‘Daughters of the Soil’ – Unlocking the power of women farmers

Agriculture is the primary source of livelihood for over 58 per cent of India’s population. Indian agriculture is one of biggest employers in the country and has been significantly contributing to India’s growth story.

The annual growth rate of agricultural and allied sectors in India has grown at nearly 2.9 per cent from 2014-15 to 2018-19; while women’s participation in agriculture has increased to 13.9 per cent in 2015-16 from 11.7 per cent in 2005-06.              

These statistics impress upon how agriculture is directly linked to decision-making abilities, economic independence, access to critical credit and institutional services, education and health services. It makes us wonder therefore about certain externalities of agriculture and the tremendous role for women farmers, for overcoming agrarian-linked poverty, marginalization, gender inequality, ill-health, and even malnutrition of self and their families.

In most of rural India, women continue to work as agricultural and family farm labourers, and also perform nearly all the family and childcare as well as household duties. With increasing migration to cities, often men have gone to work in urban areas leaving the women to carry on with agricultural duties, household work, procuring and preparing food and inadvertently taking care of the overall health and well-being of families.

Over 400 million women globally are employed in farm work, for a fraction of the pay as their male counterparts. Bending downwards on muddy fields for hours, meticulously sowing, transplanting or weeding, winnowing by standing for hours-at-end to separate grain from straw, manually harvesting, and similar intensely labour-intensive farm jobs have traditionally formed part of the “woman’s job” in agriculture.

The ‘invisible’ farmers of India

Ironically while the agriculture sector employs nearly 80 per cent of all economically active women in India; with 33 per cent making-up the agricultural labour force and 48 per cent comprising of self-employed farmers; this is one section of our workforce that for all practical purposes is ‘missing’. The large contribution of women in farming remains ‘invisible’ in the rural economy of India (OXFAM 2018) as it never gets officially accounted for by rural families, communities and so also by country and state statistics.

A chief reason for this is lacking land ownership of women; which compromises their identity as farmers and makes them invisible in the agriculture value chain. The family, community, government institutions, so much so, even the agricultural scientific community identifies farming quintessentially with men. In that, the key role women farmers play in cultivating and propelling towards food and nutrition security gets overlooked. The contribution of women farmers gets perceived thus, as a sort of additional unpaid household work that they ought to be doing anyway.

Not getting ‘included’ as farmers, and lacking land ownership, also leaves women out of the sphere of other critical benefits like agricultural trainings and extension services, agriculture support programs like credit, subsidies, and crop insurance; and even agricultural research focus for new crop varieties and technologies.

The Sustainable Development Goal 5 seeks to grant property rights and tenure security of agricultural land to women. Empowering women with land and ownership rights can possibly increase agricultural output in developing countries by 2.5 to 4 per cent and can reduce world hunger by 12 to 17 per cent (UN FAO). In many societies however, including India, the women farmers’ family dynamics, laws, traditions, access, can all preclude women from owning and inheriting land.

Beyond the Horizon

India is targeting to achieve the ambitious goal of doubling farmers’ incomes by 2022. With many a government initiatives in place for addressing farmer needs as well as redressing farmer grievances, a stronger thrust in the coming years on agriculture in India is expected; supported by increased investments in agricultural infrastructure like irrigation facilities, warehousing and cold storages.

A critical need is to reach the ‘invisible’ persevering women farmers, with skill-based training programmes; information on advanced agricultural practices and technologies; equal pay for farm work; robust women’s groups that can help avail credit; more ergonomic farm tools; basic knowledge on allied sectors like animal husbandry, horticulture etc; and fair price and direct market linkages for produce.

Unlocking potential of women farmers

The prosperity of the agriculture sector depends on acknowledging the contribution of women farmers. Achieveing development goals of India and the world, requires a much more inclusive approach to be adopted, giving women farmers equal access, dignity and recognition in agriculture.

Debjani is a communication specialist in the development sector, working to advocate key issues around achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. She comments on interventions, impact and policy implications in agriculture, food and nutrition security and climate change.

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