Thursday, December 21, 2017

Women in agriculture

Chemical pollution from agro-chemical residues expose agricultural workforce, neighbours and other people living close to water, soil and air polluted by pesticides as well as consumers eating this contaminated fruits, vegetables, and livestock. While this pollution may be seen as gender-neutral, the fact is that women are affected disproportionately. Women in agriculture have a higher level of informal and vulnerable employment24 and therefore less access to benefits and social protection, low representation and more occupational hazards. 

Women outnumber men in agricultural workplaces like intensive agricultural production, market gardening, floriculture and agro processing industries, where the use of toxic chemicals, and especially pesticides, is most common. The brochure “Breast cancer, pesticides and you” by Meriel Watts25 gives an overview of women’s exposure to pesticides: “In some countries women make up 85 per cent or more of the pesticide applicators on commercial farms and plantations, often working whilst pregnant or breastfeeding. 

There are an estimated 30,000 women pesticide sprayers in Malaysia alone that spray pesticides, and frequently highly toxic ones like paraquat, on an average of 262 days per year. Eighty per cent of the spraying is carried out with leaky hand-held equipment. An incentive of extra 50 cents per day is enough to encourage these impoverished women to spray. Even if they do not directly apply the pesticides, women work and raise their children in a toxic environment. They mix pesticides, weed while pesticides are being applied, wash out pesticide containers, or harvest pesticidedoused crops. They wash pesticide-soaked clothing and store pesticides in their homes.”

Female farmers and workers in agriculture very often do not know what kind of pesticides and chemicals they deal with and how dangerous they are for their own and their children’s health. Often they are less educated and less informed than men, so they have greater difficulties in understanding warning instructions and labels. Since many of the health problems occur later in life many women are unlikely to connect them to their chemical exposure. As a result, many diseases caused by exposure to hazardous chemicals stay undetected. Rural women’s access to information is very much needed, as well as stricter laws protecting rural workers from hazardous chemicals.

A survey of female rice farmers in Thailand found that women lack basic training in handling pesticides. Their husbands, who were skilled using pesticides had left the country in search for work, and their wives had to take over in the fields. Despite the negative consequences for their health, they were not willing to participate in training courses because of conflicting caring and housework commitments. A USAID training programme in Papua New Guinea failed for the same reasons. They did not consider women’s family responsibilities, because the programmes were arranged as three full-day trainings away from the villages. Women found it difficult to travel and find arrangements for child care. Surveys have shown that highly hazardous pesticides are in widespread use, in unsafe conditions exposing and poisoning the environment and the people. As stated in UNEP’s Global Chemicals Outlook, the estimated costs of poisonings from pesticides in sub-Saharan Africa now exceed the total annual overseas development aid given to the region for basic health services, excluding HIV/AIDS. 

Between 2005 and 2020, the accumulated cost of illness and injury linked to pesticides in small-scale farming in sub-Saharan Africa could reach USD $90 billion. The International Code on Pesticide Management states that “pesticides whose handling and application require the use of personal protective equipment that is uncomfortable, expensive or not readily available should be avoided, especially in the case of small-scale users and farm workers in hot climates.” In such countries, the responsible regulatory approach should be to prohibit the import and use of HHPs and to help farmers identify effective, less hazardous alternatives. 
However, countries are often unaware of safer alternatives. There is even a lack of initiative on which HHPs should be prioritized for prohibition and substitution. 

Acute exposure to pesticides can lead to death or serious illness.30 Long-term exposure to pesticides can increase the risk of developmental and reproductive disorders, immune system disruption, endocrine disruption, impaired nervous system function, and development of certain cancers. Women are more susceptible to pesticides than men. They absorb pesticides through their skin more easily than men. For example, dermal absorption of the organochlorine lindane is three times greater for women than for men. Pesticides also reside longer in female bodies than in males. Women are more vulnerable to endocrine disrupting active pesticides, especially in critical windows such as during pregnancy, lactation or puberty. Many pesticides are associated with breast cancer: hexachlorocyclohexane, endosulfan, chlorpyriphos, malathion, aldicarb, and more. Meriel Watts presents a comprehensive list of pesticides associated with breast cancer in her book “Pesticides & Breast Cancer: A Wake Up Call”.


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