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Time we recognised the needs of women who farm

The economic liberalisation of India in 1991 opened different employment opportunities for people across India. Men from rural areas, who were earlier farmers and land owners, started migrating to urban areas, searching for better opportunities. The onus of farming started shifting to women. Farming, as a result, became a part of their daily lives, in addition to household responsibility. According to a report published last year, women today constitute 80 per cent of the agricultural workforce

Despite an increase in the number of women farmers over the years, farming policies and entitlements are frequently developed without keeping women’s concerns in mind. The stereotypical association of the word ‘farmer’ with men and the lack of ownership of land keep the women from benefiting from several farmer welfare schemes. Besides, different approaches to agriculture are also taken without adjusting to the lives of women.

Recently, farmers from several regions have been raising their voice against the supply of electricity for irrigation only at night. They face the brunt of cold weather and the fear of attack from wild animals while irrigating their farms. Irrespective of gender, anyone involved in agriculture might face such challenges. However, a woman who farms is challenged in different ways.

“Fear of molestation, along with other safety reasons, responsibility of the household specifically of their children, make it difficult for women to be in the fields at night,” said Manju Paliwal, a 60-year- old farmer from Shobhapur Village, in Hoshangabad District, in Madhya Pradesh. After losing her husband at the age of 35, Manju had to take care of her children and four acres of agricultural land.

Living a tough journey so far, Manju lamented how women in rural areas are systematically kept away from education, which makes it difficult for them to adapt to the changing farming techniques that have become highly technology driven. This stops them from generating appropriate revenue. Another issue is access to the market. “Either we can complete our household chores or go to the market with vegetables in the morning. We have to turn to the middlemen, which takes away a large part of our income,” added Manju.

Thirty-year-old Shudha, another farmer from Harjanpur Village in Madhya Pradesh’s Rewa District, started cultivating an acre of land besides working as an agricultural labourer after her husband’s demise. A member of the Kol Tribe, Shudha was limited to domestic labour while her husband was alive. Now she has to invest time in farming, along with taking care of her children. “One of the biggest injustices women farmers are subjected to is paying them lower wage as compared to men for the same amount of work.  On the other hand, there is no way out from immoral gaze of the contractors. But I can’t quit because I have children,” Shudha explained.

In the past few years, the Government of Madhya Pradesh has started an online portal named E-uparjan to benefit farmers. Under the scheme, farmers can sell food grains at the minimum support price during the season by registering on the portal. While the scheme claims that farmers can easily register online from home using their computer or mobile phone, many women do not have access to mobile phones or the skills to do so on their own. Hence, many take the service of centres dedicated to assist farmers. Women who manage their land single-handedly suffer a lot of hurdles.

“To sell crops in the market, you have to get registered on the portal. Time and again, money is lost in such things. If fertilisers and seeds are not available on time, the harvest is lost,” said Shudha. Being a part time agricultural labourer, Shudha also finds it difficult to wait in line for seeds and fertilisers. “Should we stand in the queue or go earn some money,” she asks.

To solve the problem, Shudha sends her daughter to procure seeds and fertiliser, but this affects the child’s studies; whereas her son does not help her in any way. After the death of her husband, even the land could not be transferred to her name as the patwaris (local authorities) asked for money which she could not afford. “Being a young widow, I also feel very unsafe because of the local hooligans and, on top of that, I have to suffer a lot to earn through farming,” Shudha expressed with a teary eye.

Vimla Devi, 40, another farmer from the same village, also lost her husband nine months ago. She explained how after a long struggle their land was divided and she got a portion. However, due to a lack of resources, she could not educate her children, and they ended up being labourers.

According to Mahila Kisan Adhikar Manch (Makaam), an organisation working for women’s rights across the country, the important role that women play in agriculture in India should be visible through figures. “Women comprise more than 33 per cent of the workforce in agriculture in Madhya Pradesh. At the same time, according to an Oxfam Report, the control of women on agricultural land is less than 13 per cent. This means they do not have a right to the land. On investigation, it also came to light that there are many women farmers in Madhya Pradesh, whose husbands committed suicide due to debt. Due to this, they did not receive ownership of the land. Other than the widow pension of a meagre Rs 600, there is no financial security for them. While these women have to bear the responsibilities of the family as well as of the fields, due to a lack of property rights, they neither get government benefits nor social security,” explained Leeladhar Singh Rajput, the president of the organisation.

“Since many of them are not farmers as per the government’s paperwork, estimating the exact number of women farmers gets difficult. Lack of property rights does not allow them to get a loan from the bank, neither do they receive fertiliser on subsidy, nor governmental insurance in case the crops fail,” the president added.

Highlighting how systems to benefit farmers are not in sync with the feasibility of women farmers and rather add to their existing troubles, the Rajput said, “The share of women among self-employed farmers is 48 per cent. Farming also involves a lot of physical labour – preparation of land, selection of seeds, planting, using fertilisers, harvesting, threshing, etc. After this, the woman farmer needs to stand in line for fertilisers and seeds, get registered on portals to sell crops at support prices, go to the mandi (a big market), and go through the investigation of bank accounts while also taking care of their families.” According to him, the hurdles increase if a farmer has Jan Dhan account, where transactions of more than 10,000 cannot be made. Moreover, there is also a need for separate registration for three crops, with some changes in the portal every time.

Since women are mostly barred from receiving education and accessing technology, they are bound to become dependent on someone to keep up with developments. This strengthens the prejudices that prevail about gender inequality, which affects even the agricultural sector directly. “Women farmers are considered weaker. Hence, they are often employed in ancillary work and earn less than men. Including women equally in decision-making related to agriculture is a whole other story,” said Brinda, an educated woman who farms.

Brinda highlighted how doubly oppressed women farmers who belong to tribal and Dalit communities are. “Compared to other women, they are socially and economically more isolated and have no buyers for their produce. Dalit women do not even have agricultural land, they are mostly farm laborers. They also have to face separate discrimination on the basis of their caste and do not get the rights to their own land,” she pointed out.

Note: The writer is a recipient of the Sanjoy Ghose Media Awards 2022.

Ruby Sarkar, Madhya Pradesh

(Courtesy: Charkha Features)

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