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From Farming to Female Empowerment

Evidence shows that an increase in women's representation in agriculture – as can be seen today in South Asia – does not guarantee their socioeconomic empowerment. But that does not mean that it cannot.

KUALA LUMPUR – South Asia’s record on gender equality is weak, to say the least. The region has the world’s highest rate of child marriage, and domestic violence against women is pervasive. Women are over-represented in unpaid work, and under-represented in the labor force, even in countries like Sri Lanka, which has invested heavily in girls’ schooling. Yet there is one sector where women are taking over: agriculture. This is an opportunity for women’s economic empowerment that should not be missed.

As South Asian economies develop, men are increasingly pursuing employment in manufacturing (or overseas), leaving women responsible for a growing share of agricultural labor. In Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, and Pakistan, the share of economically active women working in farming now ranges from 60-98%. In each of these countries’ agricultural sectors, women outnumber men.

A comparable shift occurred in some high-income countries during World War II. As men left for the battlefield, women filled the vacant civilian jobs – including farming. In the United States, for example, the share of female agricultural workers jumped from 8% in 1940 to 22.4% in 1945.