“Women farmers do most of the work in the fields. We stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the men everyday and so while protesting against the three farm Acts passed by the central government, we will not back down,” said farmer Nikita Kakra from Shahapur city in Maharashtra on January 13, 2021, when asked about the Chief Justice of India’s (CJI) comment on protesting women.
CJI S. A. Bobde attracted similar flak on January 12 for stating that the Supreme Court of India could not “understand either why old people and women are kept in the protests.”
Never mind, the patriarchal undertone of the comment but the fact that the Chief Justice asked women to be removed from farmers’ protest shows a much harsher truth… that most Indians still do not know the real face of annadaatas.
Women’s role in agriculture
Despite the stereotypical image of a turbaned man sporting a handle-bar mustache lodged in our minds, most peasants working the agriculture sector wear sarees with their pallus tucked near their waist as they work at the field.
According to the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) data, the percentage of female employment in agriculture is 53.6 percent in 2020.
This percentage has declined over years albeit it still ranks above the halfway mark. It may be noted that the percentage of female employment in 2011 was 63 percent – as much as 10 points higher than 2020.
Meanwhile, Census 2011 data stated that 65 percent of the total female workers in India are engaged in agriculture. Of the total cultivators (118.7 million), 30.3 percent are women. Out of 144.3 million agricultural labourers 42.6 percent are women.
Maharashtra farmer Girja Kamal from Vikramgad block of Palghar district offers some insight into these small discrepancies as well when she talks about the state of women farmers.
“At the end of the day, even if a woman is not recognised as a farmer, she still has to work in the fields. If the woman is married to a farmer, she will inevitably end up doing the same work as a farmer,” she said.
The Mind the Gap: The State of Employment in India report in 2019 by Oxfam India also states that women labourers are concentrated in agriculture due to socio-cultural restrictions and lack of appropriate alternate employment opportunities in villages.
Moreover, it said that 60 million jobs were created between years 2000 and 2005 but women lost out as 14.6 million of those jobs were attributable to a rise in rural female unpaid family workers in the agriculture sector.
Such data calls for an immediate need to recognise the contribution of women in agriculture rather than to remove them from the narrative.
Problems faced by women farmers
When asked individually about challenges faced by women farmers, both Nikita and Girja talked about the wage disparity and the inaccessibility to government schemes or agriculture facilities.
“Whether the woman sells flowers or vegetables at the market, she is never given the proper price. Traders look at us and assume that we are uneducated and try to cheat us. Even if I leave my city and try to sell my produce elsewhere, the same thing happens. Women farmers are rarely given the proper price,” said Nikita.
The Oxfam India report also attests to this by pointing out that gender plays as an influential factor in the wage gap phenomenon.
On the other hand, Girja said that prices of various agricultural implements and facilities such as seeds and farming tools go on increasing, resulting in higher suicide rate among farmers.
To address such issues, the Government of India implemented various schemes under the National Rural Livelihoods Mission. The Mahila Kisan Sashaktikaran Pariyojana (MKSP) in 2016 was started to empower women in agriculture and allow better access to government inputs and services.
As per government reports, the scheme was initiated throughout India. However, its impact has been uneven at the district-level.
In the Vikramgad block, comprising 43 Gram Panchayats (GP,) the scheme benefitted 42 GPs and 10,430 women farmers. Only Girja’s GP could not avail the scheme. However, the MKSP only benefitted 6 out of 110 GPs – 616 women farmers – in the Shahapur block.
The data shows that while the scheme had a positive effect, it did not reach all sections of society. Vikramgad and Shahapur areas in Maharashtra are known for their indigenous population. The scheme has failed in its goal to make services more accessible for all Indian women farmers.
What happens when women farmers are recognised?
In 2009, Welthungerhilfe published a case study report that said equal access to education and agricultural resources to all genders can increase productivity by 10 to 20 percent.
Yet, policy-making is slow to support women in agriculture. To date, women have seldom owned land. But more important than land ownership is the question of whether women have control over what they harvest. If women gain agency over their produce, their income will allow them to make their own decisions at home.
Equal access to knowledge and resources can contribute to increasing households’ food security as well.
“If women are mobilised in form of training, information sessions etc. at village level, their roles in the community can be transformed. Once this process has been set in motion, it can develop its own dynamics: women’s increased self-confidence generates economic innovation power, which in turn contributes to increasing food security,” says the report.
However traditional, conventional norms relating to women make this transition difficult.
Kirti Kisan Union Punjab District Convener Shinderpal Kaur Rode said that what the CJI said reflects the mentality of Indian society.
“Women are not allowed to go out and protest even now. This is how our society thinks but these laws are bound to affect everyone equally. This is a fight for women as well as men,” she said.
As such she said that despite such attempts to ruin the movement, women farmers will not back down and continue to oppose the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance & Farm Services Act, the Farmer’s Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act along with the Electricity Amendment Bill 2020.
On January 18, farmers organisations declared Mahila Kisan Diwas to celebrate the contributions of women farmers to the movement and to the agriculture sector.