For over a century, the world has celebrated International Women’s Day. From its roots in socialist activism, the day has been transformed into a national holiday in countries throughout the world. During this period, progress has been made: in many countries, women are now political leaders and business leaders (though still in lower numbers than men). International laws now protect women from discrimination and guarantee equal rights; many national laws do the same. But on this day that celebrates women, we need to ask some hard questions too. Most simply: are women really better off now?
In the agricultural world, I’d hazard a resounding no. For years, academics have talked about the increasing “feminization” of farming. But for most women, this greater presence in agriculture is not necessarily a good thing. While it is difficult to talk in absolutes, since “feminization” takes different forms and varies based on crops, activities, and regions, this trend can lead to women’s increased poverty and diminished food security. As the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food notes in his most recent report, women (and female farmers) have less secure access to land, face greater discrimination in receiving agricultural extension services, and are often unable to take advantage of rural microcredit schemes, even those targeted specifically at women. These obstacles mean that women’s increased prominence in the agricultural sector is often not a road out of poverty, but rather a fast track to even greater insecurity.
Just as female farmers confront greater obstacles than male farmers, women working as hired agricultural workers generally face even more problems than men. Less likely to be considered “permanent” workers, their job security is more precarious. Health and safety risks can be greater: for example, a woman in South Africa told me that her employer had refused to provide the same safety equipment and pesticide testing to female workers as to male workers. And pregnant workers have no good options. Desperate to earn a living and with no paid maternity leave, pregnant workers often continue their hazardous work as long as possible, even if it means hiding their pregnancy from those employers who don’t want pregnant workers. Combined with the very real dangers associated with pesticide exposure (particularly when health and safety rules are not being followed), the results can be tragic. In addition, fields simply aren’t safe for many women and girls. As Human Rights Watch documented last year in the United States, sexual violence and harassment against female farmworkers is rampant.
While the plight of women in agriculture is grim, there are glimmers of hope: women around the world are fighting for their rights and those of their peers. In India, women-led movements have helped female farmers improve their agricultural techniques and access to markets. In South Africa, a women-led farmworker trade union has focused on supporting female workers and seasonal workers. In East African countries, women have fought for better labor conditions, union formation, and gender-sensitive collective bargaining agreements in the horticulture industry. Progress, slowly, is being made. So on this International Women’s Day, let’s acknowledge the ongoing struggle of women in the global food system – and work to support their efforts to make the agricultural industry more equitable, safe, and in compliance with the lofty guarantees of international law.