Written by Dinesh Panday, YPARD Nepal Representative
Nepalese agriculture is typically characterized by smallholder, traditional and subsistence farming; however, recent declines in agricultural production have depressed rural economies and increased widespread hunger and urban migration. The agricultural sector of Nepal experienced several changes over time. The most common trend is the out-migration of males from villages across the country, which has fueled a “feminization of agriculture”: women engagement in agriculture has increased from 8 to 19 percent in the last 10 years (6th National Agriculture Census, 2013). This demographic change has created new opportunities but also many challenges for the women left behind.
Nepalese women have always played an important and often unrecognized role in the traditional agriculture sector that employs nearly 83 percent of the population, with 60 percent of farmers unable to feed from their own production. To improve agricultural productivity, government policies have generally focused on agricultural diversification and commercialization for broad growth and poverty reduction. However, family farmers are still greatly deprived and there is no appropriate alternative approach and programs to address the issue.
The majority of agricultural lands are small with an average size of 0.6 ha. The proportion of agricultural lands remaining fallow and those converted for non-agricultural purpose is rapidly increasing. At the same time, farm sizes have continuously been fragmented, and there is less food available per household which has adversely affected food security. Around 40 percent of the population is 16 to 40 years old. Many youth feel discouraged by insufficient education and employment opportunities, and lack the confidence they need to play productive leadership roles in their communities. Our education system seems to be counterproductive for agricultural development in Nepal and many youth are discouraged to pursue agriculture as a career option. Generally, agriculture is perceived as lowest grade occupation.
The phenomenon of agricultural feminization has created a shortage of labor force leaving only senior citizens, women and children in the villages while men migrate to cities for alternative jobs. This has created two problems: reduction of agricultural production and an increased burden for women and children. Similarly, modern agricultural technologies have brought more male friendly developed agricultural tools, resulting in difficulties for female farmers. Women in agriculture thus face the triple-challenge of managing farm productivity, accessing financial resources and securing land ownership. Against this backdrop, investing in women and empowering them through new techniques and access to agricultural inputs is essential to yield better incomes and improved quality of life for rural families.
So why is the important role of women in agriculture still not recognized? Primarily, this discrepancy between women’s potential and their current limited opportunities is due to a lack of access to land based on widely held cultural beliefs that farming is not a suitable career for a woman. Women are not encouraged to become farmers by either men or women and therefore do not aspire to be farmers. There is fear of encouraging the role of women as it could undermine the role of men.
Facing these challenges, communication and information sharing is an effective strategy to address the objectives and desires of women in agriculture. For us, it is very important to radically change both primary and secondary methods of teaching and to improve the standard of university education so that we can encourage our bright kids to stay in villages and run family farms. As a recent FAO publication states: “secure land tenure, empowering of women and public investment in education, health, transport and research are among the key requirements needed to promote sustainable family farming in mountain regions.” In order to promote young people, there is also a need for financial assistance and access to resources, such as technical knowledge, finances, water, seeds, fertilizers, equipment, technologies and markets.
Governments need to develop suitable policies and institutional linkages which can facilitate and strengthen family farming. Family farming is much more essential than an economic agrarian model, since it is the backbone for livelihoods, employment, food security and poverty reduction. It ensures sustainable management of land and associated biodiversity, and is the foundation of local people’s culture.