LET us commemorate this year’s World Labour Day with women in mind. Specifically, we want to celebrate women in agriculture. Women in the front line of export market leading in horticulture, front line of plant production. Many women in Africa do not make a living wage, work in unhealthy and unsafe workplaces, are denied basic rights, such as maternity leave, and face sexual harassment. Women in agriculture are not spared. These women who work in food production are denied rights as workers, yet their contribution in the agricultural sector has a great impact on the economy of a country.

Farm Africa reports that in sub-Saharan Africa, 80 per cent of agricultural production is by smallholder farmers. And the female share of the agricultural labour force is the highest in the world. But life for women in agriculture, especially in rural areas, is never easy. Women don’t have the same rights as men, and often have to juggle domestic duties and agricultural work – sowing, weeding and harvesting crops, but also making food for their families and collecting firewood and water.

With that in mind, it cannot be argued that it is much harder for women to yield the same results on their farms as men do, because they often have more limited access to land, agricultural extension services and technologies. But this needs to be changed. Policy makers at government-level need to bear in mind that when a woman prospers, she invests more in her home and family, giving her children more nutritious food and keeping them healthy. In fact, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation has estimated that if women were given the same access to productive resources as men, they could increase the yields on their farms by 20-30 per cent, which would in-turn reduce the number of hungry people in the world by around 12-17 per cent.

In recent months, countries around the world have put on a tough resolve to control the spread of the Coronavirus pandemic. Government measures to reduce travelling and authorities asking their citizens to work from home have seen the rise of lock-downs to control movements. But while the world puts on an aggressive fight to solve this health crisis, economically, the pandemic has immensely affected women in low and middle-income countries like Zambia.

Women are also often responsible for the care of children, the sick and elderly. This means they could have increased exposure to COVID-19, this has negative consequences for food production, preparation and child nutrition. Women belong to the essential worker’s group and are required to work in risky environments under poor health and safety conditions, whilst the labor market is controlled by the global lockdowns on the trade. This is why we must recognise, at all cost, their work and appreciate the critical role they play towards healthcare.

As a country, we need to have a discussion around this fact. This is why we would like to appreciate the work that organizations, such as Hivos do in acting as an industry watchdog. Hivos’ campaigns include local and regional partnerships with non-governmental organizations, companies, labour unions, certification bodies and others, in specific projects to improve labour conditions for our women.

Indeed, there is need for heightened advocacy around equal treatment and equal pay for women in both the formal and informal sector. Governments and business owners need to guarantee the right to decent wages and access to justice for women workers through quality and affordable legal services and community awareness. This must be our discussion on May Day, this year.

Let us involve women in the sale of produce at markets, giving them more financial independence and a better idea of market prices so they can adapt their farming businesses accordingly. Let us help women set up savings and loan groups, so that they can build up good financial records and apply for loans from banks to build up their businesses. We must talk about supporting women with agricultural projects that they can run from their homes, such as beekeeping or in the horticulture industry.

By opening up new opportunities for women, we can help them to develop new streams of income, which helps to lift them out of poverty. And when women have more economic empowerment and more opportunities, it will help the whole community and country to grow and prosper.

What should government and stakeholders do? They must improve agricultural decision-making through gender inclusive supply chains – not just at production, but also at distribution and consumption level. Women in the production industry need to be trained how to understand the market, how to adapt their businesses. They need to be taught when to sell, hold back, increase production and how to control prices. They need to learn how to negotiate with buyers and distributors.

The role of trade unions, civil society organisations and international communities cannot be over-emphasised in collectively helping to demand fair wages, improved working conditions, and protecting their labour rights, such as safety and security from physical and sexual harassment and job security.