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Challenging gender and caste identities: the wheat farmers of Madhya Pradesh

A study finds that gender plays a far more important role than caste in structuring “who decides” among the men and women wheat farmers in Madhya Pradesh. However, women have now begun to challenge gendered caste structures that restrict them to unpaid agricultural work. This article is by Cathy Rozel Farnworth, Preeti Bharati, Vijesh V. Krishna, Lara Roeven and Lone Badstue

Feminisation of agricultural labour in India
India is experiencing masculinisation of labour and while the labour force participation rate (LFPR) of men is increasing, that of women is decreasing. However, the only exception to this pattern is in agriculture. In many parts of India, women provide labour across all productive and post-harvest farm tasks, regardless of caste and work on family fields and as hired labourers on other farms informs a paper titled ‘Caste-gender inter-sectionalities in wheat-growing communities in Madhya Pradesh, India’ published in Gender, Technology and Development.

Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST) women dominate the rural labour force. In 2011, 83.7 per cent of ST women, 69.1 per cent of SC women, and 59.9 per cent of non-marginalised castes (NMC) women were working in agriculture. However, women are being less involved in paid labour across the caste hierarchy and are more likely than men to be engaged in manual labour and to be paid less than men for the same work. Agriculture is getting more and more mechanised and affecting women’s and men’s work in different ways. The type of crops also affects work patterns of men and women. For example, some crops are more male- or female-dominant with respect to the gender division of labour and can influence men’s or women’s work. 

Role of women in wheat based farming systems
The paper discusses the findings of a study that explores the role of women in the wheat-based farming systems in a rural village in Jabalpur District in Madhya Pradesh. It aims at answering the following questions:

  • Is decision-making and labour in wheat farming feminised? 
  • In what ways do interactions between caste and gender determine and limit the spaces within which women can act in wheat-based systems? 
  • In what ways are women challenging their gender and caste identities to enhance their livelihoods by influencing their roles, responsibilities and decision-making in wheat?

The study was carried out in a rural village with 250 households in Madhya Pradesh. Most people from the village belong to the Other Socially marginalised Castes (OSMC), ST, and SC categories with just six resident NMC families. Jabalpur, the district capital, is about 30 kilometres distant.  The primary crops grown in the village include wheat, rice, pulses, and some vegetables. Large farmers comprise 2 per cent, small farmers 60 per cent, and the rest are marginal farmers. Majority of the people in the village own around around 1.5 acres of land.

NMC and OSMC manage the land on one side of the village, which is flat with black rich soils and simple to irrigate. The ST and SC manage the land on the other side of the village, where the soil is of poor quality, hilly and hard to irrigate, which borders the national forest.

FINDINGS
Decision making in wheat farming dominated by men
Men dominated the decision-making related to crop production. Less than 10 per cent women were important decision-makers with respect to crop production. However, 25-30 per cent of women said they could take an autonomous decision regarding whether to engage in paid work. Men experienced limited autonomy concerning paid labour, with only 60-65 per cent claiming autonomy as compared to 75 per cent claiming autonomy in crop production. Although NMC/OMSC women were interested and knowledgeable about the wheat varieties, their ability to express wheat preferences in intra-household discussions was varied while it was the men who had substantial decision-making power and tended to have a larger say in agricultural decision-making.

NMC and OSMC men did not concur with women’s views and while they acknowledged women’s work in the fields, they denied the status of women as farmers and felt that the work that women did was not real farming work. In men’s eyes, women had the status close to that of hired labourers, even when working on family land. Having and exercising decision-making power was integral to how men conceptualised what it meant to be a farmer, whereas women felt that the very fact of working on the land constituted their farming identity.

Women displayed considerable knowledge of wheat varieties. Many had an acute knowledge of all associated agricultural practices, but were excluded from male-dominated knowledge networks. Women derived knowledge and information from observation, working in the fields, talking to other women, and the village traders. Women worked for an income, contested gender-based violence, and also argued that they were wheat farmers. They were primary financers of wheat through the SHGs (self-help groups), implying that wheat could be actually women-led. However, it was found that many men forced women to provide money through their SHGs to enable them to grow wheat.

Shrinking labour in wheat farming restricts earning capacities of women
Women were extremely interested in earning money, including working as hired laborers in wheat. They were motivated by financial needs as well as aspirations to live better lives and improve the lives of their children. Women of all castes looked for paid work, regardless of social norms that looked down  upon women in the fields – particularly NMC and OSMC women. Some women were also pressurised by men to enter paid work. However, it was found that mechanisation of agricultural processes is gradually closing doors at the very moment when a large number of women have exerted their agency and defied norms around seclusion. The study showed a gradual loss of paid labour days for women and few opportunities for alternative income generation opportunities. 

Gender was more important than caste in influencing decision-making
Gender was a far more important than caste in structuring ‘who decides’. Across all the four caste groups, men were primary decision-makers, and the inter-caste differences were negligible. However, ST and SC women generally experienced more personal agency than NMC women and, in particular, experience higher mobility. However, they continued to depend much more than NMC and OMSC women on paid fieldwork for their livelihoods because their own family lands were small, labour-intensive, and on poor quality hilly land. 

ST and SC women were more flexible in seeking alternative work due to their higher levels of mobility, but such work was hard to find. It was even harder for NMC women to find work because their limited mobility meant that they have no recourse to employment opportunities beyond the village.

The study finds that women, particularly of the NMC and OSMC caste, have begun to challenge gendered caste structures that restricted them to unpaid agricultural work. Women seem to appear to gradually gain a voice in intra-household decision-making, and have become better informed about improved agricultural technologies. Gender-based violence has long been endemic, but now women are fighting back. The study also shows a waning of men’s voice as they age, particularly in relation to sons once they have married, but continue to insist, in contrast to women, upon cultural norms that privilege men as decision-makers.

(Courtesy: India Water Portal/ indiawaterportal.org)

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