As centuries pass by, human civilisation has been taking its turns. If one reviews the evolution of Mesopotamia, also known as the cradle of civilisation, the ploughing culture was introduced in 4,000 to 6,000 BC. Since then and now the cycles of role of women and men in human civilisation has taken turns in the power cycle. The ploughing culture has been one strong element of who controls the land and thus becomes the “master” and household head.
Noted French historian Fernand Braudel has clearly stated that the ploughing culture radically overturned and defined the gender roles from matriarchy to patriarchy. It is, therefore, an interesting fact that in Nepal, like in many other developing and developed countries, the plough has again returned to the hands of women. But the question here is: will it make the power structure change as it did then in Mesopotamia?
Power shift Braudel, 1998, p. 71 cites “Until now, women had been in charge of the fields and gardens where cereals were grown: everything had depended on their tilling the soil and tending the crop. Men had been first hunters, then herdsmen. But now men took over the plough, which they alone were allowed to use. At a stroke, it might seem that the society would move from being matriarchal to patriarchal: that there would be a shift away from the reign of the all-powerful mother goddess and towards the male gods and priests who were predominant in Sumer and Babylon. Developments were long-term: domestication of large animals like asses and oxen, followed by horses and camels took centuries and was accompanied with a move towards male domination of society and its beliefs, from a queen resembling the Earth Mother to a king resembling Jupiter, as Jean Przyluski put it.”
However, unlike the turn of events from men taking the plough in their hands by force during those early days of civilisation in Mesopotamia, in Nepal, it is by compulsion rather than by choice that women have had to take up yet one more responsibility in sustaining their households. The men, who had traditionally dominated the capital of the farms, have moved on to find “supposedly” more lucrative jobs outside their villages.
In Nepal, mostly men have been migrating within and outside the country, mainly to India and Tibet, Autonomous Region of China, to earn for their families. It was easier for them to return home from neighbouring countries like India and China during the ploughing seasons. However, now men and women have started migrating to other countries like Malaysia, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and beyond, from where it is not possible for them to return frequently. Their absence from their households now is for longer periods. Also the decade-long armed conflict that took place in the country expedited the process of migration to escape forced enrollment by the Maoists.
The lands have become more difficult to cultivate due to climate change and lack of irrigation facilities. At such times, women have been forced to also take over the ploughing aspect of farming to fill in the hungry mouths of their children and elderly. This is additional work on top of the other income-generating activities they were already involved in and the domestic chores, including the care economy of taking care of household members. Women always work for longer hours under the double burden of domestic and remunerative labour.
Women constitute the majority of the world’s agricultural labourers. Worldwide, they earn less than men for the same work, and their jobs are concentrated in lower paying industries and the informal sector. In addition, family labour is usually unpaid. Most villages in Nepal now look like places only for women, children and the elderly. Most farming work has always been managed by women, and now with the plough coming into their hands, they are overburdened with additional responsibilities which will have effects on their physical and mental health.
Another aspect of this phenomenon is the fact that women are opting for vegetable farming instead of traditional crops such as paddy, wheat or sugarcane, as it is easier and more lucrative. This will have an effect on the local grain production, and only a proper research will be able to reveal whether this will add to food security or insecurity. It is, therefore, very important now for policymakers to note the radical changes taking place in the socioeconomic pattern of the country and its gender impact.
Remittance It is a proven fact that Nepali migrant workers even during the pandemic have been the biggest source of foreign remittance. What percentage of this money is being spent on the wellbeing of these migrants and their families? With more and more women being burdened with the overall responsibility of their households and farming, and migrant male workers having to face the hardships of work abroad, what subsidies and support is the state giving them to make their lives easier and farming more productive?
Women have less access to financial tools, knowledge, and technology that can help them invest in their farms and make it more productive. The state definitely benefits from the remittances sent by the migrants. Proper attention must now be given to the gender shift that is taking place because of migration of people outside the country and the change in labour dynamics. With the changing socio-cultural and economic impacts on the lives of people, it is also very important to conduct a research to understand the dynamics of what is going on. The civilization in Nepal is definitely not reverting to matriarchy, so what long-term impact this phenomenon is going to have on communities, and especially women and their migrant husbands?
(Namrata Sharma is a journalist and women rights advocate firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter handle: NamrataSharmaP)