows. As men migrate to the cities and abroad, the women are taking over the farms. But they need help in technology and skills training to empower them.

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] Thelma Paris and others Labour out migration on rice farming households and gender roles: Synthesis of findings in Thailand, the Philippines and Vietnam (FAO, IFAD, ILO, 2009)
[2] Thelma Paris Considering Gender (Rice Today, January-March 2007}
[3] Gio Braidotti The power of knowledge lifts women farmers to centre stage (Partners, March-June 2008)