May 2 - 15, 2011

Women's role in agriculture sector of Pakistan is downplayed despite the fact that women workforce in the country's economic powerhouse is on the meteoric rise. The female labour force share in agriculture shot up dramatically three times to 30 per cent since 1980, according to a latest report published by Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations.

'Labour force expanded to 67.2 million heads in 2010. Of that, 20.3 per cent were female workers and 56.9 per cent of total women workforce earned livelihoods from agriculture sector though they made 29.6 per cent in the faming community,' says the FAO in the state of food and agriculture report 2010-11.

Focusing women in agriculture, it says sixty-three per cent population of Pakistan live in rural areas and women constituted 48.5 per cent of the country's total population of 185 million in 2010.

The report throws lights on injustices meted out to women farmers in developing economies of South Asia and Africa and underscores inequitable access of women to resources and opportunities as "one of the key reasons" of underperforming agricultures.

The report highlights one unique aspect of labour force-what it says economically active population-in Pakistan. According to the report, agriculture share in economically active population decreased to 39 per cent in 2010 from 45.7 per cent of 35.9 million in 1995 and 58.5 per cent of 23.5 million in 1980.

Basic education, usage of technology, and land distribution are the realms where FAO says gender discrimination is pronounced as far as the agriculture sector is concerned.

Education remains a longstanding issue in the country with literacy rates of boys and girls varied sharply. While overall literacy rate is negligible, average years of education are different for women (one year) and men (over three years). Primary education is neglected sector and most of the school-going children are dropped out before reaching the secondary level. The enrolment of girls in schools is low. FAO's report commends Punjab Education Sector Reform Program (PESRP) for its effectiveness in ramping up enrolments of girls in secondary schools. The program provides scholarships for girls aged 10-14 to attend schools. Bangladesh's Female Secondary School Assistance Project that extended financial assistances to 11-18 years to motivate them to continue secondary education inspired the PESRP.

Usage of technologies such as biotechnology is being promoted to optimize agriculture production world over. Genetically modified technology and postproduction procedures can improve the crop yields per acres. Genetics modification has been proved effective in significantly increasing yields of cotton, rice, sugarcanes, assorted vegetables and fruits in several agriculture economies. In Pakistan, technology utilization is sluggish owing to lack of capacity building of farmers whose understanding determines the success and failure of scientific methods to upgrade agriculture outputs.

Gender discrimination puts a halt in the way of promotion of technology in agriculture. Giving an example of fertiliser-nutritious for good health of crops-the report says, Pakistan has a wide disparity in usage of fertilisers by male and female farmers. Though 40 per cent of male-headed households use fertiliser, yet total figure is about 15 per cent for females.

Agriculture land distribution is disparate in the country, and when it comes to gender wise land holdings, the inequality heightens gravely. Male-headed household holds twice the size of lands held by a matriarchic family. This situation is quite similar to that in Bangladesh and Ecuador. Female-headed household has an average farm size of little over one hectare as against almost three hectares male-headed household possess. Land reforms are likely to solve the problem of unequal land distribution.

Concentration of large tracts of lands in ownerships of few people results in lack of productivity since major parts of cultivable lands remain unutilised. Redistribution of lands and legal binding on big landlords to bring agriculture lands under cultivation can address the inequality that is main cause of acute poverty in rural areas.

July-August floods unravelled massive economic losses nationwide. Agriculture being the major sector was obviously affected a lot. Asian Development Bank put the loss figures at around $10 billion, estimating half of that to agriculture. The indirect repercussion is rather more perilous for the fiscal resources. First, federal board of revenue (FBR) tax collection is declining this year due to fragile health of agro-based industries crimped by the floods. Secondly, exemption to the flood-hit taxpayers will squeeze the tax-to-GDP ratio, which has been increasing year on year: Rs713 billion in 2006, Rs847 in 2007, Rs1,007 in 2008, Rs1,157 in 2009, and Rs1,327 in 2010. FBR managed to collect Rs865 billion during July-Mar 2011 as against the target of Rs907 billion set for the period.

To alleviate the rural poverty, the government has increased support prices of crops. The rise improved incomes of farming community and spiked prices of food products for consumers. Food inflation is a result of increase in support prices hurting urban population more than rural population, observes the World Bank. High support prices happen to backfire when international prices of commodities are lower than the domestic prices. This has happened in 2009 when the government's push to support prices made the domestic crops internationally uncompetitive and thus inventory did not manage to find buyers. The reaction was felt by the state commodity operations and banks accumulating bad commodity debts discouraged financing commodity operations by increasing interest rates.

Social and economic empowerments of rural population are imperative to produce magical economic outputs requiring equal access of farmers to the resources and opportunities. Education and capacity building of farmers without gender discrimination can leverage power of agriculture sector to build the economy on sustainable basis.