A woman banana farmer

A woman farmer tends to banana trees in Davao de Oro.

Women farm, too: Unearthing women’s voices in agriculture

One thing we rarely talk about is how difficult it is to find a woman farmer to interview. I learned this after multiple visits to Davao de Oro in the Philippines, as I searched for impact stories for the GRAISEA project.

The first time I visited Davao de Oro — then Compostela Valley — I remember sitting at a local cooperative’s office, waiting to meet its officers. It was my first day of work, and I had flown in from Luzon to Mindanao with no firsthand knowledge of farming or gender. I sat in a room filled with middle-aged men, and there was only one woman farmer. This was my first lesson on gender gaps in agriculture.

Women farmers are outnumbered by men, but they are by no means rare in the country. Yet, their contributions remain largely invisible. Agriculture is still seen as a man’s profession. Banana farming, more so. The word farmer usually evokes tan, sinewy men on sun-laden fields, harvesting crops and hauling crates of produce on their back. Less often, we think of the women who box these fruits in packing plants, weighing hundreds of bananas each day and carefully stacking them in cartons.

I rediscovered this when I asked for help interviewing women farmers. In Compostela, only one farming association, Survivor Farm, is headed by a woman. Their president, Lucena Jumamoy, started working as a bagger at 18 years old. She is 64 now. Before her husband died, she did not formally own land because when the government began awarding farmers parcels of land in 2008, only her husband applied for a plot. Globally, fewer than 2 in 10 landowners are womenWomen farmers also earn less and are less likely to have legal documents supporting their ownership of land.

This isn’t to say that women in agriculture are powerless. They might not hold the documents, but they often make financial decisions jointly with their husbands. Women farmers in the Philippines have more control over managing household expenses and are among the most empowered in the region, according to a 2017 study titled Women’s Empowerment and Gender Equity in Agriculture: A Different Perspective from Southeast Asia. However, they are also the most overworked. Compared to their Southeast Asian counterparts, Filipina farmers juggle the most significant workload at home and the farm. A headline in an article by The Business Mirror puts it succinctly: women farmers work more, paid less.

When we hear farmer’s issues, we rarely approach it from a gender lens. But if it’s difficult to find narratives of women in the agriculture sector, it’s not because women have less to say, it’s just that the value of their work has been erased for so long that we’ve forgotten to ask them.

There are also many other dimensions to the issues farmers face. Money is one. When people struggle to make ends meet, it’s natural to prioritize survival over any critique of social norms. This is why development work must be intersectional. Hand in hand with surfacing gender issues, we must focus on financial and legal literacy as well.  

Our work in Davao de Oro aims to provide legal and technical support to women and men farmers bound to disadvantageous contracts. Central to this support are the gender trainings we hold to include women farmers in the conversation.

Women’s work has historically been undervalued or discounted. The first step to changing this is to know that there are things that can be changed. When I interviewed Lucena about leading as a woman, her answer was simple. “It can’t just be men who do all the talking. What about the women,” she said.

I’m sure many others would say the same. The more I visit Compostela, the more I hope to unearth stories of women farmers who have helped build its massive banana industry. There is no shortage of strong women in agriculture, but there is a need to surface their contributions and talk about issues from their perspective. It’s time women take ownership and be valued for what they do. This starts with them discovering their experiences are worth telling.

Amanda Lingao is a media officer at IDEALS, a partner of the GRAISEA programme in the Philippines. GRAISEA is a regional programme funded by the Embassy of Sweden in Bangkok to help improve the livelihoods of small-scale producers in the agriculture sector in Asia through inclusive value chains and responsible business practices. Photos by Dada Grifon and Amanda Lingao/IDEALS