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News Story
21 January 2019

What does male out-migration mean for women in rural South Asia?

Nepali women working in rice field

Photo by Stephanie Leder ©

Migration is not only transforming rural economies, but also changes gender relations. Male out-migration to cities or abroad has become widespread in the Eastern Gangetic Plains, a huge swathe of agricultural land that includes parts of India, Bangladesh and Nepal and that’s home to 300 million people.

By all means, looking for new opportunities makes sense – economic uncertainty in the area has increased the costs of agricultural inputs like diesel, fertilizer and irrigation equipment. In the meantime, droughts, floods and cyclones associated with climate change don’t help making agriculture more attractive, but a risky business. But when men leave, women stay behind with their children and elderly, bearing the work at home and on the fields.

What happens to agricultural land after men leave?

Clearly, emigration is an adaptation strategy. This way, men continue supporting their families through regular money transfers. However, these remittances do not increase investment in agriculture, and so there is little incentive for people to advance their agricultural skills and techniques. As a result, a lot of agricultural land is left fallow and neglected.

The nature of land administration adds to the problem. Land is inherited among sons, so it is often, divided into small, fragmented plots, which don’t allow for economies of scale. Landowners would often rent out their land to tenant farmers. But as more and more landowners work in the city or abroad, leases are becoming insecure, which reduces incentives for the tenants to invest in land.

What do women do after men leave?

Class, caste and family structures play a big role in the region, particularly in terms of the right to land ownership. Normally, young wives and women of higher castes should not engage in heavy agricultural work due to the so-called purdah, or cleanliness, principle. But even this is changing, since men are not around. Of course, those who have land and capital are better off than others because they can hire workers and receive agricultural subsidies and services, but land ownership is not common among women.

The real burden of increased workload falls on the lower-caste female workers, smallholders and tenants. These women have to continue their everyday household tasks, such as cooking, cleaning and caring for children and grandparents while also engaging in farming. Normally, when men are around, women are responsible for weeding and harvesting on the farm. With male out-migration, women have no choice but to take on new agricultural tasks, such as sowing, working with irrigation systems as well as purchasing seeds, pesticides and fertilizers at local markets from (often male) traders.

Women purchase goods at local market

Photo by Stephanie Leder ©

Shifting gender roles

“Female-headed households” are becoming more common in many communities in the Eastern Gangetic Plains. The women are becoming increasingly mobile and their voices are heard and shared in public.

However, while women have more power in decision-making at a household and community level, they are reporting higher emotional stress. Heavy workload as well as the lack of regular communication and discussion with their husbands creates anxiety as women have to make the decisions about potential loans, agricultural markets or which pesticides to buy. What is more, remittances do not provide regular income and often women need to work as agricultural laborers to ensure food security for their families too.

Another strong defining factor of gender roles is culture. For example, plowing is a task done by men only, which increases the dependence on other male family members or neighbours in the absence of husbands. Social networks in general are patriarchal. This means that women find it difficult to access water and land resources, or even influence decisions on resource distribution. In other words, the existing social structures do not respond to the ongoing socio-economic trends – women have to replace those men who left for city jobs, but social institutions restrict this change.

Everyday agricultural activities for women

Photo by Stephanie Leder ©

How to improve the situation?

While cultural change does not happen overnight, women can together improve water and land resource management though collective action. Working in farmer groups can help overcome challenges with restrictive leases, fragmentation of land and its neglect, and low agricultural investment. Working in farmer groups can also boost women’s self-esteem and strengthen their peasant identity.

The idea of agricultural collectives is based on the assumption that agricultural productivity can be improved through fairer and less risky land leases, the increase of arable land, the increase in bargaining power when women unite under a cooperative. However, the motivation and interest of members in the collectives highly depend on crop success.

Some examples show that the collective approach to water and land resource management can change social structures and agricultural production. For instance, 18 farmer collectives in six villages of the region have been formed mostly by women. These groups were offered support on agricultural and gender trainings  for female and male smallholders and tenant farmers. Preliminary results confirm that cultivating contiguous land is more profitable and motivates joint investment and equipment management. In some cases, bargaining power between women famers and landowners has improved too.

“Together we work, alone I become worried. Thanks to collective labor management, we can divide work at a larger plot. When we are together, we work for one hour, but when I am alone, I have to work for at least three hours. I can skip a day if I can’t come. Of course, we have conflicts as some have more children to take care of than others (and less time to spend on the field), so we separate our plots, but help out if needed,“ says Ditya, a member of one of the farmer collectives in the Khoksar Parbaha village, in the Eastern Terai of Nepal. Ditya is illiterate and adds another benefit of farmer collective: “We have become smarter in bargaining – now we first find out different rates, and then we buy.”

Food security, higher self-esteem and pride for peasant identity do not come easy, but jointly, women can work through the difficulties.

After focus group discussion at the Eastern Terai, Nepal

Photo by Stephanie Leder ©

This story is based on an ongoing project “Improving dry-season irrigation for marginal, tenant and women farmers” funded by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR).

Stephanie Leder, is the lead gender researcher of the project and postdoctoral researcher at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU). She has been working in this project since 2014, when she was a postdoc at the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) in Kathmandu, Nepal.  She has just received a four-year Formas mobility grant of Formas, the Swedish Research Council for Environment, Agricultural Sciences and Spatial Planning for the project “Revitalizing community-managed irrigation systems in contexts of out-migration in Nepal” (4.5 Mio SEK).