Are more women farmers a good thing in Tajikistan?

Despite the coping strategies, challenges remain.

Despite the coping strategies, challenges remain

Women in northern Tajikistan, as in many places in the developing world, have become the de facto heads of farms and sometimes even community ‘water masters’ because of male out-migration.

Photo: Neil Palmer
Photo: Neil Palmer


At the same time, in this former Soviet Republic, many women also need to take low-paid seasonal agricultural jobs to make ends meet, and have found their needs are more likely to be filled by toiling as day laborers rather than by working under a seemingly more stable contract.

Those were some of the findings in the recently published research report by the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), Land reforms and feminization of agricultural labor in Sughd Province, Tajikistan. Sughd is a province in the heavily irrigated and agriculturally productive Fergana Valley.

Nozilakhon Mukhamedova, lead author of the report, found that the ‘feminization of agriculture’ had increased in recent years, in the aftermath of an economy where jobless rates soared to 40%, driving more than 60% of the males from their homes to find work.

“Such feminization of agriculture in rural areas is seen with mixed feelings. Most of all, it is a coping strategy, since male out-migration increased food and livelihood insecurity of the rural households as well as creating labor shortages within the traditional settings,” said Kai Wegerich, co-author of the report. Indeed, today, women can be found doing everything a male farmer traditionally did, from preparing land to planting, irrigating and harvesting.

The researchers found that, despite this ‘empowered role’, women, as in many places in the world where feminization of agriculture has occurred, still aren’t adequately supported by government policies, agricultural programs or social support systems. As a result, women are more likely to struggle than men when harvests or the economy sour.

[pullquote type=”pullquote5″ content=”There is also a need to better integrate women farmers into existing agricultural policies and social support systems.” quote_icon=”yes” align=”right” textcolor=”#072b92″]There is also a need to better integrate women farmers into existing agricultural policies and social support systems.[/pullquote]
Mukhamedova’s research consisted of 60 in-depth interviews and focus group discussions in two districts during three weeks in late 2011, with follow-up visits in late 2012. Those interviewed included household members, farmers and their workers, community leaders and the staff of water users’ associations. Both collective and private farms were represented.

Tajikistan is mountainous with only 10% of its land suitable for agriculture. However, agriculture accounts for almost 75% of the total employment and nearly one-quarter of gross domestic product.

Aspects of the feminization of agriculture started emerging in the Soviet period. However, according to Mukhamedova, they became more pronounced with the recent restructuring of state and collective farms, male out-migration due to high unemployment rates, and increased cultivation of diverse cash crops, such as wheat and rice grains, vegetables and fruits. Cotton production, which was mandated during the Soviet era, remains the staple crop.

Legislation in 2002 created new farm types, such as private farms owned by individuals, family farms and farming partnerships. However, land reforms have been slow to materialize, and private farms tend to be small and more vulnerable to seasonal fluctuations and economic downturns.

‘Kitchen’ gardens that provide female-headed households some food security are on the rise. Still, the reality, according to Mukhamedova’s research, is that women often need to take on multiple jobs to cover household needs.

What would appear to be the least attractive and insecure job – day labor – has clear advantages. By working as mardikors (daily-wage workers, mainly utilized on cash crops outside the state order system), women get paid a daily wage. Those immediate payments help them take care of the basic household expenses.

Photo: Neil Palmer
Photo: Neil Palmer

Women working part-time under written or oral contracts, meanwhile, typically get paid only monthly. However, due to the tight energy resources in the area, the payments are unpredictable – often a combination of cash and cotton sticks, the latter of which can be used for heating and cooking during the cold season.

Doing seasonal work as a mardikor often requires a woman to travel daily outside her village – as far as neighboring Kyrgyzstan. The day laborers are increasingly organized in cooperative units led by a woman who coordinates their work. This is the most prominent example of where women farmers are actually recognized. National and donor-led programs have, generally, not yet given significant attention to women’s needs based on their roles.

“The findings from Sughd Province show positive signs for women as leaders in households and in informal day labor cooperative units,” concludes Mukhamedova. “But there is also a need to better integrate women farmers into existing agricultural policies and social support systems.”

To some extent, women have also taken over the role of water masters within villages and some private farms. Not only does this reflect the fact that there are more female-headed households due to male out-migration, but it also highlights that, due to religious and cultural norms, male water masters aren’t able to collect fees from women, fine women or otherwise enforce water distribution. This case is similar to neighboring Uzbekistan, according to a new study by the same researchers.

The Tajikistan study was funded by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) and the CGIAR Research Program on Dryland Systems.

The next phase of the research includes a gender analysis based on case studies in three Central Asian countries – Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Researchers will provide recommendations on how to better target women through legislation and improved agricultural labor contract relationships. The efforts will include working with local and international partners in the region on gender mainstreaming.

Read the Research Report:


Nozilakhon Mukhamedova is a Research Officer – Gender Specialist at the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), Tashkent, Uzbekistan.

Kai Wegerich is a Senior Researcher: Water Policy, Institutions and Organizations at IWMI, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

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