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SRI and its impact on women

Women and Rice Farming: Feeding the World

(From SRI-Rice. See the original: SRI and its Impact on Women)

More women are involved in rice cultivation than in any other livelihood activity, an estimated 500 million women worldwide. Their knowledge, labor and skill produce not only food and income for their families, but contribute to global food stocks. Growing rice is a labor-intensive undertaking, requiring physically-demanding work throughout the cropping season, performed usually in unsanitary conditions. Research and development strategies to raise rice production that focus mostly on new seeds and agrochemical inputs do not take into account the impacts that rice-growing has on women’s bodies, their time, their health, and their lives.
Throughout the world, the declining profitability of farming and particularly of rice farming has resulted in out-migration of men for jobs in cities and towns, leaving women with primary responsibility for farming. The System of Rice Intensification (SRI) is gaining popularity around the world in large part due to its appeal to women.

Women benefit from using SRI practices in many ways, including:

I. Increased Food Security and Improved Nutrition
With SRI, productivity is higher. Yields are increased on average 20 to 50% and often doubled and tripled. Families can go from food-deficit to self-sufficiency and even surplus in several seasons. As most families produce rice primarily for home consumption, when they have enough for their own needs they can remove some land from paddy production and grow fruits and vegetables or raise poultry to supplement their diets and income.
II. Increased Incomes and More Livelihood Options
Income improvements are achieved by lower input costs, higher productivity, more livelihood options, and in many cases fewer medical expenses. A study of the gender effects of SRI adoption in Cambodia, commissioned by Oxfam America, found female adopters reporting that savings from purchasing fewer seeds and using less fertilizer was a chief advantage [1]. The analysis found that by lightening the burdens of farming, SRI was making it possible for family members to seek employment beyond agriculture and for families to construct a more diverse portfolio of activities to improve their standard of living. Lighter workloads for women give them more time to do other things, such as backyard livestock-raising, fish-farming, and vegetable-growing. Cash crops like vegetables can generate more market income than rice [2].
III. Less Unsanitary Working Conditions, Less Exposure to Chemicals
With fields no longer constantly flooded, women do not have to stand or squat in muddy water for hours, pulling up and transplanting seedlings or weeding. This reduces their skin irritations, gynecological ailments, and other illnesses that occur from prolonged exposure to water on body parts and to water-borne disease vectors (e.g. mosquitos, snails). Exposure to herbicides, pesticides and insecticides applied to paddies is also reduced. In Mali, below left, women spend days sitting in mu spared this, transplanting into aerobic soils fewer and younger seedlings that recover more quickly from transplanting shock.
IV. Less Work, Less Pain and Drudgery
Conventional rice cultivation requires about 250-300 8-hour days of labor to cultivate 1 hectare of rice. With SRI, the numbers of seeds and plants involved is reduced dramatically, as spacing between plants is widened and plant populations are only 10-20% as much as traditionally (next page, top right). This means women also have much smaller nurseries to manage. A study of the gender impacts of SRI for women in Odisha state of India found that transplanting operations go much faster in SRI rice production, with less painful labor for women [3].
Also, weeding, traditionally done by women by hand, is facilitated with SRI because a mechanical hand weeder is used (next page, top left). This greatly reduces the time required and permits upright rather than bent posture.
A study in Andhra Pradesh, India found that mechanical weeders reduced women’s labor time for weeding by up to 76%, also reducing physical discomfort from this work [4]. In some parts of India, men take over the task of SRI weeding because cultural norms expect them to do ‘mechanical’ work. A study in Tamil Nadu, India found that men’s labor in rice cultivation was increased for this reason by 60%, while women’s workload in rice production was reduced by 25%. Both genders gained from a 115% increase in net income per hectare [5].
V. Enhanced Status within the Family and Community
Although not a direct result of adopting SRI practices, many NGOs that promote SRI as a strategy to reduce rural poverty specifically engage women. They create village self-help groups and develop training programs tailored to women. In Vietnam, it was found that women attend classes more regularly and share information and skills more broadly with family and friends than men do, thus accelerating impact [6]. Women are trained as farmer-leaders, gaining confidence and enhanced status in the family and community.
One of the effects of rural poverty is that women and girls are more vulnerable to exploitation. In both India and Cambodia, NGOs have used SRI to raise farm income and food security to reduce the incidence of human trafficking [7]. Much of the grassroots leadership for the dissemination of SRI has come from women who, on their own, have spread the word about SRI, and who have actively promoted SRI village-to-village [8].
One woman SRI farmer/trainer/ activist in Bihar state of India, coming from one of the lowest and poorest social groups in her society, has been elected as a member of that state’s Legislative Assembly [9]. In West Bengal, women are starting to exert their influence in political arenas for policies that support sustainable farming [10].


[1] B.P. Resurreccion, E.E. Sajor and H. Sophea (2008). Gender Dimensions of the Adoption of the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) in Cambodia. Report for Oxfam America, Phnom Penh, December.
[2] C. Hufstader (2014). Growing more, but working less. Oxfam America blog, January 22.
[3] S. Sabarmatee (2013). Understanding dynamics of labour in System of Rice Intensification (SRI): Insights from grassroots experiences in Odisha, India. Presentation of PhD thesis research, Wageningen University, Netherlands.
[4] A. Mrunalini and M. Ganesh (2008). Work load on women using cono weeder in SRI method of paddy cultivation, Oryza, 45: 58-61.
[5] T.M. Thiyagarajan (2004). On-farm evaluation of SRI in Tamiraparani Command Area, Tamil Nadu, India. Presentation to World Rice Research Congress, Tsukuba, Japan, November 4-7.
[6] Nguyen Xuan Nguyen et al. (January 2010). Study on adoption of the System of Rice Intensification in Northern provinces of Vietnam. A report by commissioned by Oxfam America. Presented at the 28th International Rice Research Conference, 8-12 November 2010, Hanoi, Vietnam.
[7] T. Rehman, Young girls face trafficking as lack of rains drives worsening rural poverty, May 5, 2010. AlertNet, Thomson-Reuters Foundation.
[8] Increasing options: Duddeda Suganavva, in Farmers Leading the Way from Crisis to Resilience: Global Farmer Perspectives on the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) (2010). Africare/Oxfam America/WWF. Global_Farmer_Perspectives%20_OxfamWWFAfricareSOrig.pdf
[9] (2012). Beyond the rat race. Times of India, Dec. 29. city/patna/Beyond-the-rat-race/articleshow/7182371.cms
[10] A. Menon (2014). India: In Bengal, women agriculturists take charge. The Citizen, Oct. 13.,/Women/Agriculturists/Take/Charge
[11] P. Philipose (2012). Rural champions of change. The Hindu, Feb. 28.
Food Security, Occupational Health, SRI, Video

Pouk La

Pouk La is a Champion Farmer in Takeo province, Cambodia. She’s been practising the System of Rice Intensification, or SRI, since 2008 and for much of that time, she has also been encouraging others in her village and in neighbouring villages to come and see her fields and follow her example. People don’t need much encouragement to follow SRI once they’ve seen Pouk La’s rice growing. “Look at her seedlings!” they say. “She plants them so young! That doesn’t take nearly as much work – then she can transplant a much bigger area in less time!” Pouk La beams as she relates how people have responded to the revelations of SRI.

SRI is a revelation and, as she points out, it needs quite a change in mindset. There are some who didn’t see the need to come to her fields and learn new techniques: “At first when I promoted SRI, most of the men would say – I have been doing farming for my whole life. It’s something that’s handed down through generations, not taught!” New ways of growing simply didn’t make sense to them: where SRI requires 10-15-day-old seedlings, in traditional practice, rice farmers transplanted much older seedlings. And, contrary to SRI practice, traditional rice growers would plant seedlings in flooded fields and clumped together. In Pouk La’s opinion, rice was also traditionally planted at the wrong time. “Before,” she says, “people would start sowing as soon as rains started in April or May.” On her advice, the converts no longer do that. “You can wait until August,” she tells them, “If we transplant too early, it obstructs growth and panicle formation.” Despite the clear differences in practice, people have started to listen to Pouk La because her results speak for themselves. She spends less on seeds, harvests more, makes money on her surplus crop and no longer has to hire labour.

Labour is a huge issue across Cambodia, with rural areas emptying out as the young, and particularly men, move to the cities to find work. It has become too hard to make a living from agriculture and communities are disintegrating as a result. SRI has made it possible for those left behind to manage the rice crops perfectly well despite the reduced labour availability. And that means income both from rice and from the factory work in the city. “When they practise SRI techniques,” says Pouk La, “the fields around the villages are no longer left empty. This is the result of their SRI awareness.”

Pouk La talks about some of the benefits of SRI in this video, including benefits that she feels are particular to women.

Pouk La is part of an agricultural training scheme run by Oxfam in Cambodia and in collaboration with the NGO Srer Khmer

Indigenous People, Rights, SRI, Video


It’s dusk and that point in the day when all is still but for the occasional distant clatter of pans or the whoops of a few children still at play. The sun stretches shadows across the fields as the cows are being brought in from pasture.

From nowhere, the tranquillity is shattered by the blast of a megaphone that emerges atop a 4 x 4: “Vote Nilima Topno!! Vote Ath-Kosia!!” The vehicle sweeps to a halt outside our building and three women climb out, all appear bristling with election fever.

They have been on the campaign trail for some time and are ready with their pitches:

My name is Nilima Topno, I am the President of a People’s Organisation called Ath-Kosia Tribal People’s Organisation.

Namaskar … My name is Ahalya Sa and I am working with the CIRTD team in Sundergar District.

Namaskar … I’m Cicilia Kandulna and I too work with CIRTD.

“Our organisation is 25,000 people strong and fights for indigenous people’s rights,” explains Nilima. “We started out with the aim of getting rights on forest land.”

Orissa state in eastern India is home to 62 different tribal groups, the vast majority are forest dwellers who rely on forest land for their living.  

Across India, there are 250 million forest dwellers. Most of them are so marginalised they do not have any recognised land rights or access to government support. This means their lives are precarious. They could get evicted from the land at any time, cannot access vital benefits and cannot even register their children in schools.

Ahalya Sa explains what her organisation is working towards: “Those who depend exclusively on the land and forest to earn their livelihood need a ‘record of rights’ – or land title – to give them some sort of security. They have that right under the ‘Forest Right Act of 2006’, which states that individual families can claim title on the land that they have been cultivating for their living.”

Unfortunately, for a vast number of those who have such rights, obtaining their title certificate is not so easy. The Centre for Integrated Rural and Tribal Development, CIRTD, is helping members of local tribes here understand that they have such rights and how to apply for them. In Orissa, progress has been very slow. “We have managed to get titles for 2000 of our families,” says Ahalya, “and now we are continuing the struggle so that all 25,000 of our members can get titles.”

Meanwhile CIRTD is also working with Ath-Kosia to help members get the most out of the land and their forest resources. Much work has gone into training people on how to improve their agricultural techniques and increase the nutritional content of their diets. And in this they have concentrated on providing support to the most vulnerable within these already marginalised and deprived communities.

“I focus on the problems and struggles of single women,” explains Cecilia. “There are many types of single women such as widows, spinsters, divorcees and physically challenged girls.” In culturally traditional communities, like here in Sundergar in the north of Orissa, the status of ‘single woman’ is a badge of shame. “These are people in our society who suffer the most,” continues Cecilia “they are the most deprived but unfortunately there are no specific government schemes for them.”

Cecilia, Ahalya and Nilima have been working with CIRTD to encourage these women that there is strength in unity and that practicing agricultural techniques that are high yielding and low cost, as well as less physically demanding, will help them gain some independence of their own so they do not rely on the families and even communities that might reject them.

This is where SRI has proven itself to be highly effective. The System of Rice Intensification is a way of planting rice that requires less seed, smaller seedlings, favours indigenous varieties and organic inputs while producing higher yields and more nutritious crops.

All these factors also have an important impact on women’s health: “Talking with doctors and according to what I have seen for myself” says Nata Mishra, the founder of CIRTD, “most women suffer from back pain because they have to bend for 8-10 hours a day to transplant their rice. And they do this regularly.”

He goes on to explain that there are a number of advantages of working with SRI that can really help to eliminate the physical hardship that conventional rice growing typically brings. As SRI requires up to 90% fewer seedlings, which are much smaller and lighter, the method greatly reduces the arduous physical labour normally required.

“And also,” continues Mishra, “many are developing cervical cancer and breast cancer which I think may be from inhaling pesticides. I think there is a serious need for scientific study into this problem.”

Nilima agrees that SRI has real physical benefits: “We bend over to transplant much less now. So, our problems with body pain have been reduced. And we use a weeding machine, which means we can stand up to weed instead of spending all day bent over uprooting weeds with our hands.

Nilima points out that another benefit of adopting SRI is that because it frees up their time and workload, members of her association have been able to diversify their crops: “Now we also grow pigeon pea, black gram, green gram. And different types of vegetables. And we eat all this produce. So, we women and our children are now eating much more nutritious food. We eat organic and it gives us more energy. I feel really happy to see these all these positive changes that we’ve worked hard for.”

Evidently these marginalised communities in Sundergar are doing all they can to improve their lives while they wait for forestry officials to follow government legislation and recognise their established rights to their forest lands.

Watch the video

CIRTD, the Centre for Integrated Rural and Tribal Development is supported by Action Aid India.



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