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The Real Reason Women Farmers Remain The ‘Invisible Force’ Driving Indian Agriculture

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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.

According to Kavitha Kuruganti of the Alliance of Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture (ASHA), women farmers earn only 50-75% of what the male farmers earn.

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.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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