By: Ekaterina Shaleva

2016-09-14 23:52:37

Rural Women in Agriculture

Agriculture and the rural sector have traditionally played a crucial role in the economy of Europe, contributing to programs of poverty reduction, food security, community development and national economic growth. Thus, the European Union has devoted a large part of its budget to promoting agriculture and food security in the region. The Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) was introduced in 1962 as a way to provide a “stable and safe food supply at affordable prices for consumers, while ensuring a decent standard of living for farmers” through agricultural subsidies.[1] It has received much criticism throughout the years because of its high financial cost, which reached 71 percent of the EU budget in 1984, and its environmental and humanitarian costs such as rising food prices and biodiversity loss.[2] Moreover, it has failed to adequately address the growing gender gap in the region.


The name of CAP itself alerts us to its attempt to generalize the problems and needs of the agricultural sectors and rural populations of Europe. Its reliance on direct payments to farmers and financing of programmes for the development of rural areas is based on the flawed assumption of the uniformity of countries’ situations and people’s experiences on the ground.

The benefits of the income-support schemes initiated by CAP apply to currently active farmers. Yet, women represent only around 42 percent of the total agricultural labor force in Bulgaria, a small country in the Balkans, which relies heavily on agriculture to sustain its economy; the number is even poorer in farms of over 500 ha, the principal beneficiaries of these programs, whose main objective is to increase productivity. While women are found to be more represented on smaller agricultural enterprises, they frequently have the status of spouse of the manager, often engaging in unpaid labor and are thus excluded from the category of "currently active farmers."[3]

Furthermore, the newly proposed changes in CAP have been specifically targeted at young farmers who will benefit from an additional 25 percent aid supplement during the first 5 years of their participation.[4] However, the “intense urbanization” of recent years has led to a higher proportion of older people living in rural areas. That coupled with the high fertility rates of rural areas in part as a result of early marriages, limited access to health services and lower levels of education, has led to a rapidly aging rural populations in Europe, disproportionally comprising of females, as well as a greater number of dependents under 15 relative to urban areas.[5]

In addition, low incomes and unfavorable working conditions discourage many young people from starting a career in agriculture, something that seems to be assumed by the long-term benefit schemes of CAP. These policies have also largely ignored the ones incapable of farm work characterized by heavy physical labor either due to advanced age or family obligations. In both of these cases, the burden falls on women who are disproportionately represented both among the elderly and the family household.

By prioritizing measures of agricultural output and consumption, the agricultural policies of the EU have failed to address some of the most urgent problems faced by rural populations, such as the persistence of gender stereotypes, the lack of alternative employment opportunities, and the limited access to education and health services.


Take Bulgaria, for example - the country’s focus on land consolidation schemes fails to address the gender gap in land relations among its rural population. The land restitution following the fall of Communism led to a significant fragmentation of land ownership in the country - 23 percent of arable land is owned by the farmers themselves while the rest belongs to institutional investors, municipalities and the state.[6] In addition, almost 79 percent utilized agricultural area is currently being leased. This fragmentation acts as a barrier to “long-term investments in agriculture, land improvements and efficient use of agricultural machinery,” calling for urgent measures of land consolidation.[7] However, there has not been a clear and unified strategy. All of these land schemes have disregarded women, a minority in both the agricultural labor force and in the ownership structure of the farmland. What is needed is a better understanding and recognition of the barriers women face in entering the labor force, as well as in moving up the leadership ladder in the agricultural sector.


The agricultural policies put forth by both the EU and the Bulgarian government have largely been motivated by the goal of creating employment opportunities and stimulating job growth. While focusing on increasing the economic opportunities in the region, the lack of which prompts many capable young people to flock to the cities, such policies fail to take into account the importance of fighting the increasing gender gap for its own sake; instead they focus on what Ester Duflo calls the “business case” for women empowerment to justify their passivity in addressing gender inequality. That is, she argues, while creating policies to reduce poverty and increase opportunity most likely have a positive impact on gender equality, the “interrelationships between empowerment and development may be too weak to be self-sustaining.”[8] What is needed in order to advance gender justice is thus not singular policies aimed at stimulating economic growth but rather a “continuous policy commitment to equality for its own sake.”[9] Pervasive stereotypes about women’s empowerment can lead to improvement in some aspects of their lives such as children’s welfare but they often come at the expense of others such as level of education.

Promoting gender equality should not be solely considered as the positive externality of a successful economic policy. Instead, the fight for women’s empowerment should be at the forefront of development policies’ mandates.


Before we can begin asking the question of what policies we need to implement in order to advance gender justice, we need to first examine our own motivations for equality. Functionalist approaches to gender justice that stress women’s role in achieving economic efficiency miss a fundamental aspect of gender justice, which refers to the individual freedom to live a life one finds worth living. Understanding gender justice in relation to its intrinsic value of providing everyone the freedom to choose their life circumstances could only lead us to appreciate the crucial need to advance it.

While the functionalist value of gender justice might be instrumental in convincing policymakers to invest in women’s emancipation, such approaches often lead to inadequate metrics such as GDP growth when evaluating gender justice in a given society. Thus, instead of asking how society could benefit from advancing gender justice, we should start asking women if they believe they are living their lives to their full potential, using metrics such as individual freedom and choice to evaluate policies’ impact. Instead of focusing solely on improving the existing working conditions of women on farms, future policies must strive to increase their mobility across regions and sectors as well as to “free up” their time by providing better access to reproductive health and education.



[1] “The CAP in your country,” European Commission, last updated April 22, 2016, accessed May 10, 2016,

[2] “Common Agricultural Policy,” Wikipedia, last modified May 8, 2016, accessed May 10, 2016,

[3] Bozhura Fidanska, “The Position of Women in the Rural Labour Market in Bulgaria – Many Challenges and Some Solutions,” Economics and Rural Development Vol.5.2 (2009): 9.

[4] “Bulgaria: Common Agricultural Policy,” European Commission, March 2015.

[5] Rocca, Bossanyi, Di Giuseppe, “Rural Women,” 6.

[6] Axel Reiserer, “Helping Bulgarian farmers to become landowners,” European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, April 17, 2014, accessed May 10, 2016,

[7] Abadjieva, “Poverty and Social Exclusion in Rural Areas,” 10.

[8] Ester Duflo, “Women Empowerment and Economic Development,” Journal of Economic Literature 50.4 (2012), 1051.

[9] Duflo, “Women Empowerment and Economic Development,” 1051. 


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