Agri Politics Op-ed

Women Farmers – The Invisible face of Agriculture

It was an inter school art event organized by our college for school children, “Agriculture 2020” was the theme for the painting competition. I observed an undesirable commonality in most of their paintings. “A male with white dhoti up to their knees, plowing the field either in ox plow or tractor”. Every other children’s painting was similar to this. No child took an idea to portray a woman as a farmer in their painting. Reality is the same, the element of Women is missing in the debates on agriculture. 

Anthropology experts claim that women are the first who acquainted with settled agriculture while men were still hunters and gatherers. Ironically, today, women are overlooked when it comes to Agriculture. They are underplayed by factors like rigid societal practices, cultural taboo, and rigid rules of lands.

This hidden face, Women, on the contrary to the popular belief, comprises on an average 43% of the agricultural labor force in developing countries. And the Agricultural sector employs 80% of all economically active women in India. According to the reports released by NSSO, about 18% of farm families in India are headed by a woman. Despite their energetic contribution to agriculture, they are regarded widely as zero-wage and underpaid employees of their farms and they control over less than 13% of the land where they practice farming. 

Women farmers hidden invisible face of agriculture
According to the reports released by NSSO, about 18% of farm families in India are headed by a woman.

The bitter truth

Are female farmers producing less? Or their physical efficiency is short comparing their male counterparts? 

Perhaps Yes. The productivity gap is not linked to their gender status but caused by differences in input use and control over farm operations. The main reason for this is that they are usually not registered as income earners and rightful possessors of land assets within their families (Land, an important asset of agriculture is traditionally passed down the male heir in India).  So applying for loans, participating in village panchayats, evaluating and determining the crop patterns, mediating with the government officials, bank authorities and political representatives and negotiating MSPs (minimum support prices), claiming insurance and so on remain pure male farmer related activities. In the same way, all subsidies, farm benefits, even farm credit goes to landowners i.e., male farmers. So they enjoy control over land than their female counterparts.

A report by the charity Oxfam released recently, titled “An Economy for the 99 percent” states that more than 40 percent of 400 million women living in rural India – a third of India’s 1.2 billion population – work in agriculture. “However as women are not recognized as farmers and do not own land, they have limited access to government schemes and credit, restricting their agricultural productivity,” it further added.

According to a report by the FAO, female farmers are much less likely to purchase inputs such as fertilizers, improved seeds, and mechanical equipment. Similarly, most of the modern tools and farm machinery are designed for male farmers. Female friendly tractors, sprayers, harvesters are not in the market or hardly available. These influences the efficiency of a female farmer.

The cost of the gender gap in agriculture is massive. One cannot underestimate the negative impact of ignoring the huge female population of food and milk producers in India. This gender gap has led to food insecurity and nutritional deficiency in rural households due to the poor purchasing power of female farmers. This gender gap, in turn, affects other social parameters like literacy, health, and sanitation because they receive lower wages for the same work, even when they have the same know-how and capability. This ultimately drives India towards feminization of poverty.

Women role in Indian Agriculture
Women role in Indian Agriculture sector
Gender Gap in agriculture is unnoticed
In the macroeconomic level, two factors related to agriculture are of great concern. First, low productivity per acre of land. One reason for this is the incompetence to employ female population in increasing productivity. Second, existence of huge seasonal and disguised unemployment of women in agriculture. This is largely due to lack of other employment opportunities for women in rural India and the plight of patriarchal mindset within every family, in many families still women are strong-armed to play the inferior role to men, they still are working as unpaid laborers in their family land. These two concerns should be addressed at once, to make India women empowered nation.
The agricultural policies and programs towards addressing this issue are not so satisfactory. Justice Verma Committee has emphasized the need for improving the status of women. Nearly, 40 crore women out of the total of 60 crores female population depend on crop and animal husbandry, forestry, agro processing and agribusiness for their livelihood, Yet their hands are tied by chauvinistic customs and bigotry practices. The pending of Women Farmers Entitlement Bill, 2011 is an example for deaf ears towards women in agriculture.

Turning the tide

We cannot disagree that women make a significant contribution to the rural economy as farmers, agricultural laborers, and entrepreneurs. Small scale farming, micro enterprises, and cottage industries constitute the largest self-employment sectors in India. FAO (Food and Agricultural Organization) states that encouraging gender equality is not only good for women, it is also good for the all-inclusive agriculture development.

Gender roles in custom-bound rural India are gradually shifting with women having to take control, as large numbers of working-age men migrate to nearby cities for jobs and amid a wave of increasing suicides by male farmers suffering to provide basic amenities for their families.

Today, rural women, farmers are involved in hybrid seed production through seed village concept, they use Information and communication technology tools, and with Jan Dhan Yojna they have positively entered into the formal financial structure. Successful women farmers take the benefits of crop diversification by shifting to floriculture crops which give them added profit through value addition like veni making, garland making, etc., Similarly, apiculture, animal husbandry, food processing, sericulture are other fields in which the women farmers are reaping huge benefits.

women farmer hidden invisible face organic farming
Image source : Flickr

Various studies illustrate us that when women earn at par to men and control the family’s finances, they spend more of it on food, health, clothing, and education for their children. This has short term benefits for their family well-being and in long term for the nation’s development.

Right now “Organic farming” is becoming the buzzword everywhere. Women are the savior of organic farming. Traditionally, Women are considered to be the seed preservationists. Their support in cattle rearing is important for the generation of organic inputs. Similarly, the Peri-urban vegetable farming, rooftop gardens, kitchen gardens in urban areas are led by women. This shows an affirmative shift in the status of women, both in urban and rural agriculture. 

The National Commission on Farmers (NCF) also studied the issue of Feminization of poverty and agriculture in detail and in its report, NCF suggested setting up of creches, day care centers, and other support services for women farmers and farm laborers. At the same time, economic interests of women have to be preserved through Self Help Group (SHG) movement and Cooperatives.

Government schemes like Mahila Kisan Sashaktikaran Pariyojna (MKSP), a subcomponent of NRLM (National Rural Livelihood Mission), was started to enhance productive participation of women in agriculture and to create livelihood opportunities for women in agriculture. Biotech- KISAN is another program under Ministry of Science and technology that empowers, especially women farmers by focusing on livestock and also making her a grass root level innovator. Additionally, MGNREGS (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme) is reported to have increased the farm income of women agricultural laborers in promising numbers. Recognizing the critical role of women in agriculture, the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare has declared 15th October of every year as Women Farmer’s Day.

Similarly, various state government schemes target deprived women and tribal women. For instance, Mahalir Thittam of Tamil Nadu which makes credit accessible to women through Self Help Groups in addition to employment generation.

The government should come out with upgraded plans, program and gender inclusive schemes to achieve the twin goals of United Nation’s Sustainable development Goals, to end poverty (Goal 1) and to ensure Gender Equality (Goal 5). Above all, socio-behavioral changes must materialize at the grass-root level to bring “the Invisible face of Indian Agriculture” to light and lead us towards sustainable food security and women participating national development.

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