More women are working in farming in northern Tajikistan than ever before, spurred by male labour migration and privatization of the agricultural sector. As men leave for other countries in search of higher pay, women are taking the lead in the household and contributing to supporting their families. They are juggling the demands of their households with casual work to cover the basic needs.
These are some of the findings of a recent research paper by Ms Nozilakhon Mukhamedova and Dr Kai Wegerich, two researchers at the International Water Management Institute (IWMI). The report (see here) sheds new light on the rising phenomenon of feminization in agriculture by looking at land reforms and the feminization of agricultural labour in Sughd Region, northern Tajikistan. In particular the report examines changing patterns of labour relations and women's roles in meeting the basic needs through sustaining livelihoods in rural areas of Tajikistan.
According to World Bank Indicators (2009), women make up 44.1 per cent of the labour force in Tajikistan. Today agriculture accounts for 75 per cent of total employment in the country. As men see few opportunities for higher income at home, they prefer to work abroad. The International Organization for Migration (2012) estimates that annual labour migration reaches some 62 per cent of the labour force in Sughd Region. This regular outflow of male workforce leaves considerable gaps in the local job market. And it is women who are taking up the slack. Women can be found doing lots of different agricultural activities.
However, the increased involvement of women in agriculture is also a result of land reforms. Ms Mukhamedova points out that these reforms also played a part. For example, the Tajik government passed a law on dehkan farms, midsized peasant farms, in 2002. This has led to an upsurge of new types of private farms, including family farms and farming partnerships. But new farms are often small and cannot offer well-paid regular jobs. So they hire casual workers to meet changing demands and peak workloads. These low-paid day jobs attract mainly women who have family commitments and cannot work full-time.
Low wages and poor conditions, however, do not seem to be putting women off farming. The authors put this down to lack of other employment opportunities. Women have at least some way of earning money for their basic needs. Not only are they acquiring new roles but are also occupying multiple parallel activities. They are learning new skills too. What is more, they usually organize themselves into groups to have more bargaining power with potential employers and meet their labour requirements.
The authors note that this change in roles is also bringing about a shift in cultural perceptions. Women are no longer shy of doing jobs previously dominated by men. They have filled almost every niche of agriculture: from preparing land to planting and irrigating. Women are finding it easier now to work as day labourers and do different casual jobs. This kind of employment has its own benefits: flexibility and daily income. They are sometimes paid in cash and produce.
But there is also the flip side to this situation. There are no official contracts. Women and their employers make only a verbal agreement. Also, these jobs do not contribute to future pensions and there is no long-term financial security. Finally, women depend on more types of agricultural work to ensure day-to-day as well as long-term livelihood security.
This study has broad implications. It shows that efforts aimed at agricultural development need to widen their focus to target this layer of population. Furthermore, reforms of employment protection legislation are also necessary. As the authors note, it is essential for all farms and agricultural institutions to learn more about the needs of women employed in agriculture and create better incentives for women so that they can earn more and look after their families at the same time. The authors hope that this study will lead to wider acknowledgment of these women's contributions to agricultural production and their roles in helping to improve rural livelihoods.