Nearly 80 percent of Yemeni women who work outside their homes are engaged in agriculture. Of these nearly 65 percent are engaged in unpaid work at their family farms or on land leased by their families.
The stories of these women are varied. For example, in some governorates these women can own livestock and keep the income from it in others even the livestock is not theirs to own or the income from it to be controlled by them. Lives and problems of these women are not researched, nor much seen in the higher up places – places which could initiate gender responsive land reforms.
Written accounts of these women are hardly there in the media or proceedings of innumerable workshops and conferences on women or in the programme reports of development organizations. There are no platforms where these women themselves can tell their stories, where they can stand and demand their rights.
In most publications and reports on agriculture, women agricultural workers are hardly ever mentioned as a marginalized group whose economic rights are being violated systematically. Even assessments of the situation of women hardly ever talk of economic rights violation or bother to raise the issue of exploitation of women’s labour in paid and unpaid agricultural work.
There are now an increasing number of women agricultural workers moving from village to village in groups in pursuit of contractual work. They are paid as low as 300-350 Yemeni rials compared to minimum 900 rials that men get for a day’s work. The argument for this discrimination is that the work women do is not as strenuous.
Despite such obvious discrimination, there are very few attempts to raise these issues. Due to deep belief in traditional gender roles, the farm owners have a tendency to employ women for tasks which have been allotted to them traditionally.
It means that all the jobs which are considered strenuous and fetch a higher wage go to men. Women tend only to be hired when tedious but not so strenuous looking work has to be done. In fact, farm owners prefer to higher women for these jobs not only because it is hard to find men willing to take up work which is traditionally considered women’s but also because they will have to pay a much higher wage to men for the same job.
Women play a primary role in production in rural communities in Yemen, especially, in sustaining subsistence agriculture. They take care of major part of agricultural work including sowing, transplanting, weeding, irrigating, harvesting, thrashing, husking and storing.
Alongside, they often contribute to family income in many other productive ways such as making handicrafts from khus, sewing and weaving. Still, when one talks to communities or decision makers, women do not figure in their agendas.
Despite the fact the at maximum amount of work in the agricultural fields is being done by women, a look at the gender profile of agricultural extensionists clearly shows how invisible they are to the eyes of the government in general and departments of agriculture in particular. Near absence of women extensionists suggests that the department has not really paid much attention to reaching out to women agricultural workers either to provide them with new knowledge and technologies or to learn from their experiences.
Not only women extensionists are missing, the nature of current extension services is also such that wherever an attempt is made to reach women, more than often, it is within the boundaries of skills that are traditionally associated with their reproductive roles, for example, making pickle, murabba, jam, etc.
The entire focus of agricultural extension services is on men. And so it is men who are trained in the use of modern agricultural technology and encouraged to avail whatever credit facilities are available.
Women agricultural workers occupy an extremely disadvantaged position in society. They are victims of multiple forms of oppression because of the fact that they are women, they are unorganized, they are from poorest classes in society, added to the fact that they live segregated lives.
Segregation together with the lack of mobility takes away whatever little opportunities there might be for women agricultural workers to come together to learn from one-another’s experiences, benefit from extension programmes and credit schemes, and form unions.
In addition to economic exploitation, these women come from traditional patriarchal families, which regard a woman as subordinate to the man. From birth, they are prepared to fulfill a reproductive role and be unpaid workers.
A woman is viewed as being there to bear children, to serve her paternal family and later her marital family. In Yemen, women do not have equal right to property. But as per the Islamic law, which is accepted in Yemen, daughters are entitled to inherit half of what a son inherits and a widow gets one-eighth of her husband’s property if she has children, one quarter if she is childless.
But in reality, in most cases, women are not allowed to or are not in a position to exercise their property rights. In other words, though religion entitles women with some property rights, women’s circumstances and socialization inhibits their ability and confidence to claim those rights.
The social structures and systems of Yemeni society are such that women are excluded from roles of leadership not only in economic sphere but also in socio-political and governance structures. So women agricultural workers are not part of community development processes and they are definitely far-far away from actual decision-making. The community development related decisions are taken by male dominated institutional structures like local councils and government departments.
Such community development processes and systems put women agricultural workers at the mercy of men’s understanding of their issues and their participation in these processes, if at all, equals tokenism.
And so women agricultural workers who shoulder major burden of Yemen’s agricultural economy continue to be without land, property or a substantial regular income. They are not even recognized as what they are, farmers.