Sharifa Begum of Kapasia in Gazipur is the sole caretaker of her one-bigha homestead garden. In addition to doing all the household chores alone, 55-year-old Sharifa grows more than 20 species of pesticide-free fruits and vegetables -- mango, lychee, banana, palm, jackfruit, gourd, green chilis, garlic, pumpkin, cucumber and more -- every year.
After meeting household needs, she sells more than Tk 1,50,000 worth of fruits and vegetables in a year, through her husband. A major share of the family’s income also comes from the milk and eggs her husband sells in the market every day.
She is also the one to look after their three cows and 16 chickens.
Although Sharifa grows fruits and vegetables, rears livestock, and looks after the household, she is not considered a farmer or even economically active.
“It is their [husbands’] home, their land, their cows. We are just the keepers. When it comes to toiling away the whole day, it is us who do it, but the men who end up taking the money earned from our labour,” said Sharifa.
Sharifa’s neighbours and other female farmers tell of similar struggles in the agribusiness value chain, where their labour remains unacknowledged by the system.
“Women’s agricultural work is part of the labour market but is not recognised as they are not officially listed as farmers,” said Prof Sharmind Neelormi of the Department of Economics at Jahangirnagar University.
Since February 2018, the Department of Agriculture Extension (DAE) has been working to create a digital database of farmers.
According to the database, the number of female farmers in Kapasia upazila is only 425. To put this into context, the number of agricultural families is 68,701 and there are a total of 1,76,298 women in the upazila.
Mohammad Mokhlesur Rahman Khan, sub-assistant plant protection officer at the DAE Kapasia, said they are working to create a more comprehensive database, which now has 63,110 male and 5,591 female farmers listed in the upazila. “We are going door-to-door to collect the information of farmers,” he said.
However, local women engaged in agriculture, said they are not listed as farmers and have not encountered such activities by the local DAE officials.
“We are directed to enlist only one name from an agricultural family. If the husband and wife are both engaged in agricultural work, we take down the information of the husband only,” said Mokhlesur.
When asked why the DAE Kapasia was asked to only collect the names of male farmers for the digital database, Md Azam Uddin, director of the Integration of Farmers’ Information in Agriculture Portal Programme, said the DAE office is not able to allocate sufficient funds to each local officer for all the work involved in the database.
“The officer you mention may only be covering the male members of agricultural families to accommodate the allocation he received,” he said. The vast amount of information to be gathered means the work is happening slowly, he added.
The DAE, however, is targeting a complete database by 2022, he said.
Of the roughly 2.05 crore agricultural cards distributed by the DAE, only 6.6 percent are held by women. These women, too, only got these farming debit cards because they were the head of the household, or there were no male members in the family, said Md Mizanur Rahman Khan, deputy director (monitoring), DAE.
“We basically give one card to each family and if it is headed by a male, he usually takes the card,” he explained.
Although both the National Women Development Policy 2011 and the National Agriculture Policy 2018 mention taking the necessary steps to assess and recognise women’s farm activities and contribution, and eradicate wage discrimination in agriculture, the reality is quite different.
If we look at national level data, the number of female farmers in the database is 3,791,272 in a total of 9,183,763 farmers, according to Azam.
Agriculture Information Service (AIS) data, however, shows that more than 68 percent of the female labour force is involved in agriculture, forestry, and fisheries.
Women’s work invisible
According to AIS data, 45.6 percent of women in agriculture work for free. While the rest 54.4 percent are paid for their labour, their wages are lower than the market rate.
Shykh Seraj, award-winning agriculture development activist, says if we think just about rice cultivation, of the 23 separate tasks involved in rice production, women directly participate in 17 of these -- including seed preservation, sowing, and applying fertiliser.
“The other six steps -- planting, reaping, threshing, carrying the crop home, storing in woven bamboo containers, and selling in the market -- are men’s jobs. But, with the passage of time, women have proved that they too are engaged in these steps, especially in threshing,” he said.
On the other hand, women are usually engaged in 90 percent of the tasks in the beef fattening value chain, said Dr Md Shawkat Akbar Fakir, project coordinator of ActionAid’s Making Market Work for Women project.
“They only depend on the male members of the family to sell the cows and milk, as women usually don’t have access to the local cattle market,” he added.
Rezaul Karim Siddique, eminent agricultural researcher and the anchor of BTV’s longest-running agricultural show Mati O Manush, said that since the price of the male labour has increased over the years, the participation of women in agro-based activities has increased.
According to an October 2018 report in The Daily Star, the female participation rate in agriculture has gone up from 58.9 percent in 1988 to 76.7 percent in 2016.
“In semi-commercial agriculture, women’s presence is seen in every node of the value chain. But they remain invisible because it is the men who are engaged in the activities, from buying inputs to selling the products in the market, that take place in public,” said Rezaul.
According to a 2011 report by the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), if women had the same access to productive resources as men, they could increase farm yields by 20–30 percent. This could raise total agricultural output in developing countries by 2.5–4 percent.