Burmese Women in Agriculture Face Pay Disparity, Discrimination

By Samantha Michaels 30 August 2014

RANGOON — For nearly two decades, Min Min has worked as a farmer in Sagaing Division, where he owns six acres of land and pays laborers to cultivate various kinds of beans and onions, depending on the season.

“The usual daily wage for male workers is 3,000 to 3,500 kyats [US$3 to $3.50], while women make 2,000 to 2,500 kyats,” the 37-year-old says. “It’s because men can do the heavy jobs, while women’s work is mild.”

That type of pay disparity is typical on many farms in Burma, where women play a key role in crop production but are often viewed as laborers, rather than farmers, according to the aid and development charity Oxfam.

In a report released Thursday about small-scale farmers in the country’s dry zone, the UK-based charity called on Burma’s government to tackle gender-based disparities in pay, land ownership and access to credit as it looks to invest in the agricultural sector, responsible for 70 percent of national employment.

Oxfam interviewed farmers in two townships of Mandalay and Magwe divisions, including women who were responsible for some of the most critical tasks on farms. In both townships, women reported wages that were about 20 percent lower than those received by their male counterparts, even when they performed the same tasks.

“The position of women in [Burma] is generally better than in many of the country’s neighbors. Despite this, women still suffer inequalities,” Oxfam wrote in the report.

In Arakan State, 35-year-old Nyunt Yi owns 20 acres of land with her husband. She hires men and women to work the paddy fields, and says that due to a local labor shortage she pays higher-than-normal daily wages, but that in the past her women laborers earned about 2,500 kyats per day while the men earned about 4,000 kyats. “Because men can work harder than women,” she told The Irrawaddy.

Not all farms give preference to male laborers, however. Tin Sein, 52, says she received the same wages as men when she worked for six years as a laborer Mon State, before moving to Rangoon Division with her husband. “There’s no difference between women and men farmers,” she told The Irrawaddy. “Women are working the traditional job, like their grandfathers and fathers did in the past.”

But according to Oxfam, gender-based discrimination in Burma’s agricultural sector goes beyond wages.

“Land registration, access to credit and access to training are directed at heads of households, mostly men. Only a small percentage of women are landholders, and land inherited by women may actually be registered in their husband’s name,” it said in the report.

The charity added that some women farmers in Mandalay and Magwe divisions earned extra income by working alternative jobs, including running small enterprises or producing handicrafts. But it said few of them could further these opportunities because they lacked access to credit, which is usually directed at male heads of households.

Last year, Burma’s government launched a National Strategic Plan for the Advancement of Women (NSPAW), a 10-year roadmap to address gender challenges in a dozen priority areas, including access to education, health care, jobs, credit and resources. The plan recommended an analysis of women’s inclusion in land and agrarian reform, as well as the establishment of vocational training centers and information centers where women can look for work. It also called for research into pay disparities.
“Success will depend on whether the NSPAW addresses the role of women’s economic empowerment in agriculture and if it establishes how this will be supported in policies and budgets,” Oxfam wrote.

In addition to legal changes to allow equal access to land, finance and pay, Oxfam called for measures to create or improve economic opportunities specifically for women farmers, by focusing on crops or areas of the value chain where their leadership can be strengthened. For example, it said women in Burma already play an important role in cotton farming and could take advantage of new opportunities to increase their involvement in cotton trading or seed-specialization enterprises.

“Women’s ability to benefit from economic opportunities determines the ability of family members, especially children, to prosper. From both the perspective of human development and women’s rights, women as well as men must benefit from [Burma’s] new economic opportunities,” it said.

With reporting by Nyein Nyein and San Yamin Aung.