By far the largest demographic with potential to benefit from SRI is women, who in rural areas, make up as much as 80% of the agricultural workforce, a figure that is growing due to the ‘feminisation’ of agriculture‘, as men are increasingly drawn away from rural to urban areas in order to seek an income, leaving women behind in the villages to grow food.
It is estimated that as many as 500 million women around the world are involved in rice production. In Asia, women also are the primary source of low-wage labour on rice farms. This means that women growing rice is probably the largest livelihood group in the world. Increasing yields with SRI can contribute to food security, but also to increased incomes; increased incomes for women improve their status within their family and community and lead to a degree of independence, especially for single women who often have few rights.
Typically men prepare the land for planting, often using an ox and plough. They build embankments around paddy fields and are usually responsible for applying fertiliser and pesticides. Women generally select the seeds, sow and manage nurseries, remove seedlings and transport them to the field, transplant, weed, harvest, thresh, bag the grain and process it. Women do these tasks on top of bearing and rearing children, keeping the household running, fetching fuel and water if required and caring for elderly relatives. So any reduction in any of those burdens helps to improve their daily lives.
The tasks that SRI impacts on most, transplanting and weeding, are tasks that are typically carried out by women, across the countries and cultures of Africa and Asia. With SRI the 80-90% fewer seedlings are transplanted, which significantly lightens the load for women. And weeding is facilitated by a mechanical weeder pushed in an upright posture.
Largely overlooked by the international development and public health communities are the health challenges faced by women cultivating rice. Most of their work is done in standing water, where they are exposed to a multitude of parasites and disease vectors, in addition to their arms and legs being submerged in contaminated water for many hours every day. Their actions are highly repetitive and done in a painful bent-over position, which leads to serious musculoskeletal problems in the long run. These health challenges are a major focus of SRI4Women.