Features | Society | South Asia

India’s Invisible Women Farmers

The farmers’ protests outside New Delhi have cast a spotlight on a traditionally overlooked group: the women who keep India’s farms running.

By Neeta Lal for
India’s Invisible Women Farmers

Woman farmer Sohajdeep Kaur, 40, center, with others shout slogans as they block a highway in protest against new farm laws at the Delhi-Haryana state border, on the outskirts of New Delhi, India, Sunday, Dec. 27, 2020.

Credit: AP Photo/Manish Swarup

At Tikri village, bordering the western fringes of India’s national capital New Delhi, thousands of farmers from across the country have been agitating since November 26. Their target: the government’s new farm laws, which they view as “pro-corporate” and “exploitative” toward Indian farmers.

The protests at Tikri, like at many other sites across the country, have also spotlighted a new type of revolutionary: the woman farmer. Normally confined to villages and homes, the female farming community is out in full force this time, lending its voice to one of the biggest agrarian movements that has roiled India since the country gained independence in 1947.

From shawl-swathed 80-year-olds braving the extreme winter chill to middle-aged housewives wearing salwar kameez to farm widows whose husbands committed suicide due to crippling farm loans, they are all out on the front lines.

“We have one foot in our homes and one foot at the protest,” says Jagpreet Kaur, 36, a member of Kisan Sabha, an all-India farmers’ group. Kaur travelled to Tikri on an overnight bus from Sangrur, Punjab, leaving her two young daughters with her sister. She’ll return to her village after a week, she says, and her sibling will take her place at Tikri while Kaur takes care of her two boys.

“We’ve been doing rotations to manage our homes, kids, our wheat fields, as well as the protests,” she says.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Harshdeep Deol, 59, a member of the Stree Jagriti Ekta Manch, a women farmers’ group, arrived two days ago from Patna, in India’s eastern state of Bihar. “My three sons are leading the protests here. I’m here to support them,” she explains. “Once I’m back, I’ll be busy with my home chores, farming work as well as taking care of my ailing husband.”

According to non-profit Oxfam, around 80 percent of farm work in India – including sowing, winnowing, harvesting, and other labor-intensive processes and non-mechanized farm occupations – is undertaken by women. The heavy lifting on farms, often done by the men, has also fallen upon their shoulders since November, when the protests started.

Despite their pivotal contribution to the agriculture sector, which contributes 15.4 percent to the national economy, however, women farmers remain an invisible workforce. Neither the farming sector nor the macroeconomic policy framework recognizes their labor, which technically disqualifies them from receiving institutional support from banks, insurance, cooperatives, and government departments.

“Gender-based discrimination plagues Indian women farmers every step of the way. Their voices often go unheard owing to their gender, and they struggle to establish their identity at the grassroots level due to patriarchal traditions and gender socialization,” states Mariam Dhawale of the All India Democratic Women’s Association, a women’s activist group.

The role of women in the agricultural sector cannot be ignored, adds Dhawale, given that they comprise 33 percent of the agriculture labor force and 48 percent of self-employed farmers. Despite this statistic, however, 83 percent of agricultural land in the country is inherited by male members of the family and less than 2 percent by their female counterparts, according to the India Human Development Survey 2018.

A 17-country study by Corteva Agriscience, the agriculture division of DowDuPont, showed widespread gender discrimination both in the developing and the developed world, as reported by Business Standard. The study, which included 4,160 respondents, found gender discrimination to be pervasive across the board, reported by 78 percent of survey participants in India and 52 percent in the U.S.

What further tilts the balance against Indian women farmers are region-specific socioeconomic problems, including the “feminization” of the agricultural workforce. According to the Economic Survey 2017-18, with growing rural to urban migration by men, an increasing number of women are working in multiple roles as cultivators, entrepreneurs, and laborers. As Kaur puts it, “In the absence of men in our households we are also responsible for taking decisions related to home management as well at our farms.”

Adding further to their difficulties are debts triggered by suicide among the menfolk. According to the National Crime Records Bureau of India, more than 296,438 Indian farmers committed suicide between 1995-2020, compelling women “to carry the burden of feeding their children, taking care of household chores, [and] providing minimum access to health care with no proper intervention by the state or welfare groups.”

In 2018, the Mahila Kisan Adhikar Manch, a nationwide forum promoting women farmers’ rights, conducted a survey of 505 women farmers whose husbands committed suicide due to the farm crisis in 11 districts across Marathwada and Vidarbha. The survey found that 40 percent of women widowed by farmer suicides between 2012 and 2018 had yet to obtain rights to the farmland they cultivated.

Critics point out that it is technically challenging for an Indian woman farmer to own agricultural land in India because of entrenched gender inequities in the system. “Though women are involved in all aspects of the agricultural processes, they have no role to play in decision making. They are confined to subservient roles – as helpers to their male family members, most of whom own the land or have migrated to urban cities in search of better economic opportunities,” explains Sukriti Pandey, a High Court lawyer and activist.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Worse, adds Pandey, rich landowners exploit contractual workers by paying them wages lower than a subsistence amount, and the exploitation is further magnified in the case of women farmers. Low awareness about women’s right to land exacerbates the problem.

An attempt to promote gender equity in agriculture was initiated through the Women Farmers Entitlement Bill in 2011. However, the bill never saw the light of day due to lack of governmental support, and it lapsed in 2013. And even though the National Policy on Farmers 2007 accorded high priority to “recognition and mainstreaming of women’s role in agriculture” and highlighted incorporation of “gender issues” in the agricultural development agenda, its implementation remains poor, critics say.

The government also commemorates women farmers each year through Rashtriya Mahila Kisan Divas (Women’s Farmers’ Day) on October 15. However, experts argue that such tokenism is meaningless without sustainable legislative or institutional changes. They further warn that with the pandemic leaving women farmers even more economically vulnerable, the tenuous hold of women on land will be in even greater jeopardy, further weakening their position.

“It is imperative to recognize female farmers as landowners and provide them access to the same institutional remedies that are available to their male counterparts,” advises Pandey.

Women must also have access to rural credit, assets, technology, and irrigation, which have not reached them due to flawed policies and the lack of a gendered lens in the agricultural sector. Land ownership will instill social and economic security among women farmers, which will in turn provide for a more inclusive environment in the country’s most important sector, Pandey asserts.

The United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that if women had the same access to productive resources as men, they could increase yields on their farms by 20-30 percent.” This could raise agricultural output in developing countries by up to 4 percent, which could in turn whittle down the number of hungry people in the world by 12-17 percent, or 100-150 million people.

Until then, however, hard-working women farmers like Jagpreet and Harshdeep will continue to struggle for their rightful place in the sun.

Neeta Lal is a Delhi-based editor and senior journalist.