Any mention of the word ‘farmer’ in today’s India brings up news of farmer suicides and debt and the farmers’ march. It provokes visuals of farmers toiling in the heat, working hard to provide us with the food and materials we eat and use daily.
While all of this IS true, it is incongruous with the harsh reality. Most of these visuals are associated stereotypically with farmers who are men. Women farmers are almost always vastly excluded from the narrative. They are not recognised as farmers (as the men are), even though 60% of agricultural workers are women. They don’t have the same access to resources as men do, and they don’t have the power of decision-making like the male farmers do.
Recently, I was presented with the opportunity to visit Osmanabad and Solapur to interview women farmers who are also entrepreneurial leaders in their communities. The two days I spent interviewing these inspiring women showed me more than anything else could, that patriarchy is spread across every single acre of this country; it has even penetrated our soil.
The women farmers I met are accomplished, successful visionaries who run their own businesses (yes, many of them!) They are the result of the work that has been done in training women farmers in entrepreneurship and encouraging them to create more women leaders like themselves. However, not all women farmers have access to an empowerment programme like these women did.
From what I learned during my brief visit, it seems like women farm because they are born into and/or married into a family of farmers. They are the ones who wake up early and manage the housework, make sure the children are off to school on time and then spend the day working on the fields, only coming back to more household duties. This is a ubiquitous scenario in most farming households in the country. They play an indispensable role in agriculture – right from production and pre-harvesting to packaging and marketing. Their income, however, doesn’t do justice to their effort.
It seems like everyone working in the sector is aware of this disparity and inequality, yet there isn’t much done to ameliorate the situation. Archana, one of the women farmers I met, says, “In India, 80% of the farming work is done by women. All the lowly work is given to women and all the transactions, finances and marketing is handled by men. Women farmers are rarely encouraged to pursue something they want to, because the men are afraid of the women achieving more than them; they think if she gets more power, she won’t listen to the men anymore. In India, patriarchy is the dominant way of society, but women farmers are slowly stepping out of their homes and creating an identity for themselves. There will come a day when the women will lead and that’s when real change will happen.”
Women are expected to partake in and contribute to the family’s agricultural business – that’s the norm. Venturing out and starting something on your own? Not so much the norm. Uma thinks it’s important to acknowledge the rights and dreams that the women farmers might have for themselves. “People say that women should take care of the kids, take care of the kitchen and work on the farm – those are her duties. What about her aspirations and ideas? Where will they find acknowledgement? Why can’t a woman earn for herself and establish her own income? Why is she obligated to partake in what the family is doing, even though her entrepreneurship might be more financially beneficial for the family?” she says.
The problem in agriculture isn’t just limited to recognition, income and freedom. It also extends to the issue of rights to ownership of land. The most irrational reality seems to be that, regardless of women doing a majority of the work when it comes to farming, the land is owned only by men. The ownership of the land is passed down to the men of the family; the women aren’t even considered. An alarming 87% of women do not own their land; only 12.7% of them do.
Bhagyashree elaborates, “If a man decides to buy another piece of land for farming, then the second one’s ownership may be transferred to the woman, but the primary land is always owned by men. A woman works on her husband’s land with all the energy and effort she has – it is only fair that the land should be in her name, at least partly.” Apart from patriarchy, even the law contributes to this injustice, as land is a state subject, and is not governed by the Constitution under a uniform law that applies equally to all citizens. It is governed by personal religious laws, which tend to discriminate against women when it comes to land inheritance, according to Women’s Earth Alliance.
Moreover, the male farmer population is increasingly abandoning their farms and migrating to the cities in search of jobs. Women farmers are, now more than ever, demanding individual rights to land to be able to finally legitimise their identity as farmers and protect themselves from abuse.
The government has apparently started taking steps towards mainstreaming women in the agricultural sector. How effective their plans are and how much of a difference they will make – only time will tell. Along with the government, it is every citizen’s responsibility to acknowledge women as farmers and discourage discrimination in the agricultural sector. After all, it’s the women who feed India.