Opinion

Time women farmers got a better deal

Purvi Mehta | Updated on October 19, 2018 Published on October 19, 2018

FILE PHOTO   -  THE HINDU

They account for a third of the agricultural workforce, but don’t get the benefits and opportunities the menfolk enjoy

India celebrated its first Women Farmer’s Day on October 15, but the word farmer or kisan is still seen as being synonymous with a male farm worker. This perception is built on two assumptions — first, farming is a masculine profession; and, second, when women are involved in farm activities, they largely play supporting roles.

But anecdotal evidence, data, and research have consistently broken this myth. Women’s presence on farms can be seen by anyone travelling across India. The numbers further confirm it — 80 per cent of financially independent women are engaged in farm-related activities in India. Of them, 33 per cent are working as agricultural labourers and 48 per cent are self-employed farmers.

The second myth, around the nature of the women’s work in agriculture, is also broken. Research studies have consistently shown that women are, in fact, involved in the entire value chain of food production as well as in allied income-generating activities like cattle and livestock management.

Indeed, while there may be considerable variation in the participation and scope of work, based on States, crop patterns, location, and age, the fact remains that women make up one-third of the agricultural workforce — making this sector the largest employer of women in India.

Lesser benefits

Despite their presence and involvement, however, the irony is that compared to men, women often don’t own the title to the land they cultivate. They receive differential prices for the products they sell in markets and in terms of daily wages, they are often paid less than their male counterparts for the same work. By government estimates, this wage gap is nearly as wide as 25 per cent.

Other disadvantages that women face are with regards to access to credit, capacity building opportunities, and technology. The imbalance — between what women do and how they benefit — was well captured by a 2010-11 FAO report which pointed out that if women in rural areas had the same access to land, technology, financial services, education, and markets as men, we could see a 20-30 per cent increase in yields on women’s farms, which could raise agricultural output in developing countries by 2.5-4 per cent.

This paradox — high participation but limited benefits to women farmers — is the challenge that first needs to be acknowledged and then consciously addressed by re-framing policies and developmental interventions in a way that gives women an equal chance within this sector.

Perhaps one of the best examples to illustrate the blind spot has been historical, predominantly male composition, and lack of gender-orientation of the agricultural extension workers. While studies have consistently shown that extension services are not offered in a vacuum — where either socio-economic or gender considerations can be ignored — the extension workers are predominantly male.

Given that these workers are any farmer’s first point of contact and work as a conduit to access knowledge on credit, inputs, and other skills necessary for successful production and marketing, it becomes necessary that this key facilitative network is gender-neutral.

Technology adoption and mechanisation must also be viewed from a gender-aware perspective. While women do all the farm work, tools and machines are either predominantly used by men or not designed for women.

More recently, training programmes on gender-friendly equipment for women conducted by farm machinery training and testing institutes have allocated at least 30 per cent of the funds for women farmers — this is a timely move as structural changes in agriculture due to mechanisation must increase, not decrease, the demand and uptake for women.

One sector from which there could be learnings is the livestock sector, including smallholder, is dairy. Women contribute a significant share in livestock rearing — with over 73 per cent of livestock-related work carried out by women. Out of the 22 million people involved in animal husbandry in India, over 16 million are women — playing a key role in livestock-keeping. This sector has also been able to harness the full potential of women by aggregating them into productive cooperatives. These collective cooperates, then lead efforts to secure women’s access to and control of productive and natural resources such as land, livestock, and credit which strengthen their influence and social empowerment.

We all know about the critical role played by women cooperatives in the dairy revolution that raised the country’s milk production levels. India is currently the second largest cow milk producer in the world, with the 2016-17 production number reaching 165.4 million tonnes. Lessons from the women’s cooperative movement and success in dairy can be applied in other agriculture-related opportunities.

Key role

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 three-pronged 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 materialise, a relentless and continuous redesigning, reconfiguring and implementing at all levels will be needed for women to achieve their full potential.

The writer is Head, Agriculture, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

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Published on October 19, 2018
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