The fairer sex in the further reaches

The International Day of Rural Women, which falls today (15), is being celebrated this year under the theme “Rural Women Cultivating Good Food for All”.

According to the United Nations (UN), on average, women make up more than 40% of the agricultural labour in developing countries such as Sri Lanka, and range from 20% in the Latin American region to 50% or more in parts of the African and Asian regions. However, despite this significant presence and contribution to both domestic and export markets, they receive less recognition and benefits for what they do.

Improving the lives of rural women is key to fighting poverty and hunger, and giving women the same opportunities as men could increase agricultural production from around 2.5% to 4% in the poorest regions, while the number of malnourished people could be reduced from around 12% to 17%, according to the UN. However, they face issues with regard to receiving equal pay, participating in decision making entities and processes, having the ownership of lands and livestock, having access to and ownership of resources, credit, and a proper market that values their production. This potential growth in the agricultural sector is a result of ensuring gender equality, and it can, in turn, bring women’s contribution to the mainstream economy.

On the one hand, there is an issue of the lack of recognition for women’s direct and indirect contribution to domestic food production, and on the other hand, despite their contribution, there are many issues faced by rural women and girls which we have overlooked due to various reasons, including gender inequality at the grassroots level and the lack of awareness. It would not be an overstatement to say that Sri Lanka shows a great lethargy when it comes to addressing the challenges faced by women and girls, and we have not yet been able to properly gauge the seriousness and prevalence of  certain issues such as period poverty, poverty, illiteracy, gender-based discrimination, and malnutrition.

Even though a number of non-governmental organisations and women’s rights activist groups have begun addressing these issues with a focus on women and girls, the potential of some of those issues such as malnutrition and illiteracy causing long-term adverse effects on girls, calls for urgent and more attention from the Government. 

The most recent and pressing challenge women in Sri Lanka’s agricultural sector faced is the infamous microfinance loans issue, and according to civil society activists who assist women who are facing issues due to it, the majority of those who have obtained or have had to repay the loans are women. To make matters worse, most of the time, it is women who have to deal with representatives of microfinance institutions, and therefore, they have had to face threats and insults as well. Despite several plans by the previous United National Front (UNF)-led Government, these issues persist and women in rural areas and in the agricultural sector continue to suffer, and their contribution to the rural and national economy seems to be facing challenges.

The issues such as the microfinance loan issue, gender inequality, and pay and income gaps, are obvious issues, and the authorities’ approach to addressing them should be genuine.

In fact, Sri Lanka is going through a difficult time as far as the national economy and domestic food market are concerned, and therefore, improving women’s contribution in the agriculture sector could be of immense help. Empowering and giving them the due recognition to continue to do what they are doing with a sense of pride should receive more attention on this International Day of Rural Women, and using their labour in a more systematic manner will ultimately lessen the pressure caused by the collapsing national economy on people’s lives.