UN member states finding the MDGs agenda unaccomplished in 2015 adopted the 17 Sustainable Goals programme giving a timeline ending December 2030 with the hope that progress made through achieving all the 17 SDGs would ultimately result in eliminating extreme poverty from the planet, which so far has engulfed almost 8 billion people who are experiencing extreme poverty and need to have a liveable life devoid of hunger and misery.
The most recent SDGs Review Moot held in New York observed that in the case of developing economies on average only 15% success could be recorded due to global setbacks encountered like the Covid pandemic, the war in Ukraine and climatic catastrophes adversely impacting efforts to achieve all the 17 SDGs. In some parts of the globe, the growth process has been reversed. It is particularly in South East Asian countries, where abrupt climatic changes have adversely effected these agrarian economies, particularly impoverished segments of their population mostly rural women.
Economic upheaval and political turmoil in South Asian countries including Pakistan are likely to overshadow other fundamental issues relating to climate change and global developments.
Rural women in agrarian economies of South East Asia are most vulnerable and denied access to agriculture support services due to peculiar social culture setup and restricted women mobility, they are unaware of new techniques of cultivation particularly relating to crop diversity, good quality seeds and fertilisers.
The farm helpers
Agriculturist women in South Asian countries are generally considered farm helpers and not farmers in their own right.
In Pakistan despite women’s all-out participation in farm-related rural activities, they remain obscure in statics relating to the rural active workforce as work on their own farms taking it as part of their routine household duty. Gender-based discrimination is so rampant in a rural culture that women working on farms are given the most laborious and monotonous work to do. Cotton picking and rice seedling tasks being highly energy-consuming are performed by women farmers. For off-farming activities also they are given hard jobs involving less skill.
Female literacy rate in rural areas of all the provinces is very low hovering around 8 to 10%. However, steps are being taken to improve rural females literacy rate through efforts of some NGOs in collaboration with financial institutions, particularly microfinance banks. Emphasis is on imparting vocational skills in areas of livestock, dairy and poultry farming, fish pond cultivation, fruits and vegetables preservation and packing etc. enabling them to get self-employed by setting up their own micro businesses which will ensure employment to other rural women. Some of the financial institutions (particularly First Women Bank Limited) have financed rural women entrepreneurs to set up crop storage / cold storage houses, thus introducing a new off-farm business avenue.
Further, Pakistan Agriculture Technology Transfer Activity (PATTA), a USAID-funded service presently available in the provinces of Sindh and Punjab is also helping women farmers through access to agriculture markets, institutional finance and affordable technologies.
Girls in rural areas, after completing their secondary education instead of going for general higher education must be prompted to take admission in agriculture colleges and universities to develop their expertise in research for new varieties of crops and also improving yields of all crops. It is suggested that basic education regarding the cultivation of major crops, fruits and vegetables should be included in the curriculum of secondary schools.
China’s efforts to lower the poverty level to 5% is the outcome of its focus on developing its agriculture sector through the introduction of market-oriented land reform. In the case of Pakistan, apart from legal reforms, there is a need for proper distribution of agricultural land or market in land use rights, it required to allocate land in such a way that small cultivators including women farmers who own or cultivate small pieces of land inefficiently be allowed low-cost opportunity to increase their productivity.
A move on the part of the Sindh government to allocate land to Harris (farmers) including women farmers in the past and exclusively for women under the recent programme to promote the welfare of women farmers of Sindh, needs to be replicated by other provinces also. This needs to be done under strict monitoring by provincial governments. These land reforms need to be introduced and implemented at the earliest to enable farmers to respond to market incentives by raising output in the wake of the dramatic rise in prices of food crops in the international market. Further land reforms must be accompanied by a comprehensive programme for infrastructure development with an emphasis on the regular water supply to farms.
Farmers particularly women farmers should have easy access to institutional credit. Apart from Zarai Taraqiati Bank and microfinance banks having ample presence in rural areas other conventional banks can have effective links with growers. Through internet and mobile banking to cater to their financial needs. These financial institutions need to expand the scope of their financing products for non-conventional uses like construction of storehouses with or without facility of cold storage etc. The credit needs of nonfarming businesses of rural populations must be addressed in a big way to promote micro and small businesses, which in turn generate employment opportunities for both men and women.
Investment in human capital development for the agriculture sector is equally important with emphasis on women farmers/cultivators. Farmers knowledge regarding new techniques should be developed and updated on a continuous basis. A UK-based nonprofit organisation known as Centre for Agriculture and Bioscience International (CABI) finding wide gender gaps in farming has launched programme for supporting women farmers with plant health knowledge and promoting climate-smart farming practices among women farmers in particular through the use of digital advisory tools. Where women farmers do not have access to digital tools it is being done through the government’s extension department to provide advisory services at their doorstep. In this regard, there is a need to hire more women field assistants as gender-based social norms influence the attitude of male extension staff. Lack of rural women mobility confine training programmes in farming in closed-door spaces and they do not get the opportunity to participate in field demonstration training that is learning by doing things.
No doubt, in this regard government’s motivational efforts/incentives are essential, but women themselves need to go for advanced education in agriculture by seeking admission to agriculture universities and colleges to provide advisory services to women farmers being part of advisory services boards on completion of their education.
Agriculture universities must disseminate the findings of their research work through media and social media regarding new and improved varieties of food and cash crops and techniques to be used for the cultivation of these crops with the highest yield and quality.