Gender Gap in Agriculture and the ‘South Asian Enigma’


Economic Growth and Food Insecurity in South Asia

The South Asian area—comprising Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Maldives—has witnessed spectacular financial development in the previous few many years. In the ten years starting 2010, the area’s financial system grew at an annual common charge of 6.7 p.c which is 2 occasions the international common of three p.c. The Gross National Income (GNI) per capita for the area began peaking from the early 2000s and confirmed a slight dip solely in the yr 2020. With a formidable, 7.2 p.c development in 2021, the area is projected to regain its historic development charge by 2022.[1]  The area has additionally recorded progress on decreasing excessive poverty: 216 million folks lived beneath the poverty line in 2015, right down to 500 million in 1990.[2]

Despite the robust financial development and discount in poverty, nevertheless, South Asia continues to face numerous challenges in vitamin. Indeed, Sub-Saharan Africa for example—a area which not too way back recorded the worst charges of undernutrition—at the moment fares higher than South Asia. Some 255 million folks in South Asia are undernourished—the largest quantity in the world in absolute phrases. The area studies the highest acute undernutrition amongst kids, with youngster losing charges of 14.9 p.c in 2019 in comparison with 6.9 p.c in Sub-Saharan Africa.  At 33.2 p.c, the area has the highest proportion of youngsters stunted and affected by continual undernutrition.[3],[4] The area additionally has the highest prevalence of low-birth-weight kids.

An important issue in the excessive incidence of stunting in kids in South Asia is the poor dietary standing of moms earlier than and after being pregnant.[5]  The area has the highest prevalence of anaemia amongst ladies of reproductive age. The regional common is 49 p.c, with India, Pakistan, Maldives and Afghanistan reporting prevalence of greater than 40 p.c. Child mortality charges in South Asia, at 4.1 p.c, stay at worrying ranges.

Assessments based mostly on the Food Insecurity Experience Scale (FIES) present that 386.8 million folks in South Asia expertise extreme meals insecurity and 849.8 million folks expertise reasonable to extreme meals insecurity.[6] This accounts for 82 p.c of the severely meals insecure, and 71 p.c of these struggling reasonable to extreme meals insecurity, in Asia. Data exhibits a big diploma of gender hole as properly: meals insecurity amongst ladies was at 34.2 p.c in South Asia between 2017 and 2019, in comparison with 29.8 p.c amongst males (See Figure 1).

Figure 1. Prevalence of Food Insecurity in Asia and the Pacific, by Subregion and Gender (Average for 2017-19)

Source: FAO, UNICEF, WFP and WHO. 2021

The South Asian story is characterised by the paradoxical co-existence of financial development and persistent undernutrition and meals insecurity. The phenomenon is often generally known as the ‘South Asian enigma’, and the sample is extra stark for girls.

The Gender Dimension of the ‘South Asian Enigma’

The gender hole in poverty charges is statistically extra vital in South Asia. While the international common is 104 ladies for each 100 males in poor households, in South Asia, the corresponding ratio is 109 ladies for each 100 males. This gender hole in poverty can also be evident in the working cohort. The charges of poverty amongst the working inhabitants in South and South-West Asia, at 30.9 p.c for females and 25.4 p.c for males, are highest in the Asia-Pacific area.[7]

Female employment developments in South Asia present that ladies are more and more excluded from the labour market throughout South Asian international locations. This is evidenced in the low feminine labour pressure participation charge and persistent gender hole in feminine and male employment charges.[8] For ladies who’re in the labour market, the high quality of employment could be very poor. A excessive proportion of the ladies in the labour pressure are engaged in informal and self-employed jobs which are casual in nature (See Figures 2 and 3).

Figure 2. Self-Employment, by Sex (2019)

Source: World Bank, 2020

Figure 3. Wage Workers, by Sex (2019)

Source: World Bank, 2020

For ladies in South Asia, the agriculture sector is the single largest employer: 69 p.c of the ladies in the area are engaged in agriculture, with the proportion various throughout international locations (See Figure 4). The providers sector can also be a big employer of ladies in the area; in latest years, there was a slight shift in the patterns, with the magnitude various throughout international locations. Women in South Asian international locations are paid a lot lower than their male counterparts; the highest gender wage hole is reported in Pakistan, at 32.8 p.c.[9]  

Figure 4. Percentage Employment in Agriculture, by Sex (2019, South Asian Countries)

Source: World Bank, 2020

Women and ladies in South Asia lag behind their counterparts throughout the globe in different improvement indicators. For instance, they spend extra time on unpaid care and home work in comparison with the males and boys: in Pakistan, ladies and ladies spend 11 occasions extra hours in home chores—reminiscent of fetching water and gas—than the males in their households.[10]  Countries in the area are additionally recording much less progress in bridging the gender hole in literacy, and in secondary and tertiary instructional attainment. The solely exceptions to those patterns are Maldives and Sri Lanka.[11]  There can also be gender disparity in entry to finance, with solely 32.3 p.c ladies in South Asia having their very own checking account in comparison with 42.8 p.c of males. This is increased than in Sub-Saharan Africa. According to the Global Findex 2011, solely 17 p.c of South Asian international locations report a female-to-male ratio above 80 p.c in enterprise accounts, in comparison with 39 p.c of nations in Sub-Saharan Africa.[12] Women in South Asia even have poor entry to different productive assets like land and inputs.

Thus, South Asia, a area of excessive financial development charge has the doubtful distinction of being the worst performer on indicators of gender equality and in phrases of addressing gender discrimination in improvement outcomes. This has implications for meals and vitamin outcomes in the area, as ladies are key in breaking the cycle of intergenerational malnutrition.[13] There is a powerful hyperlink between gender inequality, and starvation and meals insecurity. Gender variations in meals and dietary outcomes are pushed by social determinants reminiscent of gender roles, entry to assets, voice, and company. Indeed, international locations rating excessive on the GHI are these with poor monitor information of addressing gender inequality.[14] This linkage in evident in the dietary outcomes in South Asia.[15],[16]  It highlights the complementary and mutually reinforcing nature of SDG purpose 2 (Zero Hunger) and 5 (Gender Equality). Addressing this requires strengthening ladies’s company by their elevated participation in the financial system.

Feminisation of Agriculture

The agriculture sector has the largest share of ladies employment in South Asia at 57 p.c. The proportion ranges from 28 p.c in Sri Lanka to a far increased 74 p.c in Nepal; Maldives is at 2 p.c and is the exception.[a] Following liberalisation measures in the Nineteen Eighties and ’90s, South Asia has seen a surge in out-migration—or the act of leaving their rural residence for the cities or cities. In Nepal, one in each 4 households has not less than one member who has out-migrated, and 88 p.c of this outmigration was by male members of the family.[17] In India, the proportion of migrant inhabitants is 29.9 p.c.[18] The proportion of male out-migrants is estimated at 8 p.c, however given the dimension of the nation’s inhabitants, the figures are substantial in absolute phrases.[19]  As many males go away the family, the ladies tackle an even bigger function in agriculture. This phenomenon is described as the “feminisation of agriculture”. India and Nepal report the highest ranges of feminisation of agriculture in the area.

Narratives linking agricultural feminisation and ladies’s empowerment is polarised, and the idea of feminisation is outlined in each a restricted and an expansive sense.[20]  In the restricted sense, it refers to a rise in the proportion of ladies’s farm associated work (paid/unpaid) and elevated duty on household farms.[21] In this narrative, ladies’s work load will increase whereas they proceed to lack entry to productive assets, information, and expertise and have restricted decision-making energy, if in any respect. With near-universal mobile-phone possession, males proceed to remotely management family and farming choices.[22]

In the expanded sense, in the meantime, the idea of ‘feminisation’ refers to methods in which ladies’s company is constructed by partaking with the social technique of agriculture. The expanded conceptualisation refers to methods in which ladies positive factors proper and possession over productive assets, energy in decision-making, and recognition of their contributions in beforehand male-dominated areas.[23],[24]  This technique of feminisation is often known as ‘managerial feminisation’. The second narrative views feminisation as a possibility for bettering gender equality and ladies’s place in agriculture. This implies that the impact of ‘feminisation of agriculture’ on ladies’s place in the sector is determined by the methods by which the socio-cultural and gender norms form the course of.[25]

A research amongst combined farming households in Sindhuli district of Nepal, reveals feminisation of a restricted nature in the context of agricultural transition.[26]  The research used an idea of ladies’s company that mixes decision-making energy and adaptive preferences for agricultural engagement inside the family. The adaptive desire for the function performed by ladies in the area was dictated by prevailing gender and social norms, with ladies persevering with to play a predominant function in subsistence manufacturing and conventional agricultural work. Day-to-day farm administration and supervision continued to be ladies’s area in each subsistent and money crops, whereas that they had little or no function in decision-making associated to revenue earned from the totally different manufacturing techniques.

In the japanese hills of Nepal, male out-migration throughout the interval of armed battle in the late Nineteen Nineties, had elevated ladies’s function and duty in agriculture. In the course of, ladies took over conventional roles carried out by males, exercised decision-making powers, actively engaged with the market and authorities, and claimed social areas for negotiations.[27] The political context that emerged post-conflict enabled ladies’s engagement at the increased ends of sure worth chains. Collectivisation and the emergence of ladies’s cooperatives additionally expanded the area for girls to interact in business crop cultivation. A 2015 research discovered that macro-level gender-sensitive and inclusive institutional preparations and insurance policies, can problem and alter gender and social norms at the micro stage to create alternatives of engagement for girls in historically male-dominated, high-value agriculture manufacturing techniques.[28]

Clear intersectionality in the impression of feminisation was revealed in the center Hills of Nepal, the place ladies from poor, lower-caste households skilled elevated work burden in agriculture, with no corresponding improve in farm manufacturing.[29] They had much less entry to trade labour in comparison with higher-caste ladies, and when trade labour was out there, they have been  anticipated to supply two occasions the labour in trade for one male labour. Socially organised ethnic teams like Gurung have been in a position to dictate the labour value, with males and ladies receiving the similar wage charges. It was comparatively simpler for Gurung ladies to rent male labourers. The caste, class, ethnicity-based differential impacts are compounded by the stage of remittance obtained by these households. Households increased up in the social ladder reported increased ranges of remittance, which gave the ladies in the households higher autonomy to rent labour.

Similar labour-hiring challenges have been reported in rice-producing japanese Uttar Pradesh villages in India, the place the low remittance didn’t permit the ladies to interact employed labour and the ladies tackle further work.[30] The family construction—whether or not nuclear or prolonged—was one other mediating impact on ladies’s place in the occasion of male out-migration.[31] Increasing work load in phrases of family work and exterior work was reported extra from migrant households, ensuing in ladies from these households spending much less time on agriculture and shifting in the direction of much less intensive farming.[32] This is corroborated by proof from Madhya Pradesh of elevated work load for girls and the subsequent abandonment of agriculture by ladies who have been left behind by male out-migrants.[33] Similar patterns have been noticed in the center hills of Nepal.[34]

A basic decline in the share of males and ladies in agriculture, with the decline increased in the case of males, indicating feminisation, was evident from the information on financial actions in the India census of 2021. Male out-migration resulted in extra ladies taking over the function of major cultivators and a rise in ladies agricultural labourers. However, this has not translated to rights over agricultural property or in decision-making. With no viable different livelihood alternatives, they’re compelled to tackle financial actions which are left behind by males. The authors describe the technique of feminisation as “feminisation out of compulsion” or “feminisation of agrarian distress”. Further, the authors argue that the focus of ladies in agriculture labour in India is also reflective of what’s described as the ‘feminisation of poverty”.[35]

Given the essential function performed by ladies in agriculture, gender inequalities that constrain ladies’s participation throughout the agricultural worth chain will undermine the meals and vitamin safety in the area. There is an crucial to design applicable insurance policies and programmes for mainstreaming gender issues in agriculture. This in flip requires an understanding of the standing of ladies in agriculture.

The total low standing of ladies in South Asia additionally performs out in the agricultural sector and has implications for his or her livelihoods. Across South Asian international locations, ladies encounter gender-specific constraints that restrict their entry to productive assets which in flip has impacts on the high quality of their participation in financial actions. Further, the nature and technique of feminisation of agriculture, a phenomenon frequent throughout South Asia, has a profound affect in restructuring gender roles and gender relations in agriculture in the area. Strategies for mainstreaming gender in agriculture have to account for these elements. 

Focus on Land Rights

Gendered yield hole in agricultural productiveness is estimated to be in the vary of 20-30 p.c.[36]  This is attributed to the distinction in the ranges of useful resource use between males and ladies. Empirical proof exhibits that the gendered yield hole might be bridged if ladies use the similar stage of assets as males. Closing the gender hole in useful resource entry and use would enhance agricultural productiveness, whereas additionally bettering high quality of ladies’s engagement in agriculture. Gender hole in land possession and management is a important determinant of gender hole in ladies’s standing and company in agriculture.[37]

In flip, entry to materials assets, expertise and extension providers in agriculture is contingent on possession rights of farm land. To start with, most agricultural improvement programmes are linked to asset possession, as the very definition of a farmer is linked to possession of a land title. Since ladies don’t personal land, they aren’t formally recognised as farmers and are bypassed in agricultural extension and credit score providers. Strong gender and social norms govern the intra-household distribution of revenue and different materials advantages in rural South Asia. Therefore, unique male rights on land doesn’t routinely end result in the welfare of all the members of the family. In rural economies of South Asia, land is not only a productive useful resource, however an emblem of standing and supply of safety. In the absence of titles to land, even ladies categorised as ‘cultivators’ are disadvantaged of decision-making authority and autonomy, reinforcing gendered roles and relations in agriculture.[38],[39],[40]

Women throughout Asia personal much less land than males, with South Asia reporting the highest gender-gap; males additionally personal bigger holdings.[41],[42] Male operational holdings in Bangladesh and Pakistan are double the dimension of these of the ladies. Female land possession is 2 p.c in Pakistan, 9.7 p.c in Sri Lanka, 10 p.c in Bangladesh, and 13.5 p.c in India. Even amongst ladies who do personal land, they don’t at all times have management over such land.[43]  Bhutan is the solely nation in South Asia the place extra ladies personal land: 70 p.c of farm land are owned by ladies.[44]  This is attributed to matrilineal inheritance practices and a powerful authorized surroundings.[45]

Analysts have discovered numerous obstacles that restrict ladies’s rights over land in South Asia, and the main ones relate to patriarchal social norms. In many South Asian international locations, households favor sons who’re anticipated to be the future caretakers of the aged dad and mom; this sits at the core of why ladies’s land rights are restricted.[46],[47]  Inheritance rights dictated by non secular practices additionally view ladies as inferior to males. Under the Sharia regulation, for instance, Muslim ladies are entitled to solely half the share of property obtained by their male counterparts. Tanazqul – a religion-dictated observe of placing a premium on male inheritance rights—has disadvantaged many ladies in Pakistan and Bangladesh of their property rights, as they’re compelled to surrender their share of the inheritance. In Bangladesh, ladies obtain solely 43 p.c of their hereditary property.[48]   In India, whilst the Hindu Succession (Amendment) Act, 2005, bestows equal rights for girls on land and property, the regulation is poorly enforced.[49] Inheritance rights of Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists are additionally ruled by the Hindu Succession Act. Inheritance amongst Parsis and Christians are ruled by the Indian Succession Act, 1925, below which the son and daughter are handled equally, whereas Muslim ladies are ruled by Shariah.[50]

In Bangladesh, joint titling of the husband and spouse is promoted by the Khas Land Management and Distribution Policy. The Nepalese authorities points Joint Land Ownership Certificates which helps switch males’s unique land rights to joint possession with their wives. In India, land below joint possession was about 2 p.c in; in Nepal 0.4 p.c; Pakistan, 1.8 p.c; and 2.19 p.c in Bangladesh.[51]  In India, authorized rights to inheritance and possession of land and property by ladies is enshrined in the Constitution. The Ninth Five-Year Plan (1997-2002) referred to as for removing of gender discrimination in property possession, advocated ladies’s land possession, and steered adjustments to carry in gender inclusiveness in land-related legal guidelines.

Despite these efforts, nevertheless, inherent bias in land and inheritance legal guidelines stays prevalent throughout the states.[52]  Land is a state topic, and the totally different state legal guidelines have labored towards the constitutional provisions that strengthened ladies’s rights to inherit and personal land.[53] Women haven’t been a goal beneficiary in any state-led land reforms. This highlights the distinction in authorized and social recognition and the distinction between authorized provisions and enforcement. 

Mainstreaming Gender in Agricultural Policies 

Closing the gender hole in agriculture would require designing and implementing gender-sensitive insurance policies. In South Asia, most of the insurance policies are gender-blind and don’t account for the unequal energy relations between males and ladies which are dictated by custom and social norms.

Addressing the gender hole in land possession, to start with, requires a change in approaches at the macro, meso and micro ranges. At the macro coverage stage, a place to begin is reviewing legislations associated to land and the related legislations coping with inheritance, marriage, and property to get rid of loopholes for gender discrimination in implementation. At the meso stage, educating and gender sensitisation of the forms, growing gender-specific pointers and guidelines of implementation, and adjusting bureaucratic procedures for joint titling and different provisions that guarantee ladies’s rights over land, might handle problems with gender discrimination at the implementation stage. At the micro stage, imparting authorized literacy to ladies, bettering ladies’s instructional attainment, and sensitising the neighborhood on the developmental advantages of ladies’s land possession will help modify restrictive gender and social norms.

Delinking land title possession from the official definition of ‘farmer’ might assist enhance ladies’s and tenant cultivators’ entry to productive assets.[54]  In India, modifying insurance policies on farm mechanisation—reminiscent of introducing further subsidy for machines for girls farmers—has resulted in micro-level motion in altering social norms in ladies’s land possession. Many males register small items of land in the title of the ladies of their family to avail this subsidy. Albeit tokenistic, this has resulted in the switch of land in the title of ladies in a number of states in India. Moreover, the promotion of “custom hiring centres”—or farm equipment service centres managed and run by ladies’s collectives— has elevated ladies’s entry to extra fashionable agricultural instruments and implements. Using ICT instruments and farmer subject colleges for delivering extension providers might enhance ladies’s entry to those providers.

Gendered worth chain improvement in agriculture has been touted as a method of bettering ladies’s participation throughout the worth chain. Interventions aimed toward horizontal integration of gender issues throughout the worth chain can strengthen ladies’s function and bargaining place in roles they already play throughout the agricultural worth chain. Vertical integration throughout the worth chain by technological introduction and skill-building of ladies farmers on fashionable practices and expertise is predicted to enhance the high quality of participation of ladies farmers at the increased finish of the agricultural worth chain. Recognising this, worldwide companies like USAID, DANIDA and FAO,[b] in addition to regional financial boards reminiscent of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and European Union (EU) have adopted gendered worth chain as a key improvement technique.

The promotion of applicable governance constructions and establishments like Women Producer’s Collectives that interact in end-to-end help for girls farmers have been discovered to be efficient in bettering ladies’s entry to inputs, extension providers, and credit score. Being a part of collectives helps construct scale in advertising and processing, improves bargaining place, and strengthens the high quality of participation throughout the worth chain. India’s National Policy on Farmer Producer Organisations and the Mahila Kisan Sashakthi Karan Pariyojana are examples of insurance policies that present scope for growing gendered agricultural worth chains in the nation. Promotion of land leasing by ladies’s collectives with state help, even in states the place leasing of agricultural land is legally prohibited has enabled participation of even landless ladies agricultural labourers in the agricultural worth chain in these states. Collectivisation as a method of empowerment has additionally been well-established by the Self-Help Group (SHG) motion. Women in SHGs have higher management over decision-making, derive increased incomes, and carry out higher on mixture measures of empowerment.[55]

Gender mainstreaming of programmes applied by companies engaged on agriculture—together with agricultural universities, regional agricultural analysis coalitions, and civil society organisations—can enhance gender inclusiveness for higher uptake and impression of those programmes. For occasion, the Government of India stipulates that each one beneficiary-oriented schemes below the Ministry of Agriculture ought to guarantee inclusion of a minimal of 30 p.c ladies farmers and spend not less than 30 p.c of funds on ladies farmers.[56]

Collecting gender-disaggregated information on the numerous programmes/interventions in agriculture and periodically monitoring them would offer helpful insights on their impression on ladies farmers’ empowerment. The Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index (WEAI), for instance—a survey-based index developed by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI)— is broadly utilized by international locations and organisations to measure gender parity and empowerment in agriculture.[57]

Finally, addressing the difficulty of ladies’s time poverty, given their a number of gender roles in family and care work, can go a good distance in realising gender-equitable improvement outcomes for girls in agriculture. Provisioning of fresh water and gas would scale back the drudgery in family work, unlock time for agricultural and different financial actions, in addition to leisure and relaxation, and end result in total well-being outcomes for girls farmers.


Key to overcoming starvation and meals insecurity in South Asia is strengthening ladies’s place in the family and neighborhood, and constructing their company. Subsequently, closing the gender hole in agriculture and bettering the high quality of participation of ladies in agriculture are potential pathways to addressing problems with starvation, meals insecurity, and poor dietary outcomes in South Asia. Gender mainstreaming of agricultural improvement, requires together with ladies’s voice and incorporating ladies’s issues all through the design, implementation, monitoring and analysis phases of agricultural insurance policies and interventions.

Gender-sensitive methods and insurance policies for improved entry to assets, arresting dispossession, and facilitating company for girls in agriculture, would play a pivotal function in addressing meals and vitamin safety issues of ladies and kids. These methods can even successfully scale back poverty.

About the Author

M. Manjula is a member of Faculty at the School of Development, Azim Premji University, Bangalore, Karnataka.


[a] Women in the Maldives are largely engaged in the fisheries sector.

[b] USAID – United States Agency for International Development; DANIDA – Danish International Development Agency; FAO- Food and Agricultural Organisation

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