Farm-work is considered to be one of the most hazardous occupations for men and women. Usually farmers and farm workers suffer from a certain number of similar diseases such as increased rates of respiratory diseases, noise-induced hearing loss, skin disorders, certain cancers, chemical toxicity, and heat-related illnesses. Different research suggests that sex/gender shapes hazardous workplace exposures and outcomes for farmworkers. Referring the NFWM report, undocumented farm worker women generally earn minimum wage or less, have no health insurance, and receive no sick or vacation days, in addition to the other challenges they face. Studies also show that women in the rural world face many inequalities. Currently, about a third of the sector is occupied by women but the data indicate that women’s farms are smaller, less profitable and have more difficulties accessing credit and innovation.
Referring to the Solidarity Center fact-sheet named " Woman workers in agro-industry are replacing men in the least-secure, worst-paid and most labor-intensive farm jobs. Spurred by the necessity to financially support their families and the lack of available jobs near their homes, rural women in developing countries are relocating from their homes to work on commercial farms or in agricultural processing plants. Agriculture remains the most important source of employment for women in low-income and lower- and middle-income countries.
This article takes into account the social, gendered realities, and especially gender-based constraints of men and women work-farmers. Also in this article, we examine woman farmworkers’ vulnerability and threats due to the nature of their work. Women working on farms are usually exposed to a multitude of biologic, chemical, physical, and mechanical agents affecting their health and safety.
According to the Solidarity Center fact sheet on Woman Workers in Agro – Industry, almost 564 million women work in agriculture; one-third of the world’s total female population is employed in agriculture, either on privately owned farms or as wage workers on commercial farm; also on average, women comprise about 43 percent of the agricultural labor force in developing countries.
As we all know, women have anatomical and physiological differences that may place them at risk for farm injuries and diseases. Referring to the report published in the National Agricultural Safety Database - NASD (which is a web-based repository of articles, fact sheets, research reports, presentations, and video abstracts) named Women in Agriculture: Risks for Occupational Injury, females also have narrower shoulders, wider hips and proportionally have shorter legs and arms than their male counterparts. Also, as stated in the NASD report, on average upper body strength is 40% - 75% less in females than in males, while lower body strength is 5% - 30% less in females. The higher prevalence of shoulder-neck disorders among women in industry has been associated with weaker muscle strength in the upper body. However, other literature reports that both strength and endurance were similar for men and women when body composition and size were controlled (Falkel, Sawka, Levine, & Pandolk, 1985; Hosler & Morrow, 1982). Also, excessive physical strain has been associated with injury events in women. Ahonen, Venalainen, Kononen and Klen (1990) reported the physical strain of dairy farming to be high in women because of heavy work tasks and relatively low maximal oxygen uptake (VO2max).
Limited access to knowledge
Health and safety education for the agricultural population is most often aimed at men and most farm tools and equipment are geared toward the male physique.
Different studies show that farm women do not have the same access to transfer of knowledge in the farming culture as male farmers do. As mentioned in the report published in NASD journal named Women in Agriculture, major constraining factor for transfer of knowledge was the attitude parents held about what is acceptable farm work for girls. Furthermore, current farm-related agricultural extension services are mainly geared toward male farmers.
Zeuli and Levins (1995) reported that among women farmers in Minnesota, lack of knowledge was a major issue. They reported that sons were given more opportunities to learn about farming than daughters were, because sons were considered the future farmers. One farm woman stated that it was only after she took over the family farm that her father taught her how to farm. Others have reported that daughters were less likely to be taught about tractors (Kidd, Townley, Cole, McKnight, & Piercy, 1997) and were less familiar with rollover protection (Schulman, Evensen, Runyan, Cohen, & Dunn, 1997). Jones-Webb and Nickols (1984) identified care and operation of large equipment among the educational needs of farm women.
Pesticide exposure is a great contributor to farm women health problems and occurs mostly because of inaccurate mixing and careless use. Women in the fields are exposed to toxic pesticides through direct spraying, breathing in pesticide drift, and touching pesticide residue on the skin and clothing. Among the diseases that were reported to occur most frequently were upper respiratory infections, hypertension, gynecological diseases, rheumatoid and joint diseases, pregnancy complications, skin infection, nonfungal bronchial asthma, and diabetes mellitus.
A study by Wellesley College links pesticide exposure to infertility, miscarriages, and birth defects in babies. When women are exposed to pesticides, their fetus or children are also exposed through transplacental transfer or breastfeeding, respectively. As a result of this exposure, a growing fetus or child may suffer adverse health effects such as neurodevelopmental disorders.
Many of the effects of pesticides in human health will be the same for men and women, but women have a unique susceptibility to pesticides because of their physiological characteristics, lifestyle, and behavior. Some organochlorine pesticides have been related to breast cancer in post-menopausal women. However, knowledge about other pesticides is much more limited. Epidemiological studies assessing maternal exposure to individual pesticides and abortion, fetal death, or congenital defects are not conclusive, although some suggestive associations have been observed.
It is also worth noting that pesticide-related education on women has an important role in increasing knowledge about pesticides’ risks and how to avoid exposure.
Women’s contribution to agricultural production
Women play a significant role in the agricultural labour force and in agricultural activities. Their contribution to agricultural output is definitely extremely important, although difficult to quantify with any accuracy. Studies often show that women produce 60-80 percent of food. However, assigning contributions to agricultural outputs by gender is problematic because in most agricultural households both men and women are involved in crop production. It can be attempted to divide output by gender by assuming that specific crops are grown by women and others by men and then aggregating the value of women’s and men’s crops to determine the share grown by women. Researchers have occasionally used this approach. Yet, a careful analysis of agriculture in Ghana finds that while there are gendered patterns of cropping, the differences between men’s and women’s crops do not hold up well enough to use them to make inferences about men’s and women’s relative contribution to production. In addition, gendered patterns of cropping may change over time.
A direct comparison of production is possible between male- and female-headed households, but since the latter tend to have smaller farms and use fewer purchased inputs, their output is naturally smaller. Female-headed households represent between 3 and 38 percent of all households and produce between 2 and 17 percent of the value of food produced. These data suggest that female-headed households produce less than their share would predict if resource use and productivity were equal with male-headed households. The claim is often heard that women produce 60 to 80 percent of food in most developing countries and half of the world’s food supply Sometimes the statement is qualified in various ways, specifying that it refers to local food production or a particular geographic region. Each definition and metric gives a different picture of the contribution of women. Nonetheless women play a fundamental role in all the stages of the food cycle in all regions, but these roles differ by region. Taking account of the heterogeneity of their contribution is essential if policies and interventions are to be effective.
Based on all of the information provided in this article, it is possible to fully understand that women play a key role in agriculture. They are farmers and farm workers, ranchers, agricultural researchers, and educators. And, they also contribute to local food systems, direct farm marketing, farm business planning/management, and more.
As mentioned before women farmers experience more health and safety risks than men due to their physical differences, limited access to information regarding farming culture, and pesticide exposure.
Lastly this article explores some of the main reasons why women’s contribution to agricultural production is very important.