Men are setting off to find work in cities, and women are being left holding the sickle – how can we help them?
“I can see the strain when I go back to the farms,” says Palagummi Sainath. “Women have always done the bulk of work in agriculture, but post-2008, things have changed. There’s been a male exodus, and the roles that men were doing in agriculture are now sitting on women’s shoulders. People are cracking.”
The award-winning Sainath, who specialises in rural affairs and has spent most of the last 20 years in the Indian countryside, now says the burden on rural women has been getting steadily worse in recent years, with many now reaching breaking point.
Women have never been strangers to farm work in India, which has an estimated 77 million female farmers, but the country has recently witnessed a turning point in its migration trends. Its latest census, in 2011, showed for the first time since independence that urban populations are growing faster than rural ones. “The men are going first, and in larger numbers,” says Sainath. “And the roles that men were doing in agriculture are now sitting on women’s shoulders.”
India’s livestock census offers more evidence of this. Women have traditionally cared for small livestock such as sheep and goats, but the added burden of looking after crops means they have less time for this, so numbers are falling.
Female farmers’ lack of land titles – custom, rather than law – exacerbates the problem. The rise of “special economic zones”, typically allocated to attract foreign direct investment, has led to farmer displacement. Without their names on deeds, women have been most vulnerable to displacement and suffer more from its impacts, says Sainath.
“Displacement affects women the most. Every chore doubles in intensity. You have to walk longer distances for water, and there is no water resource not already being used by another community, so they also face the hostility of that community.”
A government programme called Kudumbashree launched in Kerala in 1998 is an example of how to help these women. It has mobilised four million women under the poverty line (many of them farmers) to tackle the structural roots of their disempowerment. Kudumbashree established organisational structures at three incremental levels – neighbourhood, area and community – to encourage women to work together. Since 2007, women involved with Kudumbashree have organised themselves into more than 47,000 farming collectives, known as sangha krishi, and negotiated leases to take over unused land. “The collective may be five, 10 or 18 women,” says Sainath. “They lease land which a landlord might be letting lie fallow, and they restore it.”
Perhaps the greatest benefit of sangha krishi, according to Sainath, is something that cannot really be measured: solidarity. Amid all the talk of productivity and access to resources, the isolation of smallholder farmers is easily overlooked.
“When you go out into the countryside in India, you find women working alone, cut off from everyone else. They’re working in one small homestead farm here, another there. Bringing them together in a group creates an entirely different dynamic. They gain confidence, and know that if one of them falls ill, the others are there to cover for her.”
Kerala has a history of social movements, and a left-of-centre culture. But there’s no reason why similar change couldn’t happen all over India. “It can happen in the rest of the country. I haven’t the slightest doubt,” says Sainath, adding that this collectivisation is preferable to “the ridiculous farce of public-private partnerships”.
Research shows that putting female farmers in control of resources benefits the nutrition of children and Sainath’s observations of the farming collectives bear this out. “Women follow the principle that the needs of the families in the group come first,” he says. “Only what’s left over goes to market. There’s no doubt that when women get greater rights in agriculture, things improve.”