“Are we just laborers?”- Women in Agriculture

By Neha Ahlawat and Ipsita Mitra

Try and picture a day in rural Punjab. We immediately think of a man, toiling away in the field, soiled hands tending to his crops and a look of exasperation on his face. The image will also have, somewhere in the background, a woman weeding the crops. Yes, sometimes that’s the only way we think about women in agriculture- almost invisible, pushed into the background, not taking into account that women too are vital contributors to farm work. We often do not see the invisible hands that grow our food.

Our posts in the past week have dealt with the immense possibilities in the agricultural sector. While we have already discussed about cluster farming, youth inclusion and contract farming, in this blog we will engage with the idea of gender equity in agriculture. Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that in India, agriculture and agri-allied industries employ as much as 89.5% of the total female labour. Even though women are involved in every agricultural activities, they are considered mere field workers and not even farmers.

Let’s try and imagine the life of a marginal woman farmer. She works tirelessly in the field, involved in all aspects of agriculture from crop selection to land preparation, to seed selection, planting, weeding, pest control, harvesting, crop storage, handling, marketing, and processing, even though she has no rights over the land, an asset which is mostly inherited by the male members of the family. She is burdened by dual responsibilities of the farm and household chores, yet she is considered merely as a laborer on field and child raiser and cook at home. Patriarchal settings rarely allow her to participate in Panchayat sessions, krishi training sessions etc at the village level. She remains unskilled because it is the men who largely control decision making, market and income. And even when outreach efforts are made by the Government it is the husband who in most cases ends up as the end beneficiary. If this persists, women farmers will continue to labor in fields with unequal rights to land, credit, market, benefits and training. Whatever the reason for this neglect, the importance of developing farming policies and techniques relevant to women has only recently been recognized. India is witnessing a process which could be described as Feminization of Agriculture. This makes the case for exploring agriculture in India through a gender-ed lens.

The colossal task that stands before policymakers is to empower women farmers and transform them into beneficiaries. There is a need to embrace a gender-justice lens in policy framing. Adequate budgetary  allocations for women’s development and gender equity, and their appropriate utilization can take place only in a policy environment that is congenial, that  is, one which is human/women-centric. There have been several discussions around this issue and we will outline some of the pertinent solutions for the way forward.

The Women Farmers’ Entitlement Bill, 2011 presented in the Rajya Sabha by M.S. Swaminathan, in May 2012, has recognized women as owners of land and protected their entitlements through legislation. There have also been favorable amendments in the Hindu Succession Act. The Bill has a provision for establishment of Central Agricultural Development Fund for Women Farmers (CADFWF) to be utilized for support services for women farmers. While these are positive steps, there are other intervening factors which should also be considered. The biggest challenge would be to deal with  patriarchal social norms which make women give up right over property for the sake of avoiding family disputes. Another challenge would be to provide equal opportunities to all women engaged in agri-sector including animal husbandry, fisheries, forestry, agro processing and agri-business.

Another solution can be strengthening Self-Help Groups and Women Seed Cooperative.These platforms can be used to educate women about new techniques, improve their skills and promote and expose them to the use of improved agricultural technology. Both SHGs and cooperatives models will also facilitate peer-to-peer exchanges, which will help successful women inspire and connect with more women farmers.

Technological interventions in agriculture need to diversify and move from being a largely male dominated skill to reach the women farmers directly. The gendered critique of technology highlights that technology is not developed to include women’s perspective, and tends to disable rather than enable them. Technologies dealing with seeds, pesticide use, harvesting, etc are mostly transferred to men. Studies, in fact have shown, that women respond faster to voice-base technology transfers (through mobile phones and computers). There is thus a need for technological empowerment of women in agriculture, by supporting them with direct transfer of knowledge, enabling skills and extension services.

Empowering the women in agriculture has a direct impact on strengthening their households. Their engagement in food production can lead to better nutrition which would bring down the rates of malnutrition related diseases. As pointed out in the course of this blog, efforts have been made in full measure to tackle gender disparity in agriculture in India, but there is still a long way to go. Gender inequality is deeply ingrained in our social structure, and several barriers need to be overcome both at the micro-level of social relationships and macro-level of policy, technology, market and finance.

The world has started acknowledging that recognizing women farmers, respecting women’s traditional knowledge, experience, and priorities, and encouraging their ability to innovate on the farm are crucial steps in addressing global agricultural challenges. We are slowly but steadily moving towards a gender neutral agricultural sector, which could lead the way for other sectors to follow.

About Neha Ahlawat

Neha Ahlawat is Associate Director- Innovation at the Center for Knowledge Societies. She is interested in exploring new approaches in ethnographic inquiry and design analysis for guiding social innovation and seeking integration between business development and design strategy.
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