India’s Rural Women And Their Miserable Plight Remains Heavily Ignored: Here’s What’s Needed To Be Done

Posted on March 14, 2014 in Society

By Dr. Amrit Patel:

It is ironical that women in India enjoy the right to elect and get elected but a bill seeking women’s reservation in Parliament and State Legislative Assemblies to strengthen the foundation of democracy and governance has yet to see the light of the day. India has been celebrating the 8th March every year as International Women’s Day. In this context let us have a look at the untold miseries of rural women when:
[i] Ms Sonia Gandhi, Ms Meira Kumar, Ms Susma Swaraj, Ms Mamta Benerjee, Ms Jaylalita along with a few women ministers and women legislators are policy making authorities [ii] several women bureaucrats in the Union and State Governments are program implementing authorities[iii] a few women judges are responsible to deliver due justice [iv] many women journalists in the electronic and print media are keen to highlight the ground realities of women miseries [v] women in board rooms of corporate houses are concerned with corporate social responsibilities and [vi] a host of NGOs and women activists are agitating for the cause of women at field level.

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It is opportune time now that all eligible women voters must have a thorough look at the election manifesto of political parties and the character, concern, commitment and accountability of the contesting candidate specifically with regard to policy and programs to significantly improve women’s standard of living rather than just giving freebies and doling out money in the name of poor and women. Women voters must invariably en mass vote for the cause of women and make elected representatives concerned, committed and accountable to them in each constituency. This article attempts to understand the miserable plight of rural women and need to empower them in the background of constitution’s guarantee and protect women’s rights and status through effective and efficient law enforcement machinery in India.

Constitutional Guarantee
The Constitution of India guarantees all women equality [Article 14]; no discrimination by the State [Article 15 (1)]; equality of opportunity [Article 16]; equal pay for equal work [Article 39(d)]; renounce practices derogatory to the dignity of women [Article 51 (a) (c)]. The Constitution also allows the State to make special provision in favour of women and children [Article 15(3)]; and securing just and humane conditions of work and maternity relief [Article 42]. The Government of India declared 2001 as the “Year of Women’s Empowerment” and the National Policy for the Empowerment of Women came into force from 2001.

Miserable Plight of Rural Women
India has been an agrarian country. Women constitute about 66% of the agricultural work force. Around 48% self-employed farmers are women and 64% of the informal sector work force depending on agriculture is women. Rural women have, since many centuries, been putting in unfathomable, unbearable and inadequately paid joyless drudgery to earn for their families’ livelihood and provide food security to country’s millions of people. The plight of most rural women has been pathetic since they have to collect firewood, fetch drinking water, search fodder to feed cattle, work on their meagre land to raise crops and as labourers on other farms, take care of children etc.

Agriculture and allied sectors in India employ 89.5% of the total female labour. About 84 % women are engaged in agriculture, either as cultivators or labourers as against 67% male workers. Despite nearly 400 million women out of the total 600 million female population depending upon crop, livestock and fish farming, forestry, agro-processing and agri-business for their livelihood, they are unable to access to resources viz. land, water and capital. Oxfam International study in Uttar Pradesh shows that 6% women own land, less than 1% participated in Government training programs, 4% have access to institutional credit and 8% have control over agricultural income. Between 1983 and 2004-05, nearly 72% of the incremental rural female workforce was absorbed in agriculture, compared to 40% for the male workforce. Women on an average contribute 55% to 66% in overall farm production. Women provide one half of the labour in rice cultivation and they are the crucial labourers in the plantation sector. Women’s contributions vary, depending on the region and crops, but they provide pivotal labour from planting to harvesting and post-harvest operations.

In the Himalayan region, a woman works for 3,485 hours in a year on a one hectare farm as compared with 1,212 hours by a man and 1,064 hours by a pair of bullocks. The extent of health hazards faced by farm women in farm activities include

  • 50% in transplanting and 26.5% in harvesting under farm activities.
  • 50% in threshing, 33% in drying and 67% in parboiling under post-harvest activities.
  • 47% in shed cleaning, 23% in fodder collection and 27.5% in milking under livestock management.

Not only they are invariably paid lower wages than men for the same agricultural work but also remain mostly unrecognized. Land ownership titles are often in a man’s name. Men either take or dictate the decisions concerning farming and women have to carry out. Men market farm produce that gives them complete control over household finance. More and more women are engaged in farming as men are migrating to urban centres for work. However, they have no access to credit as they do not have legal ownership over the land. Only 11% women have access to land holdings, that too, mostly as small and marginal farmers. About 86% female agricultural labourers and 74% female farmers are either illiterate or have education below the primary level. Average education of a female agricultural labourer was less than one year in 2004-05

Constraints on Rural Women’s Access to Credit: It is estimated that women in developing countries are engaged to produce between 60% and 80% of the food and are responsible for half of the world’s food production. In case of activities allied to agriculture that include dairy, poultry, sheep, goat and pig rearing, sericulture, bee-keeping fisheries, forestry etc. their contribution is almost 100%. Often men tend to borrow to raise high value cash crops whereas women mostly care for producing food that has first priority family consumption and balance selling in local markets. Since much of their food crop production is consumed within the home, women farmers supplement their income by working as part time labourers on other farms and engaging themselves in activities allied to agriculture as also non-farm activities that generate regular cash income. The difference in the profile of male and female farmers has real implications for their distinguishing ability to access credit in terms of loan amounts, loan term, and access to alternative credit sources. However, women as the primary small-scale agricultural producers have to face far more difficulties than men for accessing credit from formal institutions. This has been largely due to women’s inability to possess title to land and house and participate in the decision-making process as also to access to resources, such as farm inputs, extension services etc.

Micro-Finance Institutions and commercial banks appreciating the role and responsibilities of women rural households need to design products and delivery mechanisms that best meet their savings and credit needs for extensively expanding their MF operations into rural areas.

Women engaged in farm and non-farm activities also find it difficult to access credit as it involves travelling to the nearest branch for completion of loan appraisal formalities, loan disbursement and repayments. In order to reach a larger number of women in rural areas, the institution may need to adapt its product design and service delivery model to address the mobility constraints of rural women. The adaptations include completion of loan appraisal formalities, loan disbursement and repayments through visit to women clients in a village or a specified locality by the staff, preferably female staff, in a planned way that can substantially increase the business and reduce cost. The recently established Bharatiya Mahila Bank can take a lead in this direction.

Self-Help-Groups: It was only after mid 1990s that most rural women slowly and steadily found opportunity to access credit through efforts of NGOs to form and nurture Self-Help-Groups and then link them to financing banks. Self-Help-Group Linkage Bank program has covered 3.47 million SHGs and 45.1 million households. More than 90% SHGs comprised women borrowers. Women, despite their unbearable hardships and commitments to their children for food, health and education, have beyond doubt demonstrated their loyalty to financing banks through above 95% repayment of loans. Despite this they have difficulties to get long-term loans and adequate loan of high value.

Savings by SHGs: As many as 41,60,584 SHGs saved sum of Rs.35.127 billion with banks, showing Rs8,443 per SHG. In fact, the actual savings of the groups would be higher as the amounts saved with banks do not reflect the amount of savings of members of SHGs used for internal lending within groups as per the practice currently in vogue. Government and banks should gratefully acknowledge their hard earned savings deposited for nation’s economic development.

Elected Women-Representatives: The developed economies of USA and Europe have already demonstrated strict compliance with laws concerning women’s rights and status through most effective Law and Order enforcing machinery and efficient judicial system. Since India is expected to emerge as a super economic power, the publicly elected women representatives [existing and future] in PRIs, State Legislative Assemblies, Parliament and Rajya Sabha may need to demonstrate serious concern and commitment to strengthen Law and Order enforcing machinery at all levels, make it effective and accountable specifically in respect to following aspects in which cases it has proved to be grossly ineffective.

Enabling environment: Enabling environment should be created in rural areas that can facilitate all rural women easy access to fuel, safe drinking water, sanitation, education, insurance, health care, public distribution system. While women-farmers should be enabled to have hassle-free access to credit, inputs, technology and marketing and their non-institutional debt should be redeemed by institutional credit, rural women need to be relieved from joyless drudgery of agricultural task through adequate and planned mechanization of agriculture and assisted to take up non-farm sector income generating activities under the purview of K&VIC, handloom, handicraft, sericulture, coir boards, NABARD, SIDBI, lead bank, DRDA, DIC and service-oriented micro enterprises for which a plethora of schemes and financial assistance are available. What is required is creating awareness among women, improving their technical, managerial and financial skill, capacity building, knowledge management through required training and provision of modern tools and equipment and easy access to credit, technology and marketing services.

Decision-making Process and Position: As per 73rd and 74th Constitution Amendment Acts, all local bodies should reserve one-third of their seats for women. Though over a million women have enrolled in Panchayati Raj Institutions, women are still under represented in governance as well as decision-making process and positions. Elected women representatives in PRIs need to be intensively trained to develop skill, capacity building and knowledge management that can help them generate adequate confidence to participate effectively in decision-making process as well as occupy decision-making positions.

Nodal Office of NCW: The nodal office of National Commission for Women should be established in each block and district to protect the rights of women, girls and children, voice their issues and concerns and pay undivided attention to monitor the compliance with the existing laws and establish effective.

Photo Credit: Michael Foley Photography via Compfight cc