Rural Women Farmers in Malawi Participate in a Focus Group Discussion
(Photo: Claire Jordan)
International Day of Rural Women is an opportunity to bring awareness to the profound ways women living in rural communities around the world contribute to society, as well as the ways they are underrepresented and hindered. Rural women farmers, in particular, have the opportunity to shape a global food system in response to the needs of a growing population and a changing planet, but they need support. For example, it has been proven that women tend to farm more on smaller plots of land utilizing fewer resources, creating more sustainable farms. At the same time, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that global agricultural yields would increase between 2.5 and four percent if female farmers had the same opportunities and resources as their male counterparts. When thinking in terms of food security, that is a significant change in the amount of food produced.
With women accounting for 60 to 80 percent of small-holder farmers internationally, and with 70 percent of the rural poor being women whose livelihoods depend on agriculture, it is crucial that not only today, but every day, rural women farmers are recognized and included in future food security planning.
While they face myriad challenges, four major issues impact rural women farmers across the continents, including climate change, water insecurity, soil infertility, and gender disparities – and often each compounds the other. Let’s look at some examples from Bolivia, Malawi, India, Greece, Australia and the United States:
People all around our planet are seeing the impacts of a changing climate and rural women farmers are especially at-risk. In Bolivia, for example, climate change causes myriad environmental problems—such as reduced rainfall, drought, temperature fluctuations, soil degradation, water pollution, and deforestation—that are specifically detrimental to farmers. Due to the cultural and economic positions Bolivian women are in, they have fewer options for finding alternative livelihoods when climate change destroys their crop yields.
In India, over four-fifths of the women in rural areas work in agriculture. According to a study done by the Australian Center for International Agricultural Research, the biggest problems women farmers in India face are climate related, like increased heat and a change in rainfall patterns; an increase in pests and insects; and lower seed quality. Because women are the seed keepers in India, the lack of variety and diversity in the seed market places a heavy toll on these farmers. The same study stated that women farmers and women-headed households in India were more susceptible to shocks from the environmental damages caused by climate change— which is compounded by cultural gender norms that inhibit women from holding land titles, and result in limited control over assets, and displacement.
Likewise, Malawi is one of the countries most affected by climate change. It has been noted that subsistence farmers in rural parts of Malawi are at the forefront of fighting climate change. With 70 percent of the agricultural labor force in Malawi being women, women farmers in rural areas of the country deal the most with the effects of climate change, similar to those faced by their peers in South America and Asia.
Women harvesting rice in the Himalaya Mountains in Dharmasala
(Photo: Kaiulani Kimbrell)
Too much or too little rainfall, and unpredictable and extreme flooding and drought patterns can have drastic effects on rural farmworkers in any community. As with the effects of climate change on agriculture, rural women farmers often feel the brunt of these impacts. Reduced water security in Bolivia is particularly apparent to women. Because women in Bolivia are the ones who tend to manage the farm and ensure that food and water are on the table while men move to urban areas for different jobs, it is women who become most susceptible to changes in quality and quantity of water.
Similarly, erratic rainfall patterns in other parts of the world make once-dependable planting and growing seasons difficult to rely on. Malawi has experienced severe droughts and shorter rainy seasons as a result of climate change, and according to The International Food Policy Research Institute, Malawi loses an average of 1.7 percent of its GDP yearly with small scale farmers most affected. Women there have to walk longer distances regularly to retrieve water. This limits their time on the farm and hinders their ability to adapt to drought.
Soil health and quality are essential to successful farming. In the United States, rural communities are plagued by environmental impact issues resulting from the reduction in small farms and the rapid expansion of industrial agriculture. Producers on rural farms in the U.S. experience soil fertility depletion from monocrop planting; soil erosion; lost biodiversity and ecosystem services; and increased costs of irrigation from barren soils and inability to combat drought. Most farms in the U.S. operated by women are small farms with annual sales of less than $10,000. This clearly puts these women farmers at a disadvantage when having to deal with the negative ramifications of industrial agriculture.
Climate change and erratic rainfall have also resulted in reduced soil fertility and soil erosion in Malawi. Flooding followed by drought couples with deforestation to cause increased erosion and sedimentation rates. Women’s inability to seek work elsewhere, and their resulting lower yields, makes them more vulnerable to these environmental problems and further hurts their livelihoods.
The environmental barriers to securing successful livelihoods that rural women already face are too-often compounded by cultural gender inequalities.
In Greece, for example, there is a significant gender pay gap that results in women farmers earning less, often having to seek out other sources of income. Additionally, a gender division of labor exists, forcing women farmers to tend to the land, as well as household duties and tasks. This decreases their chances of seeking further off-farm employment due to less available time, making it more difficult for them to finance the strategies needed to combat the environmental problems in rural Greece.
In Australia, women comprise half of the rural workforce, yet are severely underrepresented in the decision-making processes of agricultural politics. So while environmental problems like land degradation, water quality issues, and climate change continue to burden rural women farmers, their insight is not valued. Rural Australian women face the added challenge of overcoming cultural barriers, like gender discrimination, in order to adapt and deal with these environmental problems and the effects of climate change.
Likewise, gender disparities realted to limited access to agricultural resources, limited market access, and time allocation, have contributed to the disempowerment of women farmers in Malawi.
In the Andes Mountains of rural Bolivia, soil erosion is most-limiting to communities and furthers the cycle of poverty. With Bolivian women taking on the burden of ensuring food security, they experience this specific problem more than their male counterparts.
It is clear to see that not only are rural women farmers incredibly resilient and hardworking, but without their input on environmental issues and increased equality, food security and the global food system will continue to be at risk. So today while you’re eating a meal, think of the rural women farmers around the world who continue to persevere through the most difficult times to put food on your table and their own.
 Dutt, K. L. (2014). Experiencing and coping with change: Women-headed farming households in the Eastern Gangetic Plains. ACIAR Technical Reports, 83, 1-66.
 Gidarakou, I. (1999). Young Women’s Attitudes Towards Agriculture and Women’s New Roles in the Greek Countryside: A First Approach. Journal of Rural Studies, 15(2), 145-158.
 Stratigaki, M. (1988). Agricultural Modernization And Gender Division Of Labour: The case of Heraklion, Greece. Sociologia Ruralis, 28(4), 248-262.
 Hughes, L., Rickards, L., Steffen, W., Stock, P., & Rice, M. (2016). On The Frontline: Climate Change & Rural Communities.
 Zimmerer, K. S. (1993). Soil Erosion and Labor Shortages in the Andes With Special Reference to Bolivia, 1953-1991: Implications for “Conservation-With-Development”. World Development, 21(10), 1659-1675.