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Empowering the fields

To work for a living for a woman in India is not easy especially if she is a farmer.

Empowering the fields

HARD LABOUR: Women have to compete with men for access to resources; no easy task.

Jayshree Sengupta

To work for a living for a woman in India is not easy especially if she is a farmer. We often see farmers marching in protest, holding big rallies, blocking roads with their produce thrown about but we never see women farmers or their leaders marching in agitation. Yet, there are many women farmers in the country and October 16 has been declared Women Farmers’ Day. According to OXFAM (2017), 40 per cent of women in the labour force rely on agriculture as their primary source of income. They are engaged in plantations, dairy farming, agro processing and packaging. Most women in the villages are engaged in activities like winnowing and harvesting in the family’s plot of land, but there are many who are forced to undertake full-time farming because of migrant husbands or because their husbands have committed suicide. Since 2013, over 12,000 farmers have committed suicide every year and the burden of debt repayment has fallen on the wives who often have no assets and have to work full time as farmers to pay back debts.

Short-term migration has also become very common in villages as opportunities open up in cities for earning higher cash incomes. Women are forced to become the main operators of farms and they have to make all farming decisions. This phenomenon of feminisation of agriculture is taking place in a number of developing countries, including India, and women are forced to play multiple roles as entrepreneurs, labourers and cultivators. They have to compete with men in getting access to resources which is difficult.

Most women who are working on farms do not own land. Only a small percentage (12.8 per cent) owns it. According to the 2011 Census, out of a total number of female main agricultural workers, 55 per cent are agricultural labour and only 24 per cent are actual cultivators. Even though women make up for more than one-third of the Indian agricultural workforce, their presence is ignored and their incomes/wages are lower than that of men. Budget 2018, however, acknowledged the role of women in agriculture and 30 per cent of budget allocation is for women beneficiaries in all ongoing schemes and programmes as well as development activities. If implemented successfully, many problems faced by women farmers could be ameliorated. 

Women are eager learners, though most women farmers have low literacy rate. Even so, state governments, farming groups and private industry are beginning to train women to lead farming activities and teach them about irrigation, crops and finance. When women control the finances, they usually invest more in their children and education—not spending on narcotics and alcohol. This change is happening in some states as more women are now heads of farming households. In the past due to the prevalent patriarchy, women were blamed for poor harvests and hounded as witches in some agricultural communities if harvests failed. With more women in farming, a cultural shift is taking place yet their role in agriculture is not officially acknowledged. As a result, it is not easy for women to access credit, water, seeds and markets.

Women farmers can be innovative. I met such a woman farmer some time ago in Gujarat in Mehsana district. She was into cultivating medicinal plants such as aloe vera, tulsi, ginger, stevia and turmeric. She was doing good business. It is interesting that women are keen on earning more by growing high-value crops. Since her plot was small, she realised that special high value plants will fetch her better returns. She had learnt all about such plants and tended them carefully.  Many women farmers are keen to learn techniques for increasing productivity and improving the quality of the produce. Hence from doing farming to feed their families, some women have become dynamic entrepreneurs and are making profits, much to the amazement of their husbands and families. 

Unfortunately, national agricultural policies are still male centric and are not geared to cater to women farmers. Most policy makers think of farmers as predominantly male. Extension services in villages are typically male and engage with male farmers while ignoring women, as it is assumed that women are not managing the farms.

Several women farmers are turning out to be very successful producers of horticultural products which are much in demand in urban India like tomato, broccoli and celery. They are learning how to use the right mix of fertilisers to get the best results and they are also learning how to market them. They are good at recycling waste and making organic fertilisers. They are natural preservers of seeds and they look after the welfare of farm animals. But they need help in learning better techniques of farm management. The Self Employed Women’s Association has undertaken this kind of training for women farmers, giving them information about seeds, farming techniques, drip irrigation etc., which is helping raise the productivity of small and marginal farms. This is exactly what India needs because 80 per cent of the farms are small and marginal in size and the main problem facing them is low productivity, irrigation and lack of crop diversification. 

Some women farmers also own bigger farms and need mechanisation to increase efficiency. The commonly used agricultural machinery is designed for men and is too heavy for women to handle. Hence machinery has to be designed for women which they can handle. 

Self-help groups are already actively supporting women with microcredit, but institutional credit would be helpful in women buying better inputs. Hence, all efforts should be made by the state to create a favourable ecosystem for women farmers, allowing them greater access to finance at lower interest rates, helping them to engage in farming profitably. 

Similarly, there should be women-only stalls in mandis where women find it convenient to sell their produce without hassles. Women should also be taken into Agricultural Marketing Committees which are male centric. In many ways, by strengthening women’s farming activities agriculture can get a boost. The current agricultural distress is being felt more by women as they have to work harder, but are unable to participate in demos and bandhs because they cannot afford to leave their farms and children untended.

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