Building Resilience of Women in Agriculture

March 27, 2021

The rural economy of developing countries such as Sri Lanka largely rely on agriculture and agriculture supply chain activities. The sector is known to be significantly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Women in agriculture are often seen disproportionately affected by climate and weather induced disasters and experience climate change differently to men.  Women may face gender specific obstacles in terms of physical, financial, cultural or policy limitations that may prevent them from accessing proper education, land, resources or market. Such limitations may also result in women not being able to quickly recover from and adapt to climate-induced loss and damage compared to men in the sector. Building resilience of women in agriculture to face climate challenges has a great potential to contribute largely to the growth of the sector.  

Nearly 45% of the global agricultural workforce are women who are also often key contributors to the household management. The Sri Lanka Labour Force Survey of the 1st Quarter of 2020 conducted by the Department of Census and Statistics indicates, women in agriculture in Sri Lanka are nearly 40% of the total agricultural workforce of the country.  Most of these women depend largely on cultivation related activities for livelihood whereas some may have alternative sources of income generation to make ends meet. While the contribution of these women to meet food security outcomes is immense, in most cases, their labour is not accounted for. 

Ms. Chandra Galagoda from Kalyanapura, Trincomalee District has been farming since early 70s’. Speaking of labour required for day today activities, Ms. Galagoda said: ‘Back in the day, I did not have a well. I carried about 40 water pots a day to water what I had grown to be used for daily consumption and for the household. Back then, there were seven people in my household along with my husband and five children. We never bought vegetables from the shop. We always consumed what I grew’. Since her husband was employed at the Civil Security Force at the time, she claimed that she cultivated often by herself while looking after her five children and attending to their education related activities. Further drawing attention to their current battle with the changing climate, she said that rainfall patterns have changed over the years and the cultivation experiences various new diseases and untimely insect attacks. ‘During this season, a worm-induced disease has destroyed the corn cultivation. Many farmers are heavily affected. I am also experiencing the same issue,’ she added. 

The inability to quickly adapt and recover from climate induced loss and damage, forces people to migrate for work. Women and men from rural and agricultural backgrounds in Sri Lanka are often seen migrating as low-skill labourers and domestic workers to countries in the Middle East, leaving their families behind.

Ms. Nirosha Saman Kumari from Kilekadawala, Trincomalee District who was a farmer since the age of fifteen had to leave the country for work as she was unable to recover climate-induced losses to her cultivation in 2012. ‘In 2012, I cultivated 8 acres of paddy land. During that season, there were a lot of losses due to elephant attacks. Somehow, we managed to bring some harvest home. The day we brought the harvest home, there were heavy rains. It rained for three consecutive days.  About 20,000 to 24,000 kilos of paddy got caught in the rain. The entire paddy harvest turned black. I had to sell a kilo of paddy only for about LKR 15 to 18. I even had to pawn my gold jewelry as I had no money to pay for the machineries that were rented for cultivation. Since I had taken loans to buy chemicals for cultivation, I was in debt without being able to pay back. I had to go abroad to make some money to pay back those loans,’ she said. She went to Kuwait leaving behind her five-year old twin girls with her elderly parents. Even at the time, her mother was suffering from kidney disease and now deceased father had cancer. 

Ms. Nirosha also highlighted another instance of climate loss and damage to her cultivation that added to her worries. Her paddy cultivation was damaged completely due to water surplus in 2016. ‘We met with officials in our area and informed them about it. Only five or six people were paid for their losses by the government. […] Even though our paddy cultivation was insured, when we submitted letters about damages to the cultivation that was just 21 days old, by the time they came to investigate, it took about one and half months. Usually, by the time they visit, the damage may not be visible. Most of them do not visit on time to investigate. Since we do not want to experience further losses, we plough the field and cultivate crops again from scratch. Once they visit, they cannot see the damage to the cultivation. Then they reject our applications.’    

Single female-headed households such as hers with children and elderly parents to be looked after, need better support and risk transfer mechanisms to recover from climate induced loss and damage. Enhancing and building on existing risk transfer mechanisms such as crop insurance in Sri Lanka is vital to benefit farmers and support them when help is needed the most.   Such mechanisms have the potential to serve as a safety net especially for female farmers, strengthen their livelihood resilience, and counteract adverse drivers of migration.  

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About the Author

SLYCAN Trust is a non-profit think tank. It has been a registered legal entity in the form of a trust since 2016, and a guarantee limited company since 2019. The entities focus on the thematic areas of climate change, adaptation and resilience, sustainable development, environmental conservation and restoration, social justice, and animal welfare. SLYCAN Trust’s activities include legal and policy research, education and awareness creation, capacity building and training, and implementation of ground level action. SLYCAN Trust aims to facilitate and contribute to multi-stakeholder driven, inclusive and participatory actions for a sustainable and resilient future for all.