In the development of human history, women have played a fundamental role. In hunter-gatherer societies, women provided 60-80% of food, mainly through their gathering activities. Since the invention of agriculture, women have experimented with seed hybridisation, crop association, selection and preservation of food for the sustenance of their families. 

Today about 80% of the world’s food is produced in small-scale agriculture. Women account for an average of 43% of this agricultural labour force in developing countries. Unfortunately, these women are less likely than men to own their land or livestock, learn new technologies, access credit or other financial services, receive education or agricultural training services, and often play a limited role in household decision-making, including household income. 

Women’s roles in small-scale agriculture 

For this research, the case study in Chile, where women’s work in agriculture is mainly divided into three groups: women are involved in cultivating and harvesting crops for household consumption, raising small animals, gathering and preparing food for their families, among other household tasks. In the labour markets, they are over-represented in unpaid jobs and seasonal or part-time work and receive lower wages than men for the same position. However, they are also engaged in other off-farm activities, such as childcare and domestic work. Women farmers are also involved in entrepreneurship, which has helped them achieve economic independence and stability. The growing participation of women in the world of microenterprises is based on three types of motivations: one related to the economic need to provide income for their family group; another to the need for self-realisation; and finally, the search for personal financial autonomy. It is important to note that the majority of women farmers carry out the above three jobs simultaneously to be able to support their families. 

Feminisation of agriculture 

Due to increasing urbanisation in Latin America and Chile and the constant migration of men to large cities in search of better work opportunities, feminisation in agriculture is occurring, where women are left to support their families and work in the fields. Albeit the term has been widely used to draw attention to the increase in the number of women relative to men in agricultural employment, little attention has been paid to what the “feminisation of agriculture” means for women, their families and their role in agriculture in general. 

Public policies for women in small-scale agriculture 

Even though women’s work in small-scale agriculture is supposedly widely recognised, its importance has not been adequately incorporated or acknowledged by government policies in Latin American countries. In the case of Chile, this undervaluation has translated into sectoral policies and programmes that prioritise public spending without considering the variability and diversification of small-scale agriculture. The incomplete knowledge of the problem affecting women in small-scale agriculture has led different administrations to design and implement programmes that have fallen far short of meeting the needs of women in small-scale agriculture. This research seeks to present macro figures that show significant public spending but no concern for the generation of value for both beneficiaries and society. 

This research proposes the co-creation of public policies with women farmers using a participatory methodology. Participatory research implies research with, not about, the participants. They have access to the felt realities of the participants, establish cooperative relationships between the community, policymakers, academics and practitioners, encourage the engagement of all research participants with the findings, and increase commitment to using the results in the design and formulation of public policy.  

Bearing the above in mind, ethical considerations should be explored in-depth to minimise the risk of harm to research participants. Ethical dilemmas such as the proper management of trust, anonymity, ownership and use of data, among others, can arise during research. It is vitally important to manage them in the best way possible. The importance of ethics in participatory research is such that a particular publication should be devoted to it. 

This paper is part of a research project that seeks to co-produce innovative and gender-sensitive policies for small-scale agriculture, working with women-headed households through a participatory approach to research. 

Photo credit: Zoe Schaeffer

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