Rural women are moving their social space and networks online and increasingly seeking to work longer hours off farm, while the communities they live in continue to operate in the historical colonial space of a ‘man’s world’.
Survey results for this report portray farming Mums in particular, as largely feeling lonely and isolated and without support.
Social media has become their crutch – their shoulder to cry on and for some, their exclusive social forum with the outside world.
With 88 percent of the rural mothers in this report’s survey working 21 hours or more and 26 percent working for over 40 hours a week, their usual social space within the rural community and, in particular, the school community had been vacated.
Traditional volunteering roles of these women within communities that are heavily reliant on the exploitation of that time, were not able to be met, leading to exclusion from important social peer groups.
Coupled with that was the immense exhaustion, stress, anxiety and pressure these women reported as suffering due to hectic timetables and pressure to take children to a large number of extracurricular activities.
The rural school’s role in escalating that pressure was evident, with many demanding volunteering from parents as Government funding has tightened. However, if that role was not fulfilled by a rural mother, she was in danger of being completely isolated from the community.
The majority of rural schools offer little to nothing in the way of after-school childcare despite evidence that many rural women were now earning off farm with many working Mums reporting feeling ‘excluded’ and ‘ostracised’ because many school events were held during working hours which they could not attend.
Many rural women have come from urban environments and may not have any experience of agricultural life. It is clear that educated career women outside of agriculture have limited options in using their skills in a farming context and risk limiting their personal growth.
Women spoken to for this report that categorized themselves as being ‘happy’ were utilising skills they had in a former career and were being paid for them. General farm manager from OB Group, Stu Taylor deliberately looks to use male employee’s partner’s skills in a way that benefits both parties. Recently this saw a female partner of a member of staff create a health and safety app for his farm that is now about to be rolled out nation-wide.
From this it is clear that farm owners and managers have a role to play in supporting rural women whether they be employees, partners of employees or partners and wives.
With the Government wanting to double primary industry export targets and wanting to encourage educated students into agriculture it is clear that the current ‘wasteland’ of knowledge among rural women who have had to stop their careers to live on farm has not been tapped into or acknowledged.
Finally, there has been very little research undertaken of today’s rural women or the wider social environment she endeavours to live within. Without urgent research, and targeted initiatives rural women and their families are at risk of severe harm that could be felt for generations to come with a vast cost to society.
To that end the following recommendations are made:
- Urgent in-depth research of rural women in New Zealand is needed.
- Current rural women’s groups need to engage empathetically across social media and educate themselves on the modern social space of rural women if they are to survive. To do that there needs to be better internet access across rural New Zealand as this is also the main way in which the modern rural woman socially engages with her peers. Without that connectivity she is at risk of further isolating and excluding herself from the wider rural community and that in turn could lead to deteriorating mental health.
- While the social space of rural women has changed, the environmental space has not. Rural schools are at the forefront of communities and should reflect that modern social space, and seek to support it. Board of Trustees within these schools need to consider if they are currently supporting the changing environment of today’s rural families or if they are condemning them.
- Working women need more support in after school childcare. Until that is enacted it will be hard for rural women to continue careers and personal growth. It’s a practical way of enabling social change, particularly as this report’s survey shows many women are working substantial hours often to the point of exclusion in their community.
- Transformative learning across rural New Zealand, for all rural women, not just those who have been marked out as leaders or professionals, would benefit the community and rural women’s health. While there are many professional courses available to rural women in agri-careers there is no support available to the rural woman who does not have an agri-career and is not interested in attending agri-professional women’s groups such as Dairy Women’s Network, Women in Arable or Rural Women NZ.
- Farm employers need to embrace the skillsets offered by females who may live on the farm because of their partner’s career. They should seek to find ways to incorporate those skill-sets in a way that showcases the female’s worth and remunerate financially.
- Volunteer work is often considered mandatory in rural communities where volunteer workloads are high. However, it should not be considered a viable alternative to a women’s previous career as that can prove exploitative and ultimately unfulfilling.
- There is no data available to analyse mental health in our rural women. There needs to be an annual survey similar to ‘rural business confidence’ conducted by one over-arching organisation so that when a crisis like the dairy downturn occurs, there is data available to lobby groups to ensure Government does not leave our rural women behind. We have no gauge as to how our rural women are coping in the current downturn and no knowledge of the crutches some of them may be turning too to cope i.e. alcohol and/or drugs.
- Who is the voice for rural women? There seems to be confusion among women as to who is representing them. Rural women groups urgently need to co-ordinate and develop a collective strategy in today’s environment.