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From “Men plowed and Women Wove” to “Women afford all” Women’s Role Change in poor villages

The Feminization of Agricultural Labor is Significant

Zigen has been focusing on female development since its establishment. In the past 30 years of rural practice and observation, rural women, especially those in poverty-stricken areas, are taking on more and more social roles and agricultural labor. Married women have occupied most of the rural labor, and have undertaken agricultural production activities such as land ploughing, sowing, fertilizing, watering, spraying pesticides, harvesting, etc. Some scholars have summarized this trend as “the feminization of agricultural labor”. “With the development of industrialization and urbanization, the rural male labor force has transitioned  to non-agricultural jobs, and the feminization of agricultural main labor has become increasingly prominent, showing that women have become the main population in rural communities” (Yan Honghong etc., 2017). According to the statistic of the second national agricultural report in 2006, among the agricultural employees, the proportion of male labor decreased to 46.8%, and the proportion of female labor was 53.2%. The “feminization” of agricultural labor has become a mainstream. Before writing this article, I specifically looked for photos of women photographed by Zigen in various places. Basically, such trends and status quo have been confirmed in the photos.

Even under such a trend, women do not fully own the lands, production tools and production materials. Major production decisions are still made by those “absent” males. Some people believe that this is an illusion which female labor merely exceed the male laboring terms of statistical numbers instead of the actual “feminization of agricultural labor force”. Nevertheless, I agree to the saying of the feminization of the agricultural labor force.

Brief Analysis of the Feminization of Agricultural Labor

Dating back to the past, the social status of men and women in agricultural labor has gone through the period that men plowed and women wove in a traditional agricultural society, and to the period in which men and women both plowed in the big communal society, and then to the contemporary status quo in which male labor force has become a floating population and women occupy most of the agricultural labor force. Some also called this family cooperation mode “men working and female plowing.” Even though the labor input of pure physical strength has decreased with upgrading of the agricultural techniques over these years, poverty-stricken areas still have their own limitations from climate, topography, soil, cultivated area, economic reasons, etc. Lacking the production tools whose purpose is modernization and liberating physical strength leads to less significant changes in physical input of rural labor.


Three generations participating in agroforestry planting- Ms. He Yaoying’s mother and daughter, women’s group of Liguang Village

There are many reasons for the feminization of the agricultural labor force analyzed from different perspectives. From the perspective of demography, this is because male labor outflow is greater than the female labor force, which demonstrates a phenomenon or a result rather than a real reason. There are also many reasons for the transition in the gender differences on rural labor. He Jun, Li Qing, and Zhang Yichi believe that it’s due to family division (2010) while Yang Xiaoyan believes that it is caused by gender discrimination (2008). Some scholars believed that it’s caused by the low cultural quality of the female labor force. Those who believe that “lands in China are less, the population is high, the labor productivity of small-scale agriculture is low, and the income of agricultural workers is far lower than that of the industrial and commercial workers” mainly think that it’s due to productivity and economic forces, resulting in rural labor, especially male labor, migrating from the countryside to the city and jobs shifting from agricultural to non-agricultural ones. Besides, the deep reasons for the structural and institutional nature of the feminization of the agricultural labor force are worthy of further exploration.

Rural Women’s Physical and Mental Responsibility Bears Unbearable Weight

Moreover, under the trend of feminization of agricultural labor, women participate in agricultural production while traditional social roles of women never changed but stubbornly accompanied the shift. Women still have to do laundry, cook, do housework, prepare all daily needs, take care of parents, educate children and build village infrastructure, all of which fall on the shoulders of women. Regardless of whether the women are young or old, they are limited with those sayings that “if your cooking skill is not good enough, are you still a woman?”, “If you can’t take good care of children/the elderly/homes, are you still a woman?”, “If you can’t do laundry well, are you still a woman?”, “If you don’t know how to plough, are you still a woman?”, “Don’t dress yourself with such an exposing clothes”……etc. This kind of value judgment about women and “good” women make rural women barely able to bear  the pressure.

The bodily pressure can be observed and spoken about, but mental pressure is difficult to observe and speak about. The male labor force flows outwards and goes out to work. The couples have less chance to reunite and cannot give enough support to each other. The relationship between husband and wife is tense and the family structure is unbalanced. In some areas, rural women even commit suicide by drinking pesticides. In poor rural areas, due to inconvenient transportation, inadequate water supply, poor medical conditions, and the influence of some unhealthy customs, many women don’t have good health conditions, and in some places there are still early marriages and early pregnancies.

“Women have little gynaecological health knowledge and awareness. Their health knowledge often comes from the elders. In addition to the traditional concepts, rural women are often ashamed to be sick and cannot correctly educate their children about adolescence and gender. Most families do not have bathing facilities. Many women do not have the habit of brushing their teeth and drink water directly from uncovered wells or have unheated and unsterilized water. The sanitary conditions of their kitchens are extremely terrible. Women do not know enough about gynecological diseases, and some of them even regard gynecological diseases as back pains or stomach aches. Even though women know that they are sick, they will think of the difficult home economics and delay to see a doctor, which results in worsening illness.” (Zhang Yunfei, 2017)

Rural Women Receive Insufficient Support

In poverty-stricken areas, many burdens of responsibility fall onto women, which makes them have less leisure time to relieve stress. Women take enormous responsibilities for society and family, but their support in marriage, family, child education, re-education, employment guidance, land systems, political participation, legal protection, medical services, reproductive health are not sufficient. Under the trend of feminization of agricultural labor, women should have played a greater role in improving agricultural productivity and protecting agricultural sustainable development. However, in the “Social Development-Development of Health Care” section, the “China’s Early 21st Century Action Plan for Sustainable Development” jointly drafted by many ministries and commissions in 2003, only one line mentions “to strengthen the prevention and healthcare work for women and children”. The 2015 National Agricultural Sustainable Development Plan (2015-2030) policy guidance document doesn’t mention a word regarding the role of women.

Rural Women Should Be Given Deserved Opportunities And Status In Social Development

The development of rural women has always been closely related to the “three rural issues”. In comparison with men, women are less likely to have equal opportunities in development and are more likely to be in a weaker position. In 2011, the “China Women’s Development Program (2011-2020)” issued by China as a basic national policy for the implementation of equality between men and women, ensuring women’s legitimate rights and interests, optimizing women’s development environment, improving women’s social status, promoting women’s equality in exercising democratic rights in accordance with the law, and participating in the economic and social development, equal access to the guiding documents of reform and development achievements, and making clear arrangements and regulations on seven areas inclusive of health, education, economics, decision-making and management, social security, environment, and law.

The 193 member states of the 2015 United Nations Summit on Sustainable Development formally adopted 17 sustainable development goals, of which gender equality is an important development goal. The other ten goals cover a wide range including environmental protection, healthy lifestyles, quality education, poverty eradication, hunger elimination, clean energy, etc. The fulfillment of these development goals is inseparable from the broad and effective participation of women. Existing research and practice have also proven that in the work of reducing poverty or poverty alleviation, supporting women plays a key role in the poverty alleviation of the entire family and the healthy growth of their children.

Zigen Has Always Emphasized The Importance of Women’s Issues and Taking Actions to Promote Change

From the very beginning, Zigen encouraged women to learn mathematics and reading, and later set up women’s centers and sister groups in the Miao villages to hold public activities, increase women’s participation in village affairs, and increase economic income and enhance mutual support. In recent years, Zigen has supported women’s reproductive health training, women’s economic cooperation groups, elderly weaving teams, and women’s participation in agroforestry ecological planting projects, always emphasizing the importance of support for women. With the belief that supporting girls and women in education is the most effective investment, it has extremely direct and far-reaching significance for reducing women’s trafficking, reducing the number of children born, children’s health, increasing women’s income and promoting gender equality.

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