Pesticides and Women Agricultural Workers in South Africa: A Question of Social Justice

By London, Leslie | Women & Environments International Magazine, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

Pesticides and Women Agricultural Workers in South Africa: A Question of Social Justice


London, Leslie, Women & Environments International Magazine


THE IMPACTS OF GLOBALISATION on the lives and livelihoods of rural women in the South are clearly illustrated in the agricultural sector, where women's marginal status at work and in the domestic arena ensure that they carry the burden of pesticide-related illness and injury. Indeed, globalisation accentuates many of the contradictions that give rise to women's exposures to hazardous chemicals.

Women in Commercial Farming

The commercial farming sector is a key contributor to South Africa's economy, largely due to articulation with the global market. Commercial agriculture is also one of the largest sources of seasonal or casual employment for women in South Africa. However, working conditions on these farms are characterised by low remuneration, lack of health and social services, and uneven provision of housing and sanitation. Moreover, to gain employment at all most women have to be in a relationship with an employed male farm worker. Women farm workers are thus largely dependent on the continued employment of their male partner for work, housing (most farm workers live on the farms where they work) and other amenities. Loss of a job by a male partner usually means loss of work and accommodation for the woman (and children, if any) as well.

In addition, in recent years, as macroeconomic pressures on the agricultural sector have driven increasing externalisation of the workforce, there has been a 25% decline in employment in the sector, which has particularly impacted adversely on women farm workers' ability to gain secure employment. Thus, despite South Africa's transformation from apartheid to democracy in 1994, most farm workers continue to labour and live in a private domain, largely beyond the reach of regulatory enforcement, and with little prospect of effective unionisation. This situation is particularly pernicious for women in the sector.

Pesticide Usage and Women's Exposures

South Africa is the largest market for pesticides in sub-Saharan Africa and pesticide usage is particularly intense in export-oriented sectors. Opportunities for exposure to pesticides are widespread and multiple, resulting both from workplace and domestic exposures.

The consequences of exposure to pesticides may be both acute poisoning and chronic disease. Of the 100 to 200 cases of acute pesticides poisoning reported to the health authorities each year, the majority (66%) is reported to be men. However, there is widespread under-reporting of pesticide poisonings in South Africa, most evident when women are affected. The problem appears to stem from a reliance on deeply flawed and gender-blind routine surveillance data. In one study where more rigorous reporting methods were implemented, 61% of all poisonings involved women amongst whom workplace exposures were most common. Thus, routine reporting hides the burden of pesticide-related disease affecting women as well as that arising from occupational exposures.

The disproportionate involvement of women in piecework and as seasonal labourers is key to explaining women's increased exposures. Unfavourable conditions of employment associated with such work (e.g., no training or provision of protective equipment) elevates their risk for exposure. Indirect exposures are also significant potential causes of poisoning undetected amongst women workers. Women carrying out routine activities (e.g., weeding) and supposedly not exposed to pesticides, continue to be poisoned as a result of drift from adjacent fields or orchards, but fail to be reported. …

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