The vast majority of the migrants heading north from the South are men. They leave behind women, often impoverished and alone on subsistence farms. In North Africa, female farmers now account for 43% of all farmers, up from only about 30% in 1989, according to the World Bank.
What happens to these left behind women? Do they become empowered? Or are they plunged even deeper into despair?
The answer depends on individual circumstances and cultural environment. On the one hand, the farm loses its main previous source of labor. On the other hand, the migrant may send back home remittances. Little research so far has been done in this important area, leaving only tentative conclusions.
In certain countries, we observe that the departure of men allows women to receive additional rights and responsibilities. Women working their own land are self-employed. They escape the trap of being wage workers. In Nepal, the World Bank found that the departure of male farmers allowed women to increase their social status and economic autonomy.
Another good example is Tajikistan. The International Water Management Institute found that here women can take up roles that are traditionally thought of as “male” such as the maintenance of agro-machinery, applying irrigation water and clearing irrigation canals” The increased independence cuts two ways, because women continue to be responsible for running the household.
In more conservative and patriarchal societies, however, the departure of men leaves women less well off. Women are not allowed to own land, so they must work as daily workers. Consider China. As men have left for cities, the World Bank has found that women left behind continue to exercise little power over farm management.
In Guatemala and Mexico, the World Bank says “strong norms dictate that women should not be farmers,”. When women take on responsibilities in the farm, “they face certain gender-specific difficulties, including difficulties hiring and supervising labor and acquiring technical knowledge about farming” (ibid)
In Senegal female farmers represent 70% of the workforce. The 2001 Senegalese Constitution recognizes women rights and Senegal is a signatory of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women.
Yet traditional conventions and social norms turn women into second-class citizens. In villages, only men are allowed to make decisions about land usage. If a woman asserts her right to own the land, her actions are considered to be an insult to her family honor, according to the President of the National Network of Rural Women. Senegalese women struggle to “access land, access to financing mechanism, access to factors of production and extension services and access to the market,” reports the UN. The women left behind on farms are vulnerable, dependent on daily work and remittances.
Some women decide to migrate in order to escape gender-specific discrimination. In Tanzania, women find it difficult to obtain farmland, pushing them “into the cities to look for better employment opportunities”, according to the International Fund for Agricultural Development.
Elsewhere, though, some women stay behind on farms and stand up for their legal rights. In Senegal, grassroots organizations such as L’ Associations des Femmes Juristes Senegalaises (The Associations of Senegalese Women Lawyers), has obtained impressive results to implement positive changes in Senegalese law.
The UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization is committed to “increase the presence of women leaders in decision making, the recognition of the status of women as chiefs of pieces of land and/or as managers of household and the level of education and information of women,” In 2016 UN Women launched a $6.6 million project to empower 30.000 Senegalese women farmers by 2021.
Similar initiatives will obviously benefit the whole community. IFAD reports that if women in developing countries “had the same access to resources as men in terms of labor, technology and knowledge, they could increase yields on their farms by 20-30 percent.”
When men migrate, new opportunities can open up for women and their communities. Bottom-up approaches to provide practical solutions for women’s empowerment are the best way to complement the rather theoretical principles of gender equality enshrined in national laws and international treaties. This is a pragmatic way to challenge patriarchal social norms – and the best way to help agricultural development in rural communities.
Augusta Nannerini is a Researcher at the Luigi Einaudi Foundation.