‘THE grain field flourished as the man tilled the land/ the woman sowed the seeds, nurturing it to abundance/The man plowed the field, and the woman diligently carried water, and the elements united to create fertile soil/ Together, they cultivated a bountiful crop of golden rice’. Despite the acknowledgement of women’s contributions by poet Kazi Nazrul Islam, they often go unacknowledged on a national level. Throughout history, women have played a pivotal role in agriculture and the production of crops. Research has revealed that women constitute a significant proportion of the global agricultural workforce, but they frequently encounter obstacles in accessing the same resources and opportunities as men, such as land, education, resources and technology. Moreover, women’s contributions in agriculture often go underappreciated and uncompensated. Women still remain involved with the agricultural industry and are striving to dismantle barriers and enhance their access to resources and opportunities.
As per the Agricultural Information Service of the Bangladeshi government, a staggering 71.5 per cent of women in the country are solely involved in agriculture. Among these women, 45.6 per cent work without pay, while the remaining 54.4 per cent are paid labourers. In the labour survey 2016–17, it is reported that 60 per cent of women in Bangladesh are employed in agriculture and they are engaged in the forestry and fisheries sectors as well. Women actively participate in 17 out of the 21 stages of crop production. These compelling statistics apparently are not enough to acknowledge women’s contributions to agriculture; they are rarely recognised as farmers.
The subordinate status of women’s involvement in agriculture can be attributed, in part, to their limited engagement with the market system. With middlemen, brokers, and syndicates perpetrating violence in the marketing of agricultural goods, women are relegated to marginal status in this race. Consequently, women in Bangladesh struggle to assert their rights to their harvest, which makes it further evident that they don’t enjoy the status of farmer or peasant as women.
Despite their significant contributions to agriculture, women are often deprived of crop land ownership. In Bangladesh, women face formidable obstacles in owning and controlling land, including discrimination that is legal, social, and cultural in nature. As a consequence, women have limited access to land, particularly for crop production. According to government agricultural statistics, men hold 81 per cent of land ownership in Bangladesh, while women own only 19 per cent. Women are systematically discriminated against in accessing resources, and although they often work in crop fields alongside their families, they frequently lack access to crop land and resources. Moreover, due to various religious laws in the country, women are often deprived of their rightful inheritance. Many women in rural and urban areas continue to be denied their father’s property, compounding the challenges they face in establishing their presence as farmers.
Women’s unrecognised status in the agricultural industry, their lack of control over agricultural land and unpaid labour are issues that are confirmed by various government reports. An Agricultural Information Service report titled ‘Women in Agriculture’ said that with women owning only 19 per cent of land and unequal access to markets, they are faced with multidimensional poverty. The ambiguous definition of women farmer in the National Agricultural Policy further complicates their struggle. The definitional ambiguity is possibly because of the social-political invisibilisation of the critical role women play in agriculture. To promote gender equality and ensure steady agricultural growth, policymakers must recognise and address the unique challenges and contributions of women in farming.
The tendency to overlook women’s contributions is linked with the way they contribute to household work. Consequently, their labour is often unrecorded in official statistics. Their agricultural labour — planting, harvesting, crop preparation, animal care, and farm maintenance — is seen as part of their household chores and familial responsibility and is therefore not considered a legitimate form of productive labour. The wage discrimination that women experience is also a result of such understanding of women’s labour. Nearly half of the work done by women in crop fields, which is 45.6 per cent, is unpaid. For the remaining 54.4 per cent, their wages are often lower than the market price. Women also work longer hours for lower wages and fewer benefits, with inadequate access to healthcare. Small-scale farmers, including women, often face challenges in receiving fair prices for their crops, as the government does not always purchase crops directly from farmers. Additionally, many landowners do not provide equal wages to women agricultural laborers. In cases where women raise concerns about wage discrimination, landlords may retaliate by threatening to hire workers from other villages.
According to a study, the actual value of women’s work is 2.5–2.9 times greater than their contribution to the GDP. Unfortunately, the significance of women’s work is overlooked in the gross domestic product calculation. One of the goals set in Bangladesh’s National Women’s Development Policy 2011 is to recognise women’s contributions in social and economic spheres. A decade has passed since the policy was adopted, and women workers are still struggling to get their due wages and face discrimination at every stage of their involvement in agricultural production. Many women farmers are also deprived of agricultural cards (government-issued cards that create access to different benefits and services for farmers), which can restrict their access to public-funded resources for farmers.
The National Women’s Development Policy 2011 clearly asks the government to recognise the labour of women in agricultural works, to eliminate wage disparities for women in agriculture, and to ensure equal wages in cooperatives, but the government has not taken any initiative to implement it. The longstanding crisis confronted by farmers in Bangladesh has been ignored for far too long. To tackle this issue, it is essential to organise women farmers at the grassroots level, and the Bangladesh Krishak Samity has pledged to do so, striving to eliminate discrimination against female farmers and push forward the struggle of the community.
Lucky Akter is an executive member of the Bangladesh Krishak Samity.