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International Women's Day: Patriarchy, market-driven economy undermine crucial role of women in Indian agriculture

The village of Diguvapalli in Anantapur, some 200 km north of Bangalore, has only 100 families. Strangely, very few men are seen around. Most males left in the village are either children or senior citizens. “With rains repeatedly failing us, men go to Bangalore to work as waiters and construction labourers,” said K Nageshwaramma. The 38-year-old owns five acres in the village. With not too many men around, women farmers have not only gained more autonomy over their fields but also more burden. “Farming has been left to us. With unpredictable rains and successive droughts, we are sustaining ourselves by growing more millets,” she added.

Of the 100 households in Diguvapalli, farmlands of 25 households are run exclusively by women. “Women take part of agricultural activities in at least 85 households,” said Bhanuja. The latest economic survey by the ministry of finance points out this growing phenomenon. With rural to urban migration by men, there is a growing ‘feminisation’ of the agriculture sector, said the survey.

Nageshwaramma (left) holds a bunch of finger millets. Image courtesy: Karthikeyan Hemalatha

Nageshwaramma (left) holds a bunch of finger millets. Image courtesy: Karthikeyan Hemalatha

The women of Diguvapalli along with 130 of their counterparts in three panchayats — Muthyalacheruvu, Eaguvapalli, and Brahmanapalli — registered themselves as a cooperative society to form the Mahila Raithula Uthpathidharula Sangham with the Union ministry of agriculture. Nageshwaramma is one of the leaders of the society. “The aim of the society is to ensure they get fair prices on their products. The society also acts as the connection between the government and women farmers, especially with the implementation of Zero Budget Natural Farming (ZBNF),” said founder president of the Rural & Environment Development Society (REDS) C Bhanuja. The NGO often works with the government to implement pro-poor policies in Anantapur district.

While roles are now changing, women have always played a significant and critical role in agriculture. It is patriarchy and a market-driven economy that blindsides them, farm experts and activists say.

“With women predominant at all levels — production, pre-harvest, post-harvest processing, packaging, marketing — of the agricultural value chain, to increase productivity in agriculture, it is imperative to adopt gender-specific interventions,” read the economic survey. “An ‘inclusive transformative agricultural policy’ should aim at gender-specific interventions to raise the productivity of small farm holdings, integrate women as active agents in rural transformation, and engage men and women in extension services with gender expertise,” it added.

According to one report by the National Mission for Empowerment of Women, 80 percent of women who are employed in rural areas work in agricultural activities. About 60 percent of all agricultural operations are handled exclusively by women. Activists say while the role of women is changing within agriculture, their participation has always been integral. “Their role has been made invisible,” said convener of Alliance of Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture (ASHA) Kavitha Kuruganti. And they do not get equal pay. “Female hourly wage rates in agriculture vary from 50 to 75% of male rates, and are too low to overcome absolute poverty,” read the report. Another report by the National Institute of Rural Development and Panchayat Raj said almost 90 percent of women workers are dependent upon agriculture.

In the case of suicides, women farmers are not recognised. They are simply categorised as ‘housewives’, and not by their professional capacity. Of the 12,602 suicides by farmers and agricultural labourers in the year 2015, the NCRB recorded only 1,018 women suicides, which is about 8 percent of all farm-related suicides. “The cop who is recording the suicide of a woman is from the same community and does not see her as a farmer. He just sees her as the wife of a farmer,” said founder-editor of People’s Archives of Rural India (PARI) P Sainath. “This is the custom across the country. This is primarily because women are not land-holders. Less than 8% of the women in the country have land in their names,” he added.

Women farmers of Diguvapalli. Image courtesy: Karthikeyan Hemalatha

Women farmers of Diguvapalli. Image courtesy: Karthikeyan Hemalatha

Telangana, followed by Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh, leads the country in the number of suicides committed by women farmers and agricultural labourers. “A woman who owns the land is a different person. She is not at the mercy of her husband or the family she is married into and community around. It changes the world for her. She cannot be kicked out by her husband,” he added.

Traditional obstacles like mobility, education and the inability to interact with the market still exist. However, a few women farmer groups are breaking the mould. Growing millets is a symbol of moving away from the clutches of patriarchy in farming. “Being the least input demanding crops, millets run against the 'high input = high output' market logic. Therefore, it leaves an anti-corporate economics. These values of millets bring them closest to the eco-feminist philosophy,” said a statement from All India Millet Sisters Network. The network was launched in November 2016 and is set to receive the ‘Nari Shakti Puraskar, 2017’ for outstanding contribution to women’s empowerment. The award will be presented by the President of India at Rashtrapati Bhawan, New Delhi on the International Women’s Day on 8 March.

The Women’s Collective in Tamil Nadu, also part of the All India Millet Sisters Network, tries promoting millets amongst women farmers, as they can keep some of their produce for their homes, giving food security to the entire family. “The challenge, however, is that most women are landless and do not have a say in what can be grown in the lands they are working on,” said Sheelu Francis from the collective. “We organise them into collectives and encourage to lease lands in groups of five to ten for them to grow millets. Millets are also hardy and resistant to the vagaries of climate change,” she added. Her collective works with nearly 12,000 women farmers in dryland regions of Tamil Nadu.

The All India Millet Sisters Network is an initiative of the Deccan Development Society and has more than 20 NGOs working across ten states. CN Suresh, one of the coordinating members of its parent network, Millet Network of India, believes the knowledge of women in farming, especially in dry-land regions is unparalleled. “In some villages in Telangana, crops are categorised as ‘male’ crops and ‘female’ crops. Male crops are commercial crops like cotton and sugar while female crops are millets,” he said. “While the men grow only commercial crops, they sell and the money does not leave their hands. Whereas women growing millets keep some for their house and then sell the rest. By growing millets, women are retaining decision-making powers,” he said.

Women, in most cases, have a bigger role in agriculture than men — at least in small and marginal farmlands. “Some 85 percent of all farmlands in the country are small and marginal. And in these lands, it is the woman who has a larger role in farming. In most cases, men only take care of plowing, cutting and selling,” said a member of Mahila Kisan Adhikaar Manch (Makaam) or Forum For Women Farmers' Rights Sejal Dand. “Recognising the role of women is the best way to revive agriculture and ecology, especially in the era of direct benefit transfers. It gives her social security,” she added. The forum has members across 24 states working towards securing due recognition and rights of women farmers in India.

In 2011, MS Swaminathan — often known as the father of India’s green revolution — introduced a Private Members’ Bill for the empowerment of farm women in land and water rights, access to technology, credit, and insurance. The bill was not taken up for discussion during his tenure. “It is, however, time that both state and central governments enact legislation for the empowerment of farm women. An important cause for the present agrarian crisis is the neglect and disempowerment of women in agriculture,” he said in a statement.

Updated Date: Mar 08, 2018 09:42 AM

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