By Divya Gupta
What are the images triggered in your mind when you think of the word “farmer”? To be honest, the word “farmer” has always evoked images of frail men in cotton dhotis to my mind, never women. I had always instinctively concluded that all farmers are men. Though I am aware that women work hard in the fields, I have always perceived them as farm laborers, not actual farmers. And I wonder why that might be so! Why are women farmers unrecognized and their efforts unacknowledged?
As part of my field research on the implementation of the Forest Rights Act (FRA), I visited Gadchiroli, Maharashtra in June 2018. While preparing a list of people to interview and sites to visit, I was told about a workshop being organized by local NGO called Amhi Amcha Arogyasathi (AAA) to train women farmers about Forest Rights Act (FRA). My interest was immediately piqued and I made instant plans to attend the workshop. I was interested in attending the workshop not only because it would be an opportunity for getting a hands-on experience of different ways communities are informed and educated about the FRA, but also because the workshop was geared specifically towards women farmers, something I was really curious about.
Lack of social status
The data show that almost 70% of the farmers in India are women . Of the 70% engaged in farming, only 14% have rights to land. Factors like poor literacy, lack of awareness and limited access to land prevent women from adopting new technologies and participating in agriculture markets. Although policies and legal frameworks exist, they have failed to challenge existing gender norms and address issues related to women’s economic dependence.
The rural agricultural sector is the biggest employer in India. It is the women farmers who actually perform most of the farming jobs. Barring ploughing, a major share of agriculture work including paddy transplanting, weeding, harvesting, sowing, and threshing is carried out by women [1,2]. In addition to agriculture, women are also engaged in ancillary agricultural activities like rearing livestock and poultry, milking, milk processing, selling chickens etc. Despite their dominance in the agriculture labor force, women in India continue to face extreme disadvantage in terms of pay, land rights and their representation in agricultural decision-making continue to be poor [1,2].
Overworked, discriminated and unappreciated
Women continue to be overburdened with work. They work 14-18 hours daily on average and expend a larger amount of energy per day compared to men . Agricultural activities take almost as much time and energy as household activities. One of the participants at the workshop shared an account of her daily schedule. She said, “I have no choice but to work on our farm. I finish all my household work like cooking, collecting water and wood, for which I have to walk a long distance, cleaning the house, taking care of my elderly in-laws, sending children off to school, and come to the farm by 9am. That is how it is. No one ever realizes the amount of time and effort I spend on everything, no one ever will”.
In places like Vidarbha, which is notorious for farmer suicides, wives of farmers who commit suicides are driven to penury and desolation with no social and family support. They have no rights to the land and productive resources they can work with. In addition, the burden of repaying the debt that their husbands had incurred and the responsibility of looking after the children, suddenly fall on their shoulders. To make matters worse, the chances of receiving government aid in such dire circumstances are slim, thereby leaving these women feeling totally helpless.
Lack of secure tenurial rights
Gender concerns in the implementation of the Forest Rights Act (FRA) have been growing with time. Compared to men, women are often disadvantaged in their access to and control over land use and are constantly deprived of the economic opportunities available to men. Secure land rights can give women more bargaining power in their homes and communities and make them more empowered economically and socially.
There are studies showing startling data on the relationship between domestic abuse and property ownership [4,5]. For instance, in Kerala, researchers found that 7% of women who owned property were subjected to physical domestic abuse, as opposed to 49% of women who did not . In a similar study in Northern India, researchers found that female ownership of property “increases a woman’s economic security, reduces her tolerance to violence, and deters domestic abuse” .
Mrs. Shubhada Deshmukh, the organizer of the workshop, has been working in the region for almost three decades. She shared her thoughts and informed that women have either been neglected or have not had a chance to exercise their fundamental rights, let alone forest rights. This workshop was a chance for them to create a space to communicate, interact and share their experiences without intimidation. She said, “usually, in meetings with both men and women, few women speak up. This reinforces the assumption that they do not know about or are not interested in issues. Women only workshops thus have an important role in both creating awareness about rights and issues among women, and also allow women to find their own voice and self-confidence”. As one of the participants shared, “I used to barely speak at the meetings. I could not gather the courage to speak up in public, as I was afraid of making mistakes and people judging me”.
While addressing the question about the challenges that she faces in organizing such workshops, Deshmukh shared that, “although workshops are a great way of educating and spreading awareness in the community, organizing them has been extremely challenging in the past, as it was hard to motivate and encourage women to participate, because women had to overcome constraints like household responsibilities and opposition from families. But these challenges are reducing as the benefits of these workshops are being perceived not only by the women, but also the entire community”. Interaction with the participants showed that women keep going back to such workshops because they feel they learn a lot and gain self-confidence in the process.
Mrs. Deshmukh added that if agriculture is to survive in India, we need to acknowledge and respect the contributions made by women farmers and provide them opportunities to build confidence through collective training and capacity-building programs. Therefore, it is imperative to create platforms to identify key gender issues and address them, thereby paving the way for more secure tenurial rights for women.
Failure of the Act in addressing gender disparity in the social norms
Although the FRA mandates inclusion of the names of both men and women as co-owners of the land in the Individual Forest Rights titles, “in a lot of cases women were listed as dependents and not as co-owners, but a lot of women were not aware of that”, shared Mrs. Deshmukh. At the workshop too it seemed that women were indifferent about whether or not their names were listed or the status of their ownership mentioned in the title. It was only when they were informed of the unforeseen circumstances like domestic violence, divorce or death of a spouse, that they realized the importance of having their name as co-owners and not as co-dependents in the title deed.
These are some of the critical realities of the Indian society and if the law fails to recognize such realities, the path to inclusive growth will be riddled with challenges that will be difficult to overcome. At this juncture, I should mention that the Act does make provision for 1/3rd representation of women in the Gram Sabha to ensure adequate participation of women in decision-making process regarding forest management. But the truth is that, its implementation fails to address the gender disparity embedded in the social norms, which has severely constrained women’s agency over tenurial land rights.
In conclusion: Inform men about the rights of women
India faces a formidable development challenge in gender inequality, which limits its chances for inclusive and sustainable growth. In its current development trajectory, it appears unlikely that India will be able to address the problem of gender disparity. In particular, the gender disparity in rural land ownership continues to be vast. Despite well-intentioned legal reforms, rural and indigenous women continue to have limited access and property rights to forests and agriculture land. There is a greater need to recognize women’s equal rights to property, inheritance and customary rights to forest lands. There is also a need for more research to analyze concrete impacts of lack of women’s ownership at the individual and community levels. A way forward in overcoming gender disparity in land ownership is to ensure that all development activities address the issues and rights of women during the process of their execution.
Women in rural areas face all sorts of challenges. Workshops for training women about their tenurial rights are instrumental in empowering and improving their social status. While these workshops are a great way of educating and spreading awareness among women, it is equally important to inform men about the rights of women.
The workshop was conducted in an interactive manner and included simple exercises to help explain the complex procedural and legal realities of FRA implementation. My favourite part was when the moderator asked the question: why are rights necessary? Pin-drop silence followed the question. As the women struggled to come up with answers, I sat there wondering about whether how we perceive or use our rights on a daily basis is determined by what the Constitution says or what a law says. What role do our social norms play in the process? Is there a way to reconcile the fundamental rights of the women established by the Constitution and those dictated by the social norms? What can we do to bridge the gap? How far have we come? How much further do we need to go?
- Panda, Pradeep and Bina Agarwal, 2005. Marital Violence, Human Development and Women’s Property Status in India, World Development 33:5.
- Bhattacharya, Manasi, et. Al, 2009. “Marital Violence and Women’s Employment and Property Status: Evidence from North Indian Villages. Germany: IZA.
About the author:
Divya Gupta is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Forest and Governance Program at Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment. Her research interests lie at the intersection of collaborative natural resource governance, local institutions- their development and analysis, government agencies, NGOs, citizens and private companies intervention; equitable resource distribution; politics and dynamics of scaling up local interventions/lessons; common property regimes; collaborative forest governance; forest policies and politics; sustainable development; climate change research and discourses. She is currently looking at the role of Civil Society Actors in the implementation of the Forest Rights Act in eastern Maharashtra.