Until recently women in Bangladesh hardly participated in agricultural activities outside their homes. A number of studies conducted in the 1980s and 1990s found that their contribution to socio-economic development was not visible due to a set of social norms that enabled men to dominate women. But it is found that women work more hours than men particularly in low-income households, more in agriculture than in non-agricultural economic activities, and more as unpaid family labourers than as farm managers. Even if they do most of the work, men mostly control the power of making decisions and incomes generated from such work. Women's economic activities were confined to homestead production and post-harvest operations. A few researchers, however, found some evidence of women's marginal engagement in marketing of agricultural produce within the village. Women rarely went to the market place which was the domain of their male relatives. But they conducted minor transactions within a village on poultry, eggs and goats, and providing small loans to other women from their savings.
A rigorous analysis of the 1983-84 Agricultural Census found marginal involvement of women in agricultural activities outside their homesteads. The study noted that 43 per cent of women had agriculture as their primary occupation outside their domestic work, and another 12 per cent had agriculture as their secondary occupation. The rate of engagement in agriculture was found higher among the landless and the marginal landowning households than among medium and large farmers. The analysis also revealed high participation rate of women as wage-earning agricultural labourers among landless households. In female-headed landless households, two-thirds of women worked as agricultural labourers.
Rushidan Islam Rahman of the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS) found that adoption of improved agricultural practices and intensive cultivation had little impact on women's participation in the labour market but it increased their work load due to additional harvest .For the majority of women from small households, the technology adoption increased their work load in post-harvest processing, drying and seed selection activities often exclusively done by women within the homesteads. Women from large farm households, however, could shirk additional load by employing hired female labour from landless and marginal landowning households.
When looked into women's control over resources and participation in decision-making, it was observed that although women are entitled to inherit 33 per cent of parental property after death of their fathers, majority of them did not claim their share. They perceived that "it is no good to claim the share from the brothers" because if they do, they cannot claim any support from them in case of widowhood or divorce. The study reported that women often had ownership rights to livestock and poultry, and they could keep the sale proceeds of such assets. This observation is confirmed in the study on women's role in agriculture.
Several studies focused on women's empowerment in terms of degree of participation in decision-making which could improve women's status in the family and thereby reduce gender inequality. The studies used indicators such as decision-making by husband and wife (or jointly) in such affairs as choice of crops and varieties, use of inputs, marketing of products, sale of assets, education and health care of children and their marriage. One such study revealed that women participate very little in decisions regarding how much rice to sell, whether or not to send the rice for husking to the mill, or whether or not to hire female labourers. These decisions are mostly taken by the husband alone in consultation with in-laws. In rare cases, the decision was taken jointly by husband and wife. However, decisions with regard to treatment of poultry and livestock and planting of trees and vegetables in the home garden were taken either by the wife alone or by the wife and the husband together. Only in a few cases did women take decisions alone regarding taking loans or maintaining household finances. The studies also looked into whether women could decide on how to spend the income they earn through employment. It was noted that employment for wages did not lead to female autonomy or empowerment. This finding is not surprising because, as reported by researchers, most women who find wage employment outside their own house (bari) come from extremely poor economic background, forced to take up such employment for survival. Women in such jobs were paid in kind--rice or other food items--that they shared with the family.
Microfinance is generally thought to be an effective means of improving women's status and overall household welfare that also contribute to empowering women economically and socially. Since micro-lending programmes target women and the poorest section of the population, its expansion should increase women's participation in agricultural activities. But because of limited ownership of land, such participation may be confined to home-based activities like homestead gardening, poultry and livestock rearing, etc. Studies documenting the impact of micro-credit on women's involvement in agriculture are rare. S Hashemi, a researcher on women's empowerment long ago, showed that participation in credit programmes is positively associated with woman's level of empowerment which is a function of her relative physical mobility, economic security, ability to make various purchases on her own, freedom from domination and violence within the family, political and legal awareness, and participation in public protests and political campaigning. This implies that women's participation in economic activities can automatically increase their overall status and make them empowered. But there are contrary views too. Some observers, however, note that women are usually used as tools for availability of micro-credit to the household, as women share the money borrowed with their male relatives. They engage themselves in economic activities only in a small fraction of cases. If women refuse to share the money with male relatives, it may lead to more domestic violence and deepen their miseries. Micro-credit, however, has led to increase in women's participation in poultry, livestock and home gardening.
The writer is Professor of Economics at Jahangirnagar University.