The Painful Task: Promoting Gender Equality in Pakistani Agriculture

Imagine the nature of your daily work being a persistent health hazard and now imagine being unable to rely on that income. Such is the status of agricultural women in Pakistan. The division of labour and allocation of resources between genders in the agriculture sector in Pakistan creates a widespread power imbalance and persistent health issues amongst many women in the country’s workforce.

Agriculture is the lifeblood for much of the population of Pakistan and the largest production based contributor to its GDP, contributing 19.31% in the fiscal year 2019–2020 (Pakistan Bureau of Statistics, 2021). The sector provides work to 43.2% of the country’s labour force and therefore is also the bed-rock of any endemic social issue faced by the labour force of the country (Government of Pakistan, Finance Division, 2018). Joining a family business predominantly involved in the manufacturing industry, I was tasked to ideate new ventures for investment. Having identified a wide gap in Pakistan regarding the growing global space of corporate agriculture, I took it upon myself to build such an enterprise. However, unlike the very formalised and organised Textiles with reference to which I was trained, I struggled with the completely inconsistent and unregulated practices of the agri-sector, namely the gender imbalance. In the process; gathering sufficient researched information on key social issues to be aware of was a challenge. Writing a piece on all the multifaceted issues faced by women in the agriculture sector at large in Pakistan would be an enormous task with results that perhaps not many readers here would have the time to study. Instead I believe it may be more apt and of interest to discuss the issues faced in my personal experience entering the field.

As the infrastructure of the polytunnel greenhouses was being erected I sat with my preliminary team creating a model for the recruitment of permanent and seasonal labour according to the requirements of our farm. Learning from those of my team-members that were more experienced it became abundantly clear that agricultural roles in the Pakistani realm were pre-assigned between genders. Farm managers have pre-set notions that tasks such as sowing, transplanting, weeding and harvesting are to be performed by women whereas tasks that involve the operation machinery such as tractors, water pumps, irrigation systems were to be handled by men. Such division of labour presented an evident problem to me. It seemed that while the tasks that involved the preparation of the land and everyday management of the farm were concerned the job was to be performed by men, whereas seasonal work was to be done by women. Furthermore, the specific tasks assigned to women required them to spend multiple hours a day in bent body postures, performing precise activities next to the plants. Studies on women workers performing those tasks have found that the required posture causes issues with chronic bodily pains and constant exposure to agricultural chemicals causes issues specifically related to women’s health which have been found to affect reproductive health (Chiong-Javier, 2009) .

Source: Tibbo et al. (2009) Paper presented at the FAO-IFAD-ILO Workshop, Rome

Given the culture that presented itself to me I found myself at the brink of participating in an economic sector in which the roles designated to women predominantly meant that their employment would not only be inconsistent and hazardous to their health, but also reinforce the technological literacy gap due their lack of exposure to the use of agri-machinery.

The unreliability and inconsistency of seasonal farm employment makes such, predominantly female, labour vulnerable to exploitation by local contractors that virtually exclusively tend to be men. In my experience; when faced with the need for seasonal labour I wished to source specialised women and pay them directly. The hurdles I faced made this task, for now, unattainable as every avenue where my team and I sought we found looming middlemen that insisted that the women’s labour force needs must be paid through them or they would not be able to work at our farm. A demand that was shrouded in language of trust issues and reliability. Knowing full well the unregulated nature of the agricultural sector and extreme wage manipulation faced by farm labour, it was not a transaction that I was willing to partake in. Being an urban enterprise with no footing in rural areas we were forced to recruit a predominantly male workforce in the interest of ensuring that our labour was paid fair wages for their work.

Source:https://www.gettyimages.co.uk/detail/video/women-in-agriculture-stock-video-footage/1213486297?adppopup=true

Being still a small and young entrant into the field I realised that if I wanted to create a gender balance in my workforce as an urban agriculturalist I would have to invest in training proximate urban women in the tasks they must perform. Women had to be given the opportunity to learn machinery operation and land preparation so as to spread the physical risks of the work between the genders employed. Given our resource constraints the trainings could only be provided to a couple of women, but the impact of reversing roles by delegation of mechanical work to women and precise manual tasks to men is visible on a daily basis. Initial reservations expressed by the male labour towards tasks such as sowing, transplanting, weeding etc has practically faded away and the level of confidence of the few women tasked with handling technology has grown positively. This is not to say the roles are not shared between the workforce or that a total reversal has occurred, but that it has started to feel like a team that works with mutual respect and fluidity. Though there is a long way to go and the scale is yet small, the effects of but a minor catalyst are encouraging as we expand with hopes to be a model for the numerous that participate in the backbone of our economy.

With the rise of corporate level, organized and formalised agricultural enterprises in Pakistan it is important for employers to acknowledge that the industry can only reach its maximum potential if the workplace provides equal opportunity across genders. Working women are in no short supply in the agricultural sector in Pakistan, but their roles are often rigidly defined and detrimental to their financial, social and physical wellbeing. However, for sufficient empathy and equally divided tasks to become a resultant culture in this space, corporate entities must take a lead introducing women leaders in management positions. With a healthy perception that detaches the perception of authority from gender and leadership that challenges the presumed notions of its workforce’s capabilities the true potential of highly experienced women in the agriculture sector of Pakistan can be realised.

Sources:

1- http://www.finance.gov.pk/survey/chapters_18/02-Agriculture.pdf

2- https://vc.bridgew.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1261&context=jiws

About Shahmeel:

Having completed his undergraduate education in Law and Masters in Social Enterprise, coming from a long family background of industry, he set his sights on approaching his work from the lens of creating new and unfamiliar business models that internally attempt to tackle social issues that exist in their respective spaces. Upon completing his education and returning to Pakistan he realised a gap in the huge agricultural economy of the country. Agriculture is mainly being performed informally and without qualified management teams or systems. The potential of agricultural production in Pakistan carried out with the professional systems utilised in the industrial sector is broadly unexplored. Therefore, his enterprise, Home Grown (pvt) Limited, aims to leverage professional management and marketing to become a highly competitive agricultural producer, but also one that breaks the cultural norms that have for generations suppressed various demographics of the population involved in the sector. Home Grown aims to exhibit that both environmentally and socially responsible practices in agricultural production can result in a competitive enterprise as long as professional management ensures efficient resource allocation.

About ila:

As a multi-awarded social enterprise, our aim, at ila, is to champion a purpose-driven and socially aware workforce. Our innovative tailored programs and world-class advisory team have extensive experience working with HR professionals, leadership teams and employees to champion a diverse and gender equal culture in the workplace.

Visit ila at https://www.ilageneration.com/home to find out more about us, the work we do and how we can help you in taking the first step towards a new way of working.

An award-winning Social Enterprise unleashing the potential of a purpose-driven generation. Visit us at https://www.ilageneration.com/ to learn more.