Women Agricultural Workers Break Their Invisibility

Working in large-scale agriculture creates a whole new set of challenges for women—exposure to harsh pesticides and chemicals, isolation, sexual harassment and violence and a production quota that seeks to “turn women into machines.” But women in agriculture also have the opportunity to earn wages that can better themselves and their families, said Samantha Tate, Solidarity Center country program director for Peru.

Tate opened the Tuesday afternoon plenary session at the Solidarity Center conference in São Paulo, Brazil, “Women’s Empowerment, Gender Equality and Labor Rights: Transforming the Terrain,” where 100 union and community activists from 20 countries are meeting to share strategies, network and build collective strength.

At the plenary, “Women Worker Rights in Agriculture: the Reality, Challenges and Opportunities,” four women working to empower female agricultural workers—in Peru, Honduras, Morocco and Brazil—discussed the hardships of women agricultural workers and the successes they have achieved.

“While the sector grows and grows, we as workers are not growing,” said Rosa Julia Perez Aguilar, secretary of women’s, child and adolescent affairs at the union confederation, FENTAGRO, in Peru. Although the monthly salary for a woman working in agriculture is $234, a family of five in Peru needs a minimum $546 a month to live, she said. Salaries are so low, “children are forced to work” to enable families to survive—and as a result, they receive little or no education, perpetuating the cycle of poverty.

Women in all four countries face similar struggles and, in words of Alessandra da Costa Lunes, are fighting to “break the invisibility.”

“Overcoming inequality will mean full citizenship for women,” says Costa, vice president and women’s security at CONTAG, a 22 million-member union confederation in Brazil.

In Central America, Irís Munguía is among those holding leadership trainings and empowering women in the banana, pineapple and sugar cane industries to take on important roles in their unions and their communities. Munguía, the first female coordinator of COLSIBA, the Latin American coordinating body of agricultural unions, also has helped spearhead a contract framework agreement for multiple Central and South American nations that women can adapt during bargaining.

In Morocco, women working in agriculture in Morocco are taking part in unique trainings tailored for a workforce with low literacy, said Touriya Lahrech, coordinator of the Confederation Democratique du Travail (CDT). In turn, these women go on to train other women in isolated rural areas about such issues as the involvement of international financial institutions in their local economies, a situation “not unique to Morocco but … a shared reality with other women, the fruit of economic policies that deny women their social and economic rights.”

And in Brazil, union women taking part in the gender equality conference plenary session now have a new network of sisters and brothers in working in agriculture from around the world.

Says Lahrech: “The moment we go back to our countries, I will tell my colleagues and sisters we are not alone. Our solidarity as women coming from across the globe can only move forward our positions as women.”