Empowering Agrarian Women in India

I have done seasonal labour for many years now. I have looked after the house  and my husband and children. Of what use has my work been I do not know but I cannot stop working either.”  

This quote from Ranjana Padhi’s book, ‘Those who did not die summarizes the dismal situation of women in rural India appropriately. More importantly, it reflects the invisibility of work done by agricultural women on their own farm lands and presents some explanation for the 56 per cent gap in labour force participation between men and women in India. The need of the hour is to invest in policies that can help agricultural women become economically empowered so that their contribution in agricultural output can be legitimized. This could be an important step in achieving gender equality in agriculture and helping the rural woman get her much deserved status of a farmer as against that of a seasonal labourer or peasant.  

The current Indian agricultural policy consists of more than 100 schemes by the Central and State governments. However, until a few years ago, only a handful of these programs focused on women in agriculture. Despite contributing significantly to crop production, post-harvesting operations and livestock production, more than 50 percent of rural female workers were classified as agricultural labourers and 37 per cent as cultivators. A new ray of hope was seen in the form of the Mahila Kisan Sashaktikaran Pariyojana (MKSP) which tried to make an effort towards recognizing the role of women in agriculture and focused on skill building, improving access to inputs and services of government and productivity enhancement. Since the scheme is still at its nascent stage, it would be difficult to evaluate its impact. Nevertheless, a total of 65 projects spread over 117 districts and 14 states have already been implemented and 24.5 lakh women farmers have been covered under the scheme.

A number of civil society groups have also stepped up their efforts in helping the woman farmer get her due. For instance, Sunhara Walmart project works with 2500 women in Ghaziabad and Agra to provide them skill based training and help them understand their rights and opportunities better. A number of states have also launched similar programs. The MKSP and accompanying programs realize that unless women have access to resources and factors of production, they will never be able to make the transition from peasant to farmers. Hence, accompanying micro credit schemes and financial outreach are also an integral part of the program.   

The success of the above package of schemes, however, relies on the premise that collateral free financial support bundled with skill building is able to help women to become empowered despite empirical evidence against the same (Banerjee et. al 2015). In other words, even after receiving financial support, women may not have the acumen to use this money wisely. It could also be possible that given the gender power dynamics in India, she may not even have access to the money that she was lent.

An innovative solution to this problem can be that of providing factors of production directly to the woman. The easiest way to start could be to start with livestock itself.  For instance, Heifer International follows a collective leadership model based on livestock provision to help agrarian women in becoming economically independent. The key idea is to provide livestock to a group of women along with training on animal management and how to care for and profit from the animal. The first offspring from the animal is passed on to another women’s group in need and so on. Using this innovative model, their ‘empowering women farmers’ project in Nepal has supported almost 150,000 women and women’s groups have been able to mobilize about $2 mn in savings to invest and grow their agricultural and livestock enterprises. This concept of using ‘livestock’ as a means of pulling women out of poverty is simple yet powerful and effective. Future changes in agricultural policy for women could benefit from drawing from such approaches so that the coming decades are able to help the woman farmer get her due.

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Dr. Antra Bhatt is a Masters in Public Policy student at the University of Chicago, Harris School of Public Policy. She holds a Ph.D. in Economics from University of Rome – ‘ Tor Vergata’. Her current areas of research are economic and social policy for women. Prior to her current affiliation, Antra has worked with the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai and Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations on a variety of development policy related issues.