For women farmers in the hills and mountains of Nepal, work is gruelling, manifold and thankless.
Most available farm machines are often more suitable for men than women. They are also unaffordable for smallholder farmers, who have little or no information on subsidies. Limited land ownership by women makes it difficult for them to obtain collateral-free loans easily. The existing outreach and extension services, along with credit and market services, too fail to target and reach women
With traditional gender-based divisions of labour dismantling because of the ever-increasing outmigration of men, women have had to shoulder more responsibility on the farms while also managing household work. Women have been compelled to take on tasks traditionally taken on by men –such as land preparation, harvest and post-harvest activities, and agricultural marketing.
Moreover, their contributions remain unpaid, invisible to their own families and communities, and unaccounted for in government policies and agricultural programmes.
While efforts have been made to relieve this burden and allow women greater freedom to manage their resources, most women farmers continue to have limited access to land and ownership (only one in five women in Nepal owns land), farming tools and technologies, training opportunities, information, financial credit and extension services.
Mountain agriculture is characterised by a subsistence-based mixed agro-forestry-livestock farming system. An important area of focus should, therefore, be the mechanisation of agriculture in the hills and mountains, where women make up threefourths of the agricultural workforce. Mechanisation will not only improve farm operations and productivity but also reduce the work burden. However, the hilly terrain and small landholdings make transportation and application of machinery cumbersome. Although there has been an increase in the use of mini-tillers, electric maize shellers, powered rice and wheat threshers and powered micro-mills, there has not been coordinated push and adequate research. Lack of access to labour-saving technologies and basic farm tools continues to compromise on the productivity and well-being of many women smallholders in the mountains.
In 2019, the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) had organised a regional consultation in Nepal to explore the barriers and opportunities to introducing customised technologies to meet the needs of women farmers in the Hindu Kush Himalayan region. This consultation identified that the development of technologies hardly ever takes into account women's needs, the nature of women's work and the contextual settings.
Most available farm machines are often more suitable for men than women.
They are also unaffordable for smallholder farmers, who have little or no information on subsidies. Limited land ownership by women makes it difficult for them to obtain collateral-free loans easily. The existing outreach and extension services, along with credit and market services, too fail to target and reach women.
The last decade has seen some notable policy efforts by the government and other international organisations to address this gap. The Agricultural Mechanisation Promotion Policy (2014) focussed on improving subsistence farming through increased farm and labour productivity. It also called for promoting environment-friendly and women-appropriate agricultural tools and machinery that relieve their drudgery. The customised mini-tillers for harvesting and threshing, for example, have proved to be a boon for women farmers in Nepal.
The Agriculture Development Strategy (2014) maps out a 20-yearvision (2015–2035) to improve productivity through 13 outputs, of which agricultural mechanisation is a key area. It also aims to establish mechanisms for gender equality and social and geographic inclusion in the agriculture sector.
The government has also launched the Prime Minister Agriculture Modernisation Project (2016–2026) with a focus on agricultural mechanisation. However, agricultural mechanisation supported by these policies needs to go beyond largescale, commercial farming in the plains. It is important that the technological innovations take into account the diversity of local contexts and also assess how they impact gender relations at the household and community level.
The inequalities and vulnerabilities faced by mountain women are often not understood and addressed in the plans and policies, resulting in these issues being sidelined in the development process. The policy makers and development agencies must also recognise the additional burden from climate variability as well as changes in the social context induced by the outmigration of men.
There is, thus, an urgent need to review, strengthen and expand the scope of Nepal's agricultural mechanisation promotion policy in the context of women as active players in mountain agriculture.
ICIMOD, together with Food and Agriculture Organisation (UN-FAO), has started to look into these issues at the country level.
Consultations were held in March 2021with government officials to discuss opportunities and constraints in facilitating women's access to agricultural mechanisation.
This effort has led to the beginning of concrete actions and policies for equitable access to agricultural machinery for both men and women farmers. Three key areas for action were identified during the consultation: i) investing in research for understanding the challenges and gaps in access and adoption of labour saving technologies; ii) promoting women-led small-scale mechanisation enterprises; and iii) strengthening extension services for women farmers on available tools and machines as well as in handling, repair and maintenance of such machines.
With women already shouldering a disproportionate amount of responsibility in day-to-day domestic life, let us hope that the introduction of simple tools and machinery for agriculture will reduce their drudgery and help increase farm productivity at the same time.
Silwal and Khanal are currently associated with ICIMOD
A version of this article appears in the print on March 25, 2021, of The Himalayan Times.