Landless women should be recognized as farmers, and given their due tenurial rights
“Small farmers feed the world” -- does this make any sense to us? If it does, then what is the paradigm shift and what has it done, or is trying to do differently, to uphold and promote this hard truth?
Over time, this obvious fact has been well recognized by all, including the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO). It is estimated that 80% of the food in the world is produced by family farmers and more than 90% of family farms are dependent on their family members’ labour, which means all the family members, including men and women, work in the farm.
The year 2014 was declared as the International Year of Family Farming (IYFF) by the United Nations. Subsequently, the United Nations General Assembly declared 2019-2028 as the United Nations Decade of Family Farming (UNDFF). The UNDFF aims to build an adequate, affordable, and healthy global food system. According to FAO, agricultural production needs to be doubled by 2050, and that will be able to meet the needs of the growing populations.
Focusing on Bangladesh, traditionally the country widely practices small family farming due to having small fragmented land. This has been continuing due to the highly unequal land ownership patterns, where 80% of the arable land is in the hands of 20% who are mostly absentee. They neither cultivate the land nor are they dependent on agriculture for their livelihood.
These lands are further fragmented due to transfer of land through inheritance. So, small family farming is no more a tradition, but has rather become the only viable option -- a ground reality.
Small farmers, ie the real tillers/producers are mostly landless. Altogether, they constitute more than 60% of total population, including the rural poor, ethnic, and occupational minorities, women, and unemployed youth living in a rural setting. Over the decades, some crucial driving factors like fragmented land and/or landlessness, losing control over seeds, and the market being controlled by commercials has made agriculture highly expensive and non-profitable.
On the other hand, the opening up of job opportunities in the RMG, construction, etc areas worked as strong pull factors, forcing these categories of farmers/producers to come to the cities, and change their professions from farming to off farming. Rural youth and male farmers’ migration to foreign countries as immigrant workers left agriculture unattended, leaving behind the elderly and children with minimal or no support for livelihood.
Women members of the families started to act as de facto heads of the family and came forward to take over this fragile agriculture sector as they are the ones to ensure food on the plate of the elderly and children in the family. Very quickly, they took over the role not only for the post-harvest stage, but at all stages of production.
This was a big paradigm shift, and it led the sector towards feminization of agriculture. At this moment, 40.6% of the country’s total labour force is engaged in agriculture, and women constitute 72.6% of this. Bangladesh Labour Force survey report shows that women’s participation increased significantly within the last seven years.
What are the changes women farmers brought along? A number of examples have been set throughout the country where women produce food grains, and practise organic agriculture which helps protect the quality of soil and ensure safe food production. The whole scenario of food security changes positively when women are at the mainstay of agriculture.
The Global Gender Gap Report (2020) by the World Economic Forum recognizes some very significant achievements in some areas like education, maternal health care, political participation, employment, and participation in productive economic activities that contributed to reducing the gender disparity in Bangladesh. Still, women face inequality in many spheres, including rights to land and other productive resources, such as water and forest.
Regrettably, the discussion on the surface is about food production and building a very strong and healthy food system, but very little about equitable distribution and access to food by all. We merely talk about the producers, give emphasis to their rights, rights to own and access and have effective control over productive resources like land, water, and forest.
Present agriculture policy recognizes farmers by ownership/title deeds or tenurial deeds, but unfortunately, 72.6% of women farmers hardly have either of these two. Various research reports show that only 4-5% of rural women have effective control over land in Bangladesh. As a consequence, women farmers are deprived from the facilities provided by the government.
However, some sporadic programs and project interventions included women in activities like capacity building through training and distributing farmers’ cards to them, but this hardly works for them due to not having title deeds in their name. Title and tenurial deeds eg, sharecropper’s deeds are used as collateral in accessing bank credit, getting tilling machines, and so on. Moreover, they face wage discrimination when they sell out their labour in agriculture.
Some research, including that done by FAO, showed that the rural poor are food secure when their tenurial security is ensured as small holders, and they practice family farming where family members work on the land and hardly or don’t engage in paid labour. Such collective efforts help reduce the vulnerability of hunger and malnutrition facing the poor.
Women at each household level ensure that there is food on the plate. This is not different even during natural disasters like cyclones and floods. Broadly, women are effectively contributing to reducing poverty and hunger, starting from family to the nation by increasing the quality and quantity of food intake, and helping strengthen the immune system when they have the decision-making powers.
As women constitute a very significant number (72.6%), their rights to land and recognition as farmers are just a level-headed demand which can be ensured through ensuring their ownership and tenurial security. This is not an imaginary or impractical proposal, because there are various ways and means to work out a solution towards this.
The landless poor, women in particular, being able to access public land, widely known as Khas land, is one possible area; recovering ceiling surplus and illegally occupied lands and distributing them to women are the other very potential sources that can ensure access and/or ownership to women farmers.
Immediate steps should be taken to officially recognize landless women as farmers, so that they can access all support services with collateral. Then, a time-bound roadmap with an action plan needs to be worked out for ensuring their justifiable rights to land.
Rowshan Jahan Moni is Deputy Executive Director at Association for Land Reform and Development (ALRD). She can be reached at [email protected]