Reducing risks from pesticides by empowering rural women

Pesticide Risk Reduction through Empowering rural women

Women are central to the development of rural areas and national economies. They make up at least 43 percent of the agricultural workforce worldwide, with that figure rising to more than 70 percent in some countries.

By improving rural women’s access to resources and opportunities, food security can be enhanced for current and future generations. This goal lies at the heart of the Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) mandate.  

Finding simple solutions to accelerate progress, however, is no easy matter. The prevalence of toxic chemicals and pesticides around the world is especially hazardous to women. What is worse, those most vulnerable are unaware of the dangers they face in using and handling these substances.

“The livelihoods of rural families are dependent on their crops and their harvests. They rely on these to feed their children, themselves and to sell at market. Often, this is their sole form of survival. So, when a farmer identifies a pest threatening their only source of food or money; their immediate reaction is that a “ready-to-use” solution like a pesticide is the exactly what they need,” said Elisabetta Tagliati, FAO Programme Officer for the Rotterdam Convention (RC).

Protecting vulnerable groups

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 5, is to achieve gender equality and to empower all women and girls. Addressing key challenges such as poverty, inequality, and discrimination against women is essential to change the course of the 21st century.

The target is to enhance the use of enabling technology, and in particular information and communications, to promote the empowerment of women.

Gender equality and rural women’s empowerment are central to UN efforts to reduce rural poverty and to achieve food security for all. By supporting national governments, several countries have now adopted national food and agriculture policies and action plans that fully integrate the need to spread knowledge about either cutting down on the use of or handing pesticides appropriately.

Ultimately, to increase incomes, it is essential to maximise women’s presence in rural institutions in addition to creating gender-parity by amending policies at local, national and international levels. Raising awareness of practices carrying low or high risks is key to advancing the economic empowerment of women working in agriculture. 

Safeguarding health

Building a safer planet involves spreading the word about the correct ways to handle pesticides, from their purchase and sale, through to transporting them, in addition to raising awareness about the precautions to take to store them safely. The risks to those spraying fields without adequate equipment are high and ensuring instructions can be understood by those coming in to contact with pesticides is essential. Labels intended to inform are often a barrier towards safe use because many of those utilising the chemicals are unable to read or understand the languages in which guidelines are produced. “Insecticides are designed to destroy insects and this means they are also likely to be toxic to humans. Herbicides are widely used, and over time, low doses of exposure, can increase the risks of Parkinson’s disease, cancers, diabetes, gluten intolerance, infertility, and reproduction disorders,” said Tagliati.  The RC has also noted that children commonly play in fields where pesticides are present and that women frequently wash contaminated clothes with their bare hands.

To tackle these trends, the RC holds international and national workshops to train and advise individuals.  

Promoting the sound management of toxic substances

“Globally we are looking at about 500,000 chemicals that are used in industrial processes. Some 5000 chemicals are added to that list every year. Most of them are extremely beneficial. Among them are medicines for saving lives. They are also necessary for industrial processes, to produce equipment for use, and, they are required to sustain a certain level of agricultural production such as fertilisers and plant protection products. About 200 million farmers apply these substances around the world,” said Gerold Wyrwal, FAO Agricultural Officer for the Rotterdam RC.

Many of these farmers are women and these women are often the victims of disturbing experiences.

Scientists report that global reproductive health is being affected and the research shows that pesticides are at least partly to blame. Moreover, pesticides have been linked to miscarriages, premature births and reduced fertility in both men and women.  

The evidence indicates that exposure; even to small doses can be lethal. The pesticide problem calls for renewed and ongoing action.

Text by Sarah Barden
Communications and Advocacy Officer
FAO Rotterdam Convention Secretariat