Women: the invisible rural heroes under climate pressure

This article is written by Mathilde Thonon.

If I ask you to close your eyes and visualize a farmer, a pitchfork with a straw hat may come to your mind to adorn the picture of a tanned-looking man. In most people’s subconscious, a farmer is male not female. However, in many parts of the developing world, women are the backbone of agricultural labor. In some African and South Asian countries, they represent up to 60% of the active population engaged in agriculture.

With climate change, the numbers of women in the agricultural sector are on the rise. In the research community, this upward trend is better known as agriculture feminization. Recurring natural disasters combined with structural changes offering new job opportunities in urban areas urge men to migrate to cities. Deep-rooted social norms encourage them to shoulder their economic responsibility as breadwinners and to leave the household to seek other income-generating opportunities. As a result, women staying behind in rural areas are taking over farming tasks.

Women rice farmer – Bali Indonesia

In spite of a pejorative undertone, the concept of agriculture feminization may represent a boon for women empowerment. In absence of men, women can gain in financial independence, make strategic decisions for farm management or income allocation and benefit from a greater mobility. On the other hand, climate-induced events coupled with persistent gender roles can work in the opposite direction. In some poor areas deprived of infrastructures, women are the ones in charge of travelling long distances to collect water for the household. This burdensome task becomes more tedious and time-consuming with rising temperatures in drought-prone areas. Women thereby have to travel farther while juggling with farm management. If women take up new economic roles, they do not necessarily give up their domestic duties and spend more time trying to combine both, thereby extending their working hours.

Whereas warmer temperatures might increase yields in some developed economies, scientific evidences suggest that developing countries will incur significant losses. Prospective scenarios aside, climate change is already affecting agriculture worldwide. As a result, female farmers inherit from endangered agricultural businesses. They now have to come to grips with increasingly capricious ecosystems while being often asset-deprived. Indeed, only a few female farmers own their land or access finance and extension services easily.

Yet, women are at the forefront of climate-smart techniques when they are given the chance to unleash their potential. Indeed, they possess invaluable indigenous knowledge that can help rural communities being more climate resilient. Gender equality thereby appears as one of the most promising courses of action to achieve our climate goals. My personal encounters with female farmers showed me how long of a journey lies ahead of us before we reach complete equality. Nonetheless, the destination seems promising and drives many of my daily actions, to begin with the mere recognition of women as full-time farmers and agricultural experts.


About the author: Mathilde Thonon is a master student in Environmental Policy at Sciences Po Paris, specialized in Agriculture in Asian countries. She currently contributes to the Gender, Nutrition and Livelihood research cluster of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI, Philippines) as research assistant. Project coach of Gender and Climate Change, she is a passionate advocate of gender equality in regards to climate change.

To go further:
DE SCHUTTER O. (2013), Feminization of Farming, The New York Times
FAO report (2017), The Future of Food and Agriculture
WORLD BANK report (2016), Feminization of agriculture in the context of rural transformations : what is the evidence?

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