“We have been doing farming for ages. My mother in law did it, I am doing it, my daughter and daughter-in-law will do it. But what we need and will cherish is an identity of our own. An identity of being a woman farmer.” Bholi Devi, Harpur Village, Bihar

This is the voice of one of the millions of India’s women farmers. The empowerment of Indian women will not be complete without empowering those who are living at India’s last periphery. The ones whose day starts before sunrise and continues after sunset. These are the women farmers of India, whose voices often go unheard owing to their gender, and who struggle to establish their identity at a grassroots level due to patriarchal traditions and gender socialization.

These voices need to be heard at both the policy and implementation levels if we are to realize the dream of a progressive India. Women farmers in India perform most of the big farming jobs, from sowing to harvesting, yet their access to resources is less than their male counterparts. Closing this gender gap is essential in order to accelerate the pace of growth in the agriculture sector.

Self-help groups – grassroots, village-based financial organizations, often comprised soley of women – are playing a crucial role in promoting a shared agenda around health, education and agriculture. It is not an exaggeration to say that these groups are changing the lives of women at the grassroots level.

Equally, self-help groups can act as a catalyst in the efforts towards closing this agricultural gender gap. One of the crucial elements here is the risk-sharing capacity that membership of these groups enables. Ragini Devi, who works with self-help groups in Bihar, says: “It is easy to approach women farmers with improved knowledge and practice on sustainable agriculture practices when they are in groups. For the women farmers, it is also easy to come out of their household as the member of a self-help group in which they share their group identity.”

Not only in India but across the world, women’s contributions to agriculture are significant. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that if women had the same access to productive resources as men, they could increase yields on their farms by 20-30%. This could raise total the agricultural output in developing countries by up to 4%, which could in turn reduce the number of hungry people in the world by 12–17% – that’s 100-150 million people.

Thus an inclusive approach, all the way from policy to implementation, is essential to bring women working in agriculture into the mainstream and to empower them with direct access to knowledge of improved agricultural practices.

It is also important to observe how increasing male migration away from villages has brought about significant changes to the work village women do, both at the household and societal level. For example, migration from rural Bihar is high and has steadily increased over the past 30 years. The proportion of migrant workers to total workers in the region has increased from 15.7% in 1998-99 to 25.5% in 2009-10.

Migration is yet another important factor which contributes towards redefining the roles of Indian women in agriculture. Women have increased roles to play on their farms as a result, and migration has played a significant role in increasing the social mobility of women at the village level. When a group of women farmers who are actively involved in agriculture activities in the village of Bandra in Muzzafarpur, Bihar, were asked about this, they replied: “Our mobility has increased many fold … now in the absence of men in our households we are also responsible for taking decisions related to daily household chores and at our farms.”

It is high time we made a concerted effort to create a conducive environment – not only for bringing women farmers into the mainstream, but equally for empowering women farmers at a grassroots level by providing them with both an established identity and knowledge on the technical and financial aspects of agriculture. They need direct access to information on improved agricultural practices and links to markets. In today’s digital world, it is also important to think critically about the information and communication tools which can help women farmers who may not enjoy much physical mobility to reach out to markets – which are generally considered to be a male-centric arena.

One recent development in this field has been the marking of 15 October as Women Farmers Day by the Government of India. This could be a game-changer in the effort to bring women farmers in India into the mainstream, if practical assistance is offered to back this concept up. This acknowledgement of women farmers for their extraordinary contributions will send out a positive message, particularly at a local level, regarding the importance of women to farming in India.

As part of this initiative, the government plans to launch an awareness campaign looking at how Agricultural Science Centres (Krishi Vigyan Kendra) can play a significant role in empowering women farmers and shifting existing, biased perceptions of women’s roles in agriculture.

In order to make India progressive it is essential to make rural India – where agriculture forms the backbone – progressive. We need to incorporate inclusion at every level if we are to progress towards sustainable change. Today, we cannot ignore the fact that if we want to achieve a second Green Revolution in India, it is imperative that we focus on our country’s women farmers.

The article is also available at https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2017/10/indias-women-farmers.

Sugandha Munshi is a gender expert working on women empowerment and gender issues in India for almost a decade .She is presently working with International Rice Research Institute as a Gender Specialist and is based in Bihar India. She has been recognised and awarded for her contributions on gender rights and is a recipient of various awards ,including National Women Achievers Award in India

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