Advocating for their own fields: Women farmers speak up in India

Date: Thursday, March 10, 2011

On a sultry day in August 2010, twenty men and forty-two women gathered together in Nandkhera village in the Indian state of Maharashtra. The group had gathered to discuss ways of improving productivity of sorghum fields, for which the state is known.

Most prominently present in the group were women farmers, who not only outnumbered their male counterparts but also spoke frankly and fearlessly about their needs and aspirations. They too, after all, worked in the fields. In fact, in many cases they dedicated more working hours than the men.

One-woman farmer eloquently and boldly drove home this point saying: “When the land is in my husband’s name, I am only a worker. When it is in my name I have some position in society and my children and husband respect me. So my responsibility is much greater to my own land and I take care of my fields like my children.” From this statement, she received immediate support from both women and men.

This is the reality in India where most women work in the fields but few actually own land. The 2002 Indian National Sample Survey reveals that 74.8 percent of rural women in India are agricultural workers but only 9.3 percent own the land (Agriculture Census 2005/ 2006). Consequently, as this woman farmer pointed out, lack of ownership impinges on the quantity and quality of the production.

The ‘feminization of agriculture’ is now slowly being acknowledged by governments. Little is being translated from acceptance to policy practice. “The increase in women famers in Asia is a result of factors such as outgoing migration by men, increasing numbers of households headed by women, the development of labor-intensive cash crops and globalization,” explains Govind Kelkar, Senior Researcher, UN Women.

This increase in women farmers has not led to a corresponding economic emancipation amongst women. Instead, women who do not own land, earn low wages and work long hours within and outside the home. This making them reluctant to work in agriculture and hence lowers agricultural productivity.

Gul Akhtar from the Gazipur District in Bangladesh describes the link between ownership and land as one of everlasting dignity: “If we have sampotti (property and assets), our samman (dignity and prestige) will be permanent. Samman is closely linked with sampotti,” she believes. Gul Akhtar used her savings, and loan from a credit and savings society to acquire 1.5 decimals of land in her independent name in 2004.

Ownership of land is critical for women as it can help to prevent domestic violence and ill health. It can also decide whether a woman has access to markets, credit and new technologies, which in turn also determines their decision-making power within the family and in the wider community.

Lack of legal autonomy and control over land therefore affects women at a much larger scale. One of four pillars of UN Women is to strengthen women’s economic rights. Earlier this year, UNIFEM (now UN Women) organized an expert group meeting on ‘Gender and Productive Resources: Women’s Entitlement to Land, Livestock and Energy’. The meeting brought together civil society workers, lawyers, researchers and academics who shared their expertise and experiences in the areas of women’s economic security rights.

In the coming year, UN Women will produce a consolidated publication that will provide insights into women’s economic entitlements and ways forward.