“Demeter [the goddess of agriculture] had one daughter, Persephone, whom she adored. One day as she was picking flowers, Persephone wandered away from her companions and Hades rode out of from the earth and abducted her. In her heartbreak, Demeter laid a curse on earth that caused every plant to wither until Persephone was returned to Earth. However, while in the underworld, her daughter had eaten a pomegranate, which forced her back to Hades every year. Nonetheless, Persephone was allowed to remain with Demeter for eight months of a year even if she had to spend the other four in the underworld. This then is the reason why the earth was barren in winter - Demeter was sorrowing for her lost daughter”.
Throughout many human civilizations, stories and beliefs that paint a special relationship between women, land, and cultivation have been passed down and retold through generations. The Ancient Greek myth of Persephone is no exception. Today, women and agriculture are still linked together: the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) states that women make up over 40% of the developing world’s agricultural labour force, and almost 50% of farm workers in Africa. Two-thirds of all poor livestock keepers, equivalent to about 400 million people, are women. In Asian societies where fishing is a long-held survival practice, women represent 33% of aquaculture labourers in China, 42% in Indonesia and a whopping 80% in Vietnam.
Underlying factors that lead to the gender discrepancy
Unequal workloads: It’s no surprise that the “second shift” has an impact on the productivity and income of women. The second shift refers to domestic duties such as child-rearing and household chores, which are unequally delegated to women. In the agricultural context, this results in an inability to expand production in the market due to time constraints between juggling responsibilities on the field and at home.
Unequal land rights: In regions where land ownership is skewed, property laws and customs dictate the unfair conditions by which women can own farmland. For instance, Zimbabwean land in communal areas, where the vast majority of people live, is controlled entirely by men, and so women must rely on male relatives to negotiate the terms of any land property. This pattern of land ownership is common in almost all parts of the developing world, resulting in men owning 80% or more of the farmland in these regions, despite the high number of women working the land.
Unequal access to technology and markets: Because women earn less and therefore save less money, they have reduced access to new technologies that would increase the scale of production and reach a wider consumer base. For example, The Croplife Foundation concluded that 90% of all hand weeding in sub-Saharan Africa is done by women, since they have limited access to weeding tools and herbicides. This severely increases the time they spend working, largely restricts the amount of land that women can cultivate, and discourages them from pursuing further education.
Macro and micro-level solutions
In the face of these obstacles, leaders around the world are making sure that this issue is receiving the national and international attention it deserves. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the President of Liberia, is an outspoken advocate for women’s development initiatives in agriculture and chairs the Empowerment of Women in Agriculture initiative (EWA). The organization seeks to integrate women farmers’ interests with ongoing programs for broader agricultural transformation in Africa, so that women’s particuar needs are addressed. Sirleaf was one of the major figures at the African Union’s 2016 Summit, lobbying directly to other heads of African states to correct the gender and wage gap in their agricultural sectors.
On the ground, women are helping each other achieve higher farming incomes using innovative technology, especially through new cell phone applications. For instance, the MFarm app, created by Kenyan women Jamila Abass and Linda Kwamboka, operates by connecting farmers with both consumers and other farmers via text messages, allowing producers to negotiate prices, exchange information, and retain more of their profits by eliminating the middleman.
Ultimately, we need to address the gender gap in agriculture, and solutions will require both macro and micro-level support. If we want to create lasting change, we must first acknowledge the problems that we face in order to come up with the right solutions. At GreenPAC, we strive to keep supporters informed about the gender gap in agriculture, as well as work to elect leaders who we think will advocate for change. Will you join us?
Caroline Nguyen is an intern at GreenPAC and a fourth year student at the University of Toronto, pursuing a specialization in Peace, Conflict and Justice Studies and a minor in French. Outside of class, she works for Canadian federal government and currently manages an environmentally sustainable and student-run café on campus, seeking to encourage local and green food service in the community.