Women make up at least half of the labour force in rice cultivation, with the number of women involved increasing due to male migration away from rural areas. Yet women face barriers of access to knowledge, technology and support services that could improve their livelihoods, as well as time poverty resulting from women being responsible for care work in the home. On top of these factors, women typically earn less than men - in Nepal, although women compose over 50% of the agricultural workforce, they typically earn three quarters of the male income. Women also typically have disadvantaged access to land and agricultural inputs, and less support to fall back on in times of crisis.
Since the advent of the green revolution and modern agriculture, many rural households have had to increase their cash incomes to cover the cost of seed and other inputs. This led to an “urban flight”, with men migrating to the cities to earn extra cash while women stayed at home and added the migrating men’s farming tasks to their own already heavy workloads, also referred to as the “Feminisation of agriculture.”
While roles can vary depending on cultural factors, women’s roles in rice production tend to centre around the most repetitive and back-breaking tasks, including seedling preparation, uprooting the seedlings, transporting them to the main fields, transplanting the seedlings, weeding, and harvesting. Men generally prepare the land, apply fertilisers and pesticides and help with the harvest. In many countries, women are also responsible for rice threshing, winnowing and milling.
The benefits resulting from the System of Rice Intensification, including higher yields, reduced inputs, lower production costs and less labour for women, mean women would benefit greatly from the technology. A study on gender dimensions of the adoption of SRI in Vietnam showed that, while time required for weeding has increased, the volume and heavy labour components of uprooting and seedling preparation lightened, and as a result, provided women with more time for paid work on other farms, domestic work and backyard livelihood. Four years following the initiation of a joint project by Oxfam America and the Vietnamese Government, by 2011 SRI was being practised on almost 500,000 hectares by over 1 million farmers, about 70% of which were women.
The health benefits resulting from SRI largely impact the cultivation tasks done by women. SRI fundamentally changes the environment in which they work. Conventional rice cultivation requires continually flooded fields - meaning women spend extended periods of time with feet, legs and hands submerged in water, exposed to water-borne diseases. Studies show that besides musculoskeletal pain throughout their bodies, women suffer from fungal and other skin infections due to prolonged exposure to muddy water. Such infections are worse if agrochemicals were applied. With SRI, these health risks are greatly reduced or eradicated, and women spend much less time bent over for long periods of time performing repetitive movements.
Women farmers generally have a lower adoption rate of sustainable practices due to lower access to technological innovations and inputs, information resources and local socioeconomic inequalities. If training and awareness of SRI is shared with women, these challenges can be overcome, reducing the health risks and workload on women.
Dissemination strategies should also consider adapting weeding equipment to be ergonomically adapted to women. Equipment is typically designed to suit men, even though women are the ones spending most time weeding. A focus on the provision of technical support and appropriate equipment for women is of principal importance when considering SRI dissemination strategies. In a study in Odisha, India, it was observed that it takes women around 130-160 hours to weed an acre, moving at an average speed of 1 square metre per minute. Weeding with a mechanical weeder takes 16-25 hours per acre.
There is an exciting opportunity to couple the benefits SRI offers in reduced greenhouse gas emissions and the benefits for women. W+ is the first standard specifically measuring women’s empowerment, in response to the disadvantaged nature that many female farmers and natural resource managers experience, with low participation in decision-making and access to resources. The W+ standard is composed of six categories: Time Saving, Income & Assets, Health, Leadership, Education & Knowledge, and Food Security. Progress is measured and purchased as W+ credits, alongside carbon credits, which are applicable to SRI projects. SRI practices reduce methane emissions by 40-70% compared to conventionally flooded fields.
If you’re interested in learning more about women in SRI, take a look at these links: