[:an opinion] International Day of Rural Women: Empowering Pakistan’s Unsung Heroes
16 October 2023 12:28 pm
Written by Marium Amjad, Awaz Foundation Pakistan: Centre for Development Services (AWAZCDS)
Pakistan owes much of its economic backbone to agriculture, a sector deeply indebted to the diligence and hard work selflessly delivered by rural women.
In fact, almost 90 per cent of Pakistan’s rural women are engaged in the agriculture sector, placing them at the forefront of feeding an entire nation.
Despite serving the nation’s food basket, these women often struggle with hunger and poverty in silence. Their invaluable contributions to society are largely ignored.
Even after spending most–if not all–of their days toiling away in the fields to the detriment of their own health and wellbeing, rural women are yet to reap the benefits of their labour. They remain invisible to the government, resulting in the persistence of gender-based discrimination and violence. For example, women agricultural workers earn significantly less than their male counterparts for the same amount of work.
All these were documented through a fact-finding mission conducted by Awaz Foundation alongside the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA) in the Sindh and Punjab provinces of Pakistan in 2022.
Celebrated every 15 October, the International Day of Rural Women allows us to commemorate the crucial role rural women play not only among families and communities but society at large.
Multiple Layers of Struggles
The challenges rural women face extend beyond the fields. Every day, they experience multiple layers of struggles affecting all aspects of their lives.
Many are robbed of a normal childhood as early and forced marriages plague most of rural Pakistan, with girls as young as 12 being rushed into marriage. These marriages–often driven by dowry-related pressures–compel families to take loans from landlords, propagating cycles of indebtedness among women agricultural workers.
Such marriages take girls away from the classroom, thereby limiting their options for future work. Deprived of formal education, many girls also remain illiterate.
Our fact-finding mission found that while men enjoy weekends off, women agricultural workers do not. In fact, they do not even have access to maternity leaves, medical relief, sick leaves, and holiday pay. Pregnant and lactating women are compelled to work almost right up to their due dates, putting not only their own health at risk but also their baby’s. Only a week after giving birth, most women are pressured to return to laborious tasks.
Yet another challenge faced by Pakistan’s rural women is the constant threat of violence, often at the hands of landlords and even their own families. Many cases go unreported due to perceptions of women’s role in society, bonded labour, fears of retribution, and lack of awareness on human rights.
Without knowledge of the legal system, rural women often fall victim to unjust wages, unsafe labour conditions, and unfair business practices. For instance, when rural women attempt to sell crops in male-dominated markets, they are forced to settle for lower prices.
Further compounding their struggles are the lack of sanitation facilities, inadequate childcare options, and poor transport infrastructure among rural areas. And when women fall ill, their children are bound to suffer as well since mothers are exclusively seen as a family’s caretaker.
In Pakistan, rural women are seen as mere ‘farm helpers’ and not as farmers in their own right. Unfortunately, the government reinforces this perception as it continuously fails to implement policies and services that effectively address the needs of women agricultural workers.
Within Pakistan’s agricultural departments, women are underrepresented. Take the case of agricultural extension officers: there are only two to three female extension officers, while there are 100 male officers. Agricultural extension officers are tasked to train farmers, with the goal of helping them make informed decisions towards sustainable rural development. Since women extension officers are outnumbered by men, this may have an impact on how knowledge is transferred among rural women, especially since such training is reserved for male farmers.
All these struggles root from Pakistan’s patriarchal culture wherein systemic gender inequality hampers women’s access to livelihood opportunities, healthcare, education, and technological advancements in agriculture. Harmful gender-based stereotypes also lock women into an unpaid caretaker role, dismissing their individual capabilities and aspirations.
Forwarding Feasible Solutions
The Government of Pakistan must recognise and address the needs and problems faced by women agricultural workers. At the same time, the government must formally acknowledge and reward rural women’s invaluable contributions to society by implementing services and policies that ensure decent wages, safe working conditions, and technical support for women agricultural workers.
Labour laws, especially the Minimum Wage Law, should be modified and extended to the agricultural sector. Like men, women agricultural workers should have access to general leaves and paid sick days, among other benefits. Considering the prevalence of work-related injuries among agricultural workers, sufficient budget must be allocated for occupational safety measures.
The government should announce subsidies for agricultural land that is legally owned by women. In addition, the government must hold awareness campaigns encouraging families to give women–especially those who work on family or tenant farms–their due share of land.
Likewise, the government must strive to educate both women and men on human rights, labour rights, and pertinent laws.
Provincial ministries and district departments should incentivise the participation of rural women in agriculture. Their labour must be formally recognised as employment. Socio-cultural barriers preventing access to education, healthcare, legal assistance, among other fundamental rights and freedoms must be lifted.
In sum, the first big step to uplifting the lives and dignity of rural women lies in the abolition of gender-based discrimination in Pakistani society. This can be done through state-led awareness campaigns, the formal teaching of gender equality within the education system, and the enactment and implementation of comprehensive policies against discrimination.
Empowering rural women is not just a moral imperative; it is a crucial investment in Pakistan’s overall development.
Let us cultivate a future where the struggles of rural women become a distant memory, replaced by an empathic generation that cares not only about themselves but for everyone, especially those living along the margins of society.
You can read the full fact-finding mission report, “The Hands that Feed Us: Struggles of Women Agricultural Workers,” here.
AwazCDS-Pakistan: Established in 1995 and is registered as not for profit organization with registrar joint stock companies under Societies Registration Act 1860 and enjoys special consultative status with United Nation’s Economic & Social Council (UN ECOSOC). AwazCDSPakistan’s core mission is to develop integrated and innovative solutions in cooperation with partners at all levels to secure the future of marginalised communities especially by creating rightful spaces and choices of life.
FORUM-ASIA works to strengthen movements for human rights and sustainable development. It has consultative status with the UN Economic and Social Council and a consultative relationship with the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights. Its Secretariat is based in Bangkok, with offices in Jakarta, Geneva, and Kathmandu.