Until a few months ago, as I can recollect, when I would hear the word ‘farmer’ or ‘agriculture’, I would visualize an old man wearing a turban, with beard and moustache, sweating, working really hard on his farm all day long. I don’t know what conditioned my mind to think like this. Last year, after following the news that threw light on the plight of women farmers, I learnt that women could be farmers too. I was ignorant and unaware, and began talking to friends and family members about it, in a hope that they would broaden my understating. It was shocking to learn that many of them also did not know that women practice agriculture as well.
Upon close observation, it became clear that the problems these women face are deep-rooted in culture. The roles that society has associated with gender is impacting them in both their personal as well as professional lives, and agriculture is an overlap. As Kamala Bhasin rightly puts in “ Understanding Gender “, gender refers to the way societies distinguish men and women and assign them social roles. We, as a society, have believed since centuries that different characteristics, roles and status of women and men in the society are determined by biology (i.e. sex). We have built a perception that certain roles are natural and therefore, can’t be changed. All the social and cultural packaging that’s done for girls and boys since birth can be called gendering and hence, the classification of men and women into masculine and feminine has no biological origin.
This is hindering people from living a free life and decide for themselves. For instance, taking care of children has been accorded as the role of women while stepping out to earn livelihood is seen as men’s job. Now, men are deprived of spending all their time with their children even if they want to do it, and women don’t have enough liberty to go out and work due to social norms. The question here is that how women farmers are having to pay a price for age-old cultural norms, practices and beliefs.
To begin with, I should not mention women farmers, because by definition a farmer is a person who owns or takes care of a farm. Thus, anyone practicing agriculture is known as farmer, irrespective of their sex. As per, this article by Oxfam India, agriculture sector employs 80% of all economically active women in India; they comprise 33% of the agriculture labor force and 48% of the self-employed farmers. Despite that, women are often not recognized as farmers. This can be a major setback because when schemes are designed at policy level, even the policy makers or implementors may not consider women. In India, 85% of rural women are engaged in agriculture, yet only about 13% own land. This deprives them to access benefits of agriculture schemes. In case their husband passes away, usually the son inherits the land. The enormity of this is unimaginable.
Last month, while working with SEWA Federation, I attended a conference on the subject and during my field visits, interacted with women practicing farming. This helped me build understanding towards gender specific roles impacting women.
Kalpana didi* is a farmer, and has the responsibility to do the entire household work and take care of her family which means getting up early in the morning, cleaning the house, preparing food for everyone, washing clothes, dishes and livestock, feeding them and keeping them well as they are a major source of livelihood. Just like her, there are many other women living a similar life. This being the usual order of day, it is difficult for women to spend time on getting trained in farming and learn new technology.
I also got to attend ‘ Mahila Kisaan Sammelan’, an event organized by Unnati, where more than 500 women farmers gathered at Sindhari village. When the question was raised as to how many of them owned assets and had any property in their name either before getting married, at their parents’ house or after, at their in-laws house, it was saddening for me to see only one or two hands being raised.
Mahila Kisaan Sammelan, Barmer, Rajasthan
Despite playing a vital role both at home and at farm, these women do not get to take part in decision making, lack ownership and have to seek permission from her husband or in-laws, for buying anything. I now have some understanding of how patriarchy functions at grassroots but closely witnessing these social dynamics being controlled by men, leaves me with a question WHY?
*Name changed to protect identity