Agriculture in India defines familial tradition, social relations, and gender roles. Women in the agricultural sector, whether through traditional means or industrial, for subsistence or as an agricultural laborer, represents a momentous demographic group. Agriculture is directly tied to issues such as economic independence, decision-making abilities, agency and access to education and health services and this manner has created externalities such as poverty and marginalization and compounded issues of gender inequality. Agriculture continues to play an important role in most non-industrial economies, as a major contributor to the country's GDP and as a source of employment and livelihood.
Globally more than 400 million women engage in farm work, although they lack equal rights in land ownership in more than 90 countries. Women worldwide engage in non-mechanized farm occupations that include sowing, weeding, winnowing, harvesting, and other forms of labor-intensive processes such as rice transplantation.
Women as farmers, laborers and entrepreneurs are the driving force of India's farmland. According to OXFAM 2018, the agriculture sector employs 80% of all economically active women in India, they comprise 33% of the agricultural labour force and 48% of the self-employed farmers. Despite their large contribution women continue to remain invisible in the rural economy of India. Limited access to resources, illiteracy, and land allocation for farming and recognition is consistently adding trouble for women farmers. According to a statement by the Union agriculture minister in the monsoon session of the parliament, women's contribution to Indian agriculture in some regions-hill states, northeast and Kerala is more than men.
According to FAO, if women farmers had equal access to land ownership, credit, farming equipment, and new technologies, incomes can increase by 30 percent per household and countries can experience an increase in agricultural output by 2.5 to 4 percent.
Some Facts to ponder over:
• Agricultural sector employs 80% of all economically active women in India; they comprise 33% of the agricultural labour force and 48% of the self-employed farmers.
• In India, 85% of rural women are engaged in agriculture, yet only about 13% own land. The situation is worse in Bihar with only 7% of women having land rights, though women play an important role in various agricultural activities.
• About 60-80% of food is produced by rural women.
• Economic Survey 2017-18 says that with growing rural to urban migration by men, there is 'feminization' of the agriculture sector, with an increasing number of women in multiple roles as cultivators, entrepreneurs, and laborers.
• Bihar's agriculture sector is highly feminized, with 50.1% of the total workforce engaged in farming activities being women ('Women in the informal economy of Bihar' – ADRI)
• 70% of all women engaged in cultivation are from households witnessing migration. (Report released in 2014 by IHD, New Delhi)
Women in rural areas do not always own lands. They have lesser access to farming technologies nor any knowledge of how to implement them. Despite being 85% of the workforce, neither they nor their family members recognize them as farmers.
Women in agriculture are affected by issues of recognition and in the absence of land rights, female agricultural laborers especially farm widows, and tenant farmers are left bereft of recognition as farmers, and the consequent entitlements. Women often bear the burden of getting paid lower wages compared to men.
In order to improve capability of women farmers, access to information on advanced agricultural practices is needed. Policy emphasis must be updated to recognize the work of female farmers and grant equal pay to them. Special skilling-center should be opened so that the wages of these skilled women labor would increase and match that of men labour. Special schemes encouraging already engaged women laborers would further increase their importance in the sector.
Self-help groups have been playing a crucial role in improving the status of women in rural villages. Such self-help groups can help women farmers by providing financial support in terms of loans and promote best agricultural practices through training. Fair support price has been the major demand of farmers all over the country. In order to provide a fair price and direct market linkages, Mahila Kisan mandis should be promoted for women farmers where they can sell their produce without any hassle.
While farmer groups and protests have been an integral part of Indian history owing to deep-rooted structural problems of the sector; manipulative cropping patterns; and low investments; recent farmer protests have seen a historical trend emerging - that of, participation of the female laborer, and the woman farmer, the farm widow, and the consequent visibility of the hitherto invisible 'gendered' problem in agriculture.
Women farmers will play an important role in fulfilling the government's ambitious target to double farmer incomes. Initiatives like Mahila Kisan Sashaktikaran Yojana (Women Farmers' Empowerment Scheme) that uses a framework that integrates and leverages women's self-help groups, sustainable agricultural practices and community paraprofessionals to build agricultural capacity for women, are a step in the right direction. But for the vision of a gender-centric agricultural policy, practices, and interventions to materialize, a relentless and continuous redesigning, re-configuring and implementing at all levels will be needed for women to achieve their full potential.
If we want the agricultural sector to thrive in the country, acknowledging the contribution of women farmers becomes an absolute necessity. We need to provide them with opportunities and upgrade their skills through collective training and capacity building programs. Common mindset of treating women only as farm labors should be discouraged. Agricultural policies should be directed in such a way that women should become independent farmers.
Ravindra K Agrawal is the MD & Founder at KisanKraft Limited