There are over half a billion women rice growers across Africa and Asia, most of whom typically perform specific roles in preparing seedlings, transplanting, weeding, harvesting and threshing. These tasks involve avoidable occupational health risks, which include constant bending for long periods and working and squatting in water contaminated with inorganic chemicals, bacteria, fungi and parasites. The reduced burdens involved in the System of Rice Intensification and its reliance on reduced flooding of paddy fields mean SRI can mitigate and even eradicate some of these occupational health issues.
Sabarmatee is an Indian researcher at Wageningen University in the Netherlands and has done much work in this under-investigated area.
“It is remarkable that no attention has been given to women’s health and bodies in this process, when women’s laboring bodies are the human capital required to produce most of the rice eaten in the world.”
According to Sabarmatee, women will typically transplant as many as 300,000 seedlings in any given transplanting season. The seedlings have to be transported from nurseries and at around 30 days old, the seedlings in one bundle can weigh around 1.5 kgs. Before they even get to the field, transplanters will probably have had to carry a weight of up to 30 kgs or more. The very fact that SRI requires younger – and therefore lighter – seedlings and that there is a reduction in seedling usage of as much as 90%, means that the burden of transportation is immediately reduced. With SRI, it takes only 7–25 hours to uproot and transport seedlings (instead of 80–150 hours normally).
Transplanting is a key feature of cultivation for most rice growers. In some areas, seeds are sown directly, either through broadcast or direct seeding. But in conventional rice growing, transplanted seedlings are as much as 30-45 days old and they are planted in ‘clumps’, close together.; this clearly means there are many more seedlings to plant and transplanting them in the fields involves long periods of time bent over.
SRI transplanting, on the other hand, requires much younger, 8-10 day old seedlings and, since they are planted singly, there are as many as 90% fewer seedlings to plant with a concomitant reduction in the time involved in transplanting. Women spend 70–90 hours per acre for transplanting in SRI (instead of 120–150 hours in the conventional method). With SRI, the seedlings women hold in their hand for transplanting weigh 150–300 grams instead of 1–1.5 kg.
“Nearly all women involved in transplanting experience some sort of back pain.” (4)
“Squatting for weeks while working in water-logged paddy fields constantly exposes women to a multitude of water-born diseases, a problem which is increasingly exacerbated by modern pollutants, such as chemical fertilisers and pesticides… These conditions almost guarantee chronic illness and pain.” (2)
Contaminated Water, Contaminated Hands
Flooded paddy fields in conventional rice growing are contaminated with the chemicals that are applied to the plants, by water borne diseases, water-loving parasites, bacteria and fungi.
It is usually the women who stand or squat in these fields to transplant or weed and they consequently suffer from a variety of afflictions that arise less often when they practise SRI, especially organic SRI.
Traditionally, rice is grown in flooded paddy fields. This is chiefly so that weed growth can be suppressed: the water suffocates weeds by preventing air from getting into the soil and encouraging growth. This, of course, has a similar effect on rice plants. Rice is not an aquatic plant and the SRI methodology involves alternate wetting and drying (AWD) of paddy fields to encourage stronger growth of the rice plants.
Where water control is possible, reducing the water in the fields, encourages growth of both the rice plants and the weeds. Consequently SRI farmers have to weed their plots regularly to ensure the rice does not have to compete with weeds for vital nutrients. This is typically a task performed by women and, if done manually, involves more bending for very long periods of time. Weeding is still required as part of conventional rice-growing practices: usually, farmers wait for the weeds to become big enough to hold in their fists, before pulling them up. This, too, causes great strain on their bodies.
Because in SRI the plants are widely spaced to allow for the rice plants to establish strong root systems, it lends itself easily to the use of mechanical weeders. These weeders are often made by local artisans and drastically reduce weeding time as well as eliminating the need to bend. Ergonomic designs mean that back strain is more or less eliminated. With the savings made on seed and other inputs, SRI farmers are often able to afford such a mechanical weeder.
It takes women between 130–160 hours to manually weed a one-acre paddy field, moving at an average speed of 1 square metre per minute. Weeding with a mechanical weeder takes between 16–25 hours per acre. Farmers normally weed 2–3 times per season. Although mechanical weeding needs to be done more often than manual weeding, a one-time supplementary weeding takes just 5–9 hours to complete. 
As noted, studies have also shown that mechanical weeding tends to lead to an increased participation of men, as in some cultures, men are expected to do any agricultural operations involving mechanical or motorised implements.
Diseases and ailments
Some research has gone into the occupational health hazards involved in rice growing. This research has found that among the health-related issues women encounter when working in contaminated water are:
– A variety of intestinal and parasitic troubles
– splitting heels (from standing in muddy water for hours on end)
– severe pain from leech bites
– increased susceptibility to crippling ailments like rheumatic joints, arthritis
– Schistosomiasis, which affects the bladder, liver, intestines and reproductive organs
– Kar et al. ( 2012 ) found that 56 percent of Indian women who worked in flooded rice fields reported having menstrual problems.
As Sabarmatee has reported, despite being ill, many women labourers postpone buying medicine due to the urgent need for cash for other things. This can exacerbate problems and they have to spend more on treatment later on.
To cope with health crises, households often have to withdraw savings, sell or mortgage important assets (such as jewellery, livestock, farm equipment, and land), withdraw children from school, and/or reduce the nutritional value of their food. All these responses have adverse effects both on the well-being of household members and on agricultural output locally and nationally.
Food and Nutrition
Poor food security in many rural areas exacerbates illness caused by occupational health hazards. Malnutrition, undernourishment, and diseases undermine long-term agricultural productivity from women’s illness or weakened ability to tend their crops, which also leads to a loss of wages for those who do get paid.
Consuming not just more calories but essential nutrients is especially vital for women who are pregnant and nursing. Just the 70–90% reduction in seed required by SRI, frees up considerable rice for household food needs, and it can release some of the family’s budget to meet other household and farm needs, including more protein and vitamin-rich foods that they cannot grow for themselves.
Also SRI can lead to a diversification of farming systems which in turn contributes to better nutrition and health. With higher yields per unit of land with SRI methods, many farmers can convert part of their land to growing more nutritious and more profitable crops such as fruits, vegetables, legumes, and small livestock. With reductions in chemical use, irrigation canals become habitable again for fish and ducks.
Micronutrient deficiency is a worldwide problem, with women affected particularly by dietary deficiencies of iron (causing anemia) and zinc. Recent research in India has indicated that use of SRI can enhance rice plants’ uptake from the soil of important nutrients (iron, zinc, copper, and manganese) and can increase the concentration of these nutrients in rice grains, especially in conjunction with the enhancement of soil microorganisms.
As Vent, Sabarmatee and Uphoff note, it is well documented that growing rice with alternate wetting and drying of fields, rather than continuous flooding, reduces the uptake of arsenic (As) from soils and water (Senanayake and Mukherji 2014 ; Shah et al. 2014 ; Roberts et al. 2011 ). SRI practices should thus mitigate the uptake of arsenic in rice through its water management practices.