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Rural women's voices: perceptions and experiences of rural risks

This project was initiated in response to anecdotal evidence suggesting a tendency for rural women to be more proactive than men in matters of safety on the farm. If so, it is imperative that we learn more about the experiences, perceptions and aspirations of rural women in order to support and empower them in their efforts to reduce risks and enhance safety. This survey is an initial step in achieving that and it is hoped that it will be part of a larger, more comprehensive accounting of the perspectives and experiences of rural women. Utilising an online survey tool, rural women were surveyed to establish their primary concerns in regard to farm safety, canvassing their opinions and experiences of the most common or intractable problems and who was considered to be at the highest risk. It also sought indications of prevailing practices and attitudes to safety. The survey was distributed through the Rural Women New Zealand’s newsletter, along with allied women’s groups on social media. In total, one hundred and sixty women responded to the survey. While we may note whether the data are consistent (or not) with common perceptions, we can make no claims beyond that. We present the results here as a record of the experiences, reflections and voices of the women who responded. The survey data indicated that a full age range (18-75+) participated in the survey, though most respondents fell into the middle age ranges (25-55). All but twelve percent of respondents had at least one other adult in residence, indicating that most respondents had a partner or other significant adult for support. In total, 121 children were spread amongst thirty-eight percent of the participants. The largest group (23%) contained school-aged children (5-14 years), followed by pre-school children (19%), and young adults (15-17 years: 9%). Respondents came from throughout the country, with Waikato in the north (38%) and Canterbury in the south (40%) having the highest levels of participation. Similarly, there was a broad mix of land contours reported, with half (49%) describing it as rolling and thirty-one percent describing it as hilly. The three most common types of farm were dairy (45%), cattle (36%) and sheep (35%). Risks were initially divided into broad categories, some of which were almost universal: vehicles (95%); machinery (90%); chemicals (85%); animals (86%). Water hazards were reported by seventy-four percent of the women and workshop hazards by sixty percent. The most commonly reported risks within the vehicle category were associated with tractors (90%), light vehicles (89%) and quad bikes (85%). For animals, dogs (75%) and pests (74%) were the most common, though cattle, sheep and dairy cows each featured in more than half of the responses. Vehicles caused the women the most concern (46%). Chemicals and infectious diseases were seldom cited, while water (10%), animals (12%) and machinery (16%) were of concern to a moderate number of women. The most commonly cited vehicle was the quad bike, though tractors were also mentioned frequently. The level of risk of serious injury or death in relation to the broad categories was considered to be either medium (43%) or low (32%) by the women. Adult males were overwhelmingly considered to be the group most at risk of injury on the farm and males were considered to be more at risk in every age group except pre-school. Almost half the women (46%) thought that adult females were also at risk.Water was regarded as a risk for young children (36% for female preschoolers), but did not feature at all for young adults. School-aged males were thought to be most at risk from quad bikes (21%), slightly ahead of their female counterparts (19%). The most frequently occurring broad category of risk was vehicles, cited by 44% of the women; the second largest category was animals. Of those who thought animals presented the most frequent risk, cows were the subcategory mentioned most often. Adult males were again considered to be most at risk (83%), followed by adult females (49%). Vehicles were considered one of the most difficult hazards to overcome, at thirty-two percent. Slightly more women (34%) however, regarded animals as the hardest risk to overcome. Forty-six women had dealt with injury on the farm in the previous five years. Twenty-two reported injuries from animals, which is contrary to their views on the most frequent risk (vehicles) but consistent with their assessment of the most intractable risk (animals). Next most common were vehicles (9) and machinery (7). Most incidents required a visit to the local doctor (53%), and twenty-eight percent required hospital care. Eight people required specialist care and long term rehabilitation and one person needed ongoing full time care. Injury prevention measures in place included physical barriers such as roll bars (34%) and seat belts (57%). Contrary to the women’s perceptions, the injury data indicated that adult females (rather than males) comprised the single biggest group by main category (animals, rather than vehicles), though males were injured more frequently overall. Vehicles were regarded as high risk and hard to mitigate, but played a lesser role than expected. Animals were regarded as lower risk, but harder to mitigate due to their unpredictability. Forty-three percent of the women thought that attitudes to risk were shared on some risks but not others. Adult males (45%) and teen-aged males (39%) were overwhelmingly considered to be the greatest risk takers when the highest propensity to take risk (rank 1) was considered. The largest group recording the lowest propensity to take risks (rank 8) was adult females (18%). By comparison, just four percent thought that adult males ranked at that level. The data here suggest there may be some truth underlying the anecdotal evidence that women are more proactive in matters of safety. Some of the women expressed frustration at other adults’ lack of compliance with safety measures. Twenty-six women indicated that their children were present in areas of the farm where work was taking place and twenty of the twenty-eight women for whom it was relevant indicated that they did not have daytime childcare available at all. The paucity of childcare options makes it inevitable that some children will be present in working areas of the farm at least some of the time. We consider the provision of childcare options to be one of the elements that is more amenable to solutions (as it has been for urban women), subject to political will. A small number of women were opposed to the survey’s focus on risks and safety, advocating common sense and personal responsibility. We contend that individual responsibility and harm minimisation are not mutually exclusive. If there are practical ways of minimising risks or changing cavalier attitudes, it is illogical to ignore them. We acknowledge the frustration expressed by the women, but note that the point of balance between safety and operational efficiency has shifted over the years and will continue to do so. Rural women’s voices need to be part of the conversations that determine that point.
Type of thesis
Sociology and Social Policy, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, The University of Waikato
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