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‘A Distant Dream’: The Slow Road to Equality for India’s Women Farmers

Failed by flawed government policies and left out of development programs, women farmers around India are coming together to demand fair treatment and access the support to which they are entitled.

Written by Sutirtha Sahariah Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
With their husbands working in nearby cities for months at a time, the women farmers of Rakhukhor village are left alone to run their families' farms. When Subhawati Devi (second from right) and her friends need money to buy equipment or seeds, they have no access to loans because they don't own land. So they pawn their jewelry instead.Sutirtha Sahariah

UTTAR PRADESH, India Sitting outside her house in Rakhukhor village, Suhbawati Devi describes the daily routine she shares with her friends. “Our day begins at the break of the dawn,” says Devi, 41. “After completing all household work and sending the children to school, we go to the field to cultivate our land. In the afternoon, we return home to attend to our livestock. Soon after, we go back to the field where we work until sunset.”

The farms where the women work in eastern Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, are small. But they are essential to the survival of their families, who rely on the income they earn by selling the vegetables they grow. “We have a number of mouths to feed,” Devi says. “We pay for our children’s education and [we have to] be prepared for unforeseen expenses like someone falling ill or crops failing.”

Small and marginal land holdings – anything smaller than 2 hectares (4.9 acres) – account for almost half of the net irrigated land in India, and in most rural and semi-urban areas in Uttar Pradesh the average size of cultivating land for small and marginal farmers is only 0.5 hectares. Farms of that size do not produce enough to support the farmers’ often large families, so many men from the villages migrate to urban areas to work, leaving the entire burden of agricultural output on women.

A 2012 report by U.N. Women, the United Nations’ gender-equality agency, found that 79 percent of the women in India’s rural workforce are engaged in agricultural activities, compared with 63 percent of men. But women have almost no opportunity to make decisions about the land they work.

According the latest economic survey of India, women constitute more than 55 percent of the farming sector’s main workers – defined as anyone who spends six months or more a year making money through agricultural activities – yet they hold only 12.8 percent of agricultural assets.

To address that disparity, the government has introduced a number of measures over the past year. They include boosting access to micro-credit for women’s self-help groups and ensuring that at least 30 percent of the budget for all government agriculture development schemes is targeted to women. Last year the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare declared Oct. 15 Women Farmers’ Day.

But activists say the policies and interventions have done little to improve the lives of female farmers.

“I can tell you not a single government program has ever reached a woman in my village,” says Saroj Patil, 41, a farmer and activist from Jalgoan district in the western Indian state of Maharashtra.

“The patriarchy is so dominant and caste system so deeply rooted that, in reality, women’s right to property is a distant dream. Men simply want women to be confined to the walls of their homes.”

‘They Always Ask for Our Husbands’

In Rakhukhor village, the women farmers say without property or land in their names, they are not eligible for loans offered under government schemes. With their husbands often away for months at a time, “when we need money to buy seeds or fertilisers or to deal with emergencies, we have to [pawn] our jewellery to a private money lender who exploits us by charging astronomical rates of interest,” Devi says.

When government workers come to the village to run programs to help farmers boost their crop yields, the women are often ignored and undervalued. “They always ask for our husbands,” says another farmer, Premshiela Devi (no relation). “There are no women officers in this sector and if we ask something twice the men get agitated, which makes us very uncomfortable. We are never invited to any meetings in the village where they discuss farmers’ issues because we don’t own any land. The society here believes that things outside home are the prerogative of men.”

Even in cases where land is registered in a woman’s name, it may only be because doing that can save a man some money – in some states, women property buyers pay lower stamp duty. “In reality, women have no say in the decision-making process,” says Shiraz Wajih, director of Gorakhpur Environment Action Group, an NGO that advocates for female farmers’ rights. “Women are not seen as farmers, but simply as the support hands for the men.”

Vicious Cycle of Poverty

On March 12, tens of thousands of farmers from across Maharashtra state marched on the state capital Mumbai, demanding fair prices for their produce and waivers on loans after unseasonable rain destroyed their crops.

In March, over 35,000 farmers from across Maharashtra protested in Mumbai against government policies that were destroying their livelihoods. (Vijayanand Gupta/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

Patil, the activist from Jalgoan, was among them. She says farmers across India believe the lopsided government policies are ruining their livelihoods. “Men are committing suicide because of the inability to pay their debts and it is women who bear the brunt,” she says. Between January and October last year, 2,414 farmers took their own lives in the state of Maharashtra alone.

Experts point to a number of government missteps that are putting a strain on India’s farmers, including confusing pricing mechanisms, poor storage facilities and short-sighted market regulation. Large farms can usually absorb the dramatic price swings that happen as a result, but for smallholder farmers, most of whom are women, “such erratic fluctuation of prices can be devastating as they have no other recourse to recover their loss when crops fail,” Nirja Bhatnagar, head of Action Aid in Maharashtra, says.

“The situation is so bad that in villages in Maharashtra most women farmers are malnourished, and this has a toll on their children’s health. The system is keeping farmers in the vicious cycle of poverty.”

Raised Voices and Collective Action

As they try to provide for their families in the face of failing policies and oppressive cultural attitudes, some women farmers in India are finding strength in numbers.

A self-help group of women farmers in Suras village in eastern Uttar Pradesh realized they were missing out on government benefits and so, in 2006, they decided to organize themselves into a union. Its head, Saraswati Devi, 55, now represents 29 villages, and leads protest rallies to the government’s doorstep in the state capital, Lucknow. “If the government does not come to us, we shall come to the government,” she says.

The women in the village say in the past they were sidelined when it came to government initiatives like the Kisan Credit Card scheme. The card gives farmers short-term credit during the planting and harvesting season and comes with benefits such as crop insurance and personal accident benefit. The scheme launched in 1998, but until recently women could not apply because most have no land registered in their names.

Then the women discovered they could apply for the cards if they formed a joint liability group, in which all of the members are responsible for repaying any money borrowed by the group. Banks in India are obliged to give joint liability groups access to loans and credit even if the members have no collateral. “The bank started trusting us because women repaid the loans more regularly than men,” Devi says.

Today, almost all the women farmers in the village have Kisan Credit Cards, as well as access to several other incentives that were once only offered to men.

“As women we have been exploited for centuries, but we never raised our voice,” Devi says. “But now we realize unless we are brave and strong from within and collectively raise our voice, women will never get their rights. Now we have decided to climb to the top of the mountain, and we will do that.”

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