The Underrepresented Female Farmer

It is difficult to comprehend or even believe there was a time when women couldn’t vote, hold public office, or contribute their intellect to the socioeconomic or political sphere. Still, these appalling facts are worth digesting for a simple reason: They provide the foundation for hope and restoration, and remind us that change is not only possible, but also inevitable.

For the female farmer in rural Zambia, change is especially crucial. Though a growing number of farmers are female, their male counterparts still largely hold the monopoly on resource acquisition and distribution, decision-making, and large-scale production of crops or animals. The female farmer is relegated to the limited domain of subsistence farming and with the sole expectation that she only farms enough to feed her immediate family. To add to this unbalance, the land she cultivates often doesn’t belong to her, and when it does, she still faces a myriad of hardships common to rural areas such as poor transportation networks, scarcity of water supply, long distances between markets, and lack of effective equipment.

United Nations Women describes women’s economic empowerment as women’s ability to participate equally in existing markets; their access to and control over productive resources, access to decent work, control over their own time, lives and bodies; and increased voice, agency and meaningful participation in economic decision-making at all levels from the household to international institutions. In rural Zambia, all these facets of women’s empowerment are still contentious and largely unrealised. The stronger arms and deeper voices belong to the men, a biological fact that becomes a double-edged metaphor for socioeconomic oppression both in the home and out in the fields. Despite providing for family and by extension the community and society at large, the female farmer is under-represented, poorly supported, marginalised, and overburdened with caregiving responsibilities that rob her of productivity time and proper investment into turning her agricultural activities and ambitions into large-scale ventures.

Worldwide, rural and urban women alike have societal and cultural expectations placed on them that stifle their personal and economic growth. In his article, “How Culture Affects Our Value of Women,” Forbes council member, Dr. Shawn Andrews, writes, “One student of mine described her 90-year-old Indian grandmother having to cook and clean up after four adult men in the household, even though she had trouble getting around herself. A Mexican student expressed that she was expected to cook all meals and do laundry for her brothers who were never taught these skills. Her brothers were told they didn’t need to learn these skills because “that’s girls’ work.” A Korean student detailed her desire to play sports when she was young and begged her parents over and over, but her parents only allowed piano because that was “more suitable for girls.”

These shocking scenes are an unpleasant reminder that though the world has come a long way in accepting women’s rights and liberties, huge gaps still exist; sometimes as undertones: The casual sexist remark, the subtle manipulations in the form of emotional blackmail or gender-criticism, the insidious pressure on women to fill roles such as ‘wife,’ ‘caregiver,’ or ‘mother’ and be so consumed by them, there is room for little else.

When these gaps don’t exist as undertones, they exist as aggressive overtones. The World Bank describes gender-based violence as a global pandemic that affects one out of three women in their lifetime. The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) states, “Of the world’s 774 million illiterate adults, two thirds are women. The share of illiterate women has not changed for the past 20 years. Among the world’s 123 million illiterate youth, 76 million are female. These gender disparities remain persistent, with little change over time.”

The rural woman might not be aware of these dismal statistics, but she lives their reality every day. She is so greatly impacted by gender inequalities and injustices, that her contribution to economic wealth is curtailed by the same system that claims to want to end poverty. Gender gaps cost a country’s economy roughly 15 percent of its GDP. The World Economic Forum also estimates that over 60 percent of all employed women in Sub-Saharan Africa work in agriculture but are largely disempowered. These are the ironies ignored by a society that wants progressive change but is hesitant to fully support the primary driver of that change: The female farmer.

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