Agriculture has been an important prerequisite for economic growth and poverty reduction in many developing countries like Nepal for ages. During the past two decades, the production of the agriculture sector has increased by 3.2 percent as per the Ministry of Finance (MOF). According to a report by MOF, the agriculture sector had contributed 26.98 percent to Nepal's total Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in the fiscal year 2018/2019. Looking into data published by the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, currently, 66 percent of the country's population is directly engaged in farming.
With the surge of male migration to foreign countries for employment, the proportion of females heading households has increased considerably over the years. With the increase in female-headed households, their participation in agriculture has also grown and the phenomenon of 'feminization of agriculture' has evolved. Women's role in the agricultural labor force and their contribution to the sector is unquestionably significant. Despite agriculture being the main occupation of people in the developing countries and the main income source of women in rural areas, the sector is still underperforming. This is mainly due to the fact that women, who are the critical resource and contributors to the agricultural economy face several constraints and challenges as compared to their male counterparts.
The social structure of Nepal is such that women are the main caregivers of the family so they are compelled to give more time in the-monetized household responsibilities and have less time left for monetary income-generation activities. Here, the time constraint is the main limitation for women. Secondly, women do not usually have control and decision-making power with regard to income in the rural settings. Despite the new constitution which ensures that women have equal property rights without any disparity, they still have limited access and ownership to land and property. As per the report published by the Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS), the average land owned by women in Nepal is 0.4 hectares, which is almost half to that of land owned by men i.e. 0.7 hectares. Due to lack of ownership to land, access to credit is very limited to women as land is the most important source of collateral for financial institutions in Nepal. Because of these, women's capacity and confidence to engage in income-generating activities through farming are not fully utilized and their ability to purchase products and tools needed in agriculture such as seeds, fertilizers, chemicals, tiller, thresher, tractors and other equipment are in much lower scale as compared to men. The limited subsidy given by the government to the small-scale farmers adds to the challenge that women farmers face in rural areas. All these factors, directly and indirectly, affect the agricultural productivity of the women farmers and their economic condition at large.
Prevailing the COVID-19 pandemic is putting a strain on the agriculture sector to a great extent to whom the whole nation depends on their everyday food supply. Not only that, but this sector also has both forward and backward linkages with other sectors of the economy be it manufacturing, hotels, energy as well as direct implications in the employment sector and remittance. But, the core issue here is that the survival of almost all other sectors and industry is more dependent on agriculture than other cross-cutting sectors. Looking into the fact that agriculture has a significant contribution towards the national GDP and also having a target to make the country self-reliant in terms of food production, this year the government has increased the national budget for agriculture. The government had allocated Rs.34.80 billion for the current fiscal year that has increased to Rs. 41.40 billion for the next fiscal year. But despite this increase, the budget in this area is still comparatively very low compared to other sectors like health and education. Moreover, a huge number of rural women are engaged in agriculture but their economic contribution is not well quantified.
The government need to invest more time and finance in agriculture than before especially in the recovery phase of the pandemic and have effective gender-response intervention in this area.
Policy intervention that particularly addresses the demands of the women in farming is crucial to mitigate the existing gender inequalities in the agriculture sector, especially in the rural parts of the country where women are economically affected due to the crisis. In the face of catastrophe, women can be active change agents who are capable of turning challenges into opportunities and opportunities into solutions.
More programs need to be created for the high involvement of women in livestock farming by helping them getting loans at low-interest rates through micro-finance. Microfinance institutions and other financial service providers with a presence in rural areas can play a key role in closing the gender gap by allocating resources specifically to women farmers and targeting gender-based barriers.
The government can introduce the "Pewa-Tewa" scheme that women do not need to share with other family members in the house, not even their husbands. System of "Pewa" of women, is prevalent in Nepal's rural as well as urban areas since time immemorial, and this practice of keeping and augmenting women's personal property has been a great source for women rearing their children as well as helping and rescuing their husband in case of severe monetary crunch falls upon him. Under this "Pewa-Tewa" scheme women can be provided with cash incentives or subsidies in buying cattle, pigs, sheep, chicken, etc. which contributes to helping these women generate money and acquire more fixed and liquid assets. This type of scheme promotes the economic independence of women and their empowerment in the long run.
The government also needs to revise existing policies through the GESI angle and new policies need to be put in place to uplift the engagement of women in agriculture which plays a pivotal role in the economic survival and recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. Further, there is a very low investment made for gender-responsive research in the agriculture sector because of which very limited technologies have been developed to meet the specific needs of the women farmers forcing them to rely on the same old time-consuming methods of production. Hence, it is important that the government needs to allocate the subsequent amount of budget in research and development in order to help boost the women empowerment in the farming and agriculture sector through the advanced technologies which contributes in meeting gender equality in these areas in Nepal.
In the local government level, the GESI strategy needs to be implemented to monitor and evaluate the women's status in the agriculture sector. The representation of women in the policy and decision-making bodies must be increased so that more gender-responsive resource allocation is done for the upliftment of women in agriculture, as currently there are very few women in these powerful positions. As the world works towards the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, which pledges to “leave no one behind,” how can we ensure that women farmers – often one of the most marginalized groups – are truly prioritized and not left behind? The tradition that passes a family land/farm down to a son should be changed as the more property ownership to male means them having a greater influence and power within agriculture over females. Why not break this social stigma and have the daughters also as the family farm successors? Finally, gender equality shouldn't just be limited to laws and policies but should rather be culminated into reality through actions to bring about the real change.
The author is the alumna of Gender and Development Studies at the Asian Institute of Technology (AIT), Thailand.