Does men’s migration empower women? Not necessarily

by Alina Paul-Bossuet | Water, Land and Ecosystems, CGIAR
Friday, 10 March 2017 14:44 GMT

A self-help group meets in in Madhya Kuttimari village in India. Photo: Alina Paul-Bossuet

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When the men go and women run farming, they still come up against plenty of barriers

Life is now even harder for Ram Kumari Chaudhary from Amaduwa village in Nepal’s Terai region.

“Since my husband left for the Gulf to find a job, my workload has increased. Along with my daily house chores, I now have to do my husband’s work too. The manual work like maintaining the tube-well or cutting bamboos is tough and it is also hard to take decisions alone.”

Almost all families in Amaduwa village have at least one male member who has migrated abroad.

Located at the end of the Sitagunj canal, access to irrigation water in this village is very limited and frequent droughts mean farms are not cultivated during the dry season. Agriculture does not provide enough food security and income, and there are not many non-farming livelihood options in the village. Many survive on remittances sent by husbands and sons who have left to work in urban areas.

This male-exodus from agriculture does not necessarily empower the women left behind as the poverty square gender circles project found out. Researchers have analysed six agricultural development initiatives in Nepal’s Terai region, North of West Bengal in India and North Bangladesh to see how such programmes address the well-known gender gap in access to resources like irrigation.

Changes in gender relations flow slowly in the Ganges plains

In this region of the Eastern Gangetic Plains, irrigation is a man’s job. Women are excluded from what is seen as “heavy” farm work like irrigating or ploughing. In such traditional communities, women are also not expected to go to public spaces like the market, and negotiate with men over the rent of irrigation pump sets. This can be seen as “immoral” by some community members.

Under the constant scrutiny of society, women have to be either very poor, or have strong characters to divert from the norm.

“Mistakes made by men are ignored, but society keeps eyes wide open to judge every move made by women. Women are not unequal but society makes them unequal,” says Anu Chaudhari, a woman from Ekamba village in Nepal.

Many development programmes in the region try to lift farmers out of food insecurity and poverty through better access to irrigation water, but they often fail to reach female headed households due to these entrenched gender inequalities. The only gender sensitive policy measure identified by researchers in the irrigation sector is to ensure a third of water user association (WUA) committee members are women.

But ensuring this quota is met is not enough. In practice women are rarely involved in making decisions within the WUA and officials from the Department of Agriculture unsurprisingly do not challenge the social norms.

When women are questioned about what empowerment would be for them, they do not mention participation in the WUA or greater involvement in farm work. Instead they want access to income-generating activities, cash and greater power to decide on how it could be spent.

What women want

Many development programmes with a gender component focus on technical approaches, e.g. access to irrigation to boost farm productivity, to bring true social empowerment for women. These schemes are often exploited by the village elite, by-passing the poorest and the women, and having little impact on women’s empowerment.

The Anandadhara programme, started in 2012 in West Bengal, India, aims at providing credit and support to women’s self-help groups (SHG), as well as providing better knowledge of and access to rights, entitlements and public services for women members. SHGs could be a valuable platform to improve gender equality.

However, to have a tangible impact on women’s empowerment, self-help groups need to widen their skill development component.

“It would be better to bring me a job!” said one self-help group member.

In the studied villages, off-farm activities are limited and the degradation of ecosystems further worsens the situation. In Uttar Khalpara village in West Bengal, the traditional weaving of hokla leaves, one of the rare local crafts women do at home to earn an income, is dying out because the forests have been cut back due to population increase and linked land pressures. Women want to try potato or goat farming.

Appropriate training, e.g. in better livestock feeding or marketing of traditional crafts, could increase livelihood options among self-help group members.

One potentially interesting approach is the participatory livelihoods planning workshops organised by the NGO Rajarhat Prasari in Salbari district in North Bengal. The non-governmental organisation proposes skills development for eco-friendly practices like vermicompost, adapted to homestead vegetable production to boost the family’s food security.

A big constraint for women to commit themselves to an income-generating activity is their heavy domestic workload. In Madhya Khuttimari village for instance, Santhi had to give up her position of Self-Help Group Federation secretary, when her husband complained about her lack of time for household duties.

Self-help groups could be the platform to talk about collective solutions to reduce household chores, a concrete step to mobilize and empower women. Putting in resources to implement this social agenda would certainly bring concrete solutions to ease the lives of Ram Kumari and other vulnerable women in the Eastern Gangetic Plains. They would then be able to have a bigger stake in reducing their family’s food insecurity and poverty.