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May 1, 2017

Women Farmers or Labourers?

Oxfam India

On Labour Day, meet the incredible women who work as farmers in Uttar Pradesh but are struggling to get the respect that their male counterparts have.

We are daughter of the land; we are daughter of the mountain, we don’t have the status of a farmer

“We do all the work on the field. If we don’t, the men will be unable to farm on their own. So why aren’t we farmers?” asks Leelavati. The 60-year-old is a resident of Bantara village in Shahjahanpur and is fondly called ‘cyclewaali’. She cycles for about ten kilometres daily to the sabzi mandi, to sell her vegetables, hence the sobriquet.

She is associated with Oxfam India-supported AAROH Campaign since 2006, which sets out to achieve, social and legal recognition of women farmers.  Leelavati became the first woman farmer in the state to be awarded the Kisan Samman in 2014.

Like all women farmers in India, she worked in her husband’s field growing paddy, wheat and potatoes. After becoming a part of the AAROH Mahila Manch, she developed her own vegetable plot. 

Leelavati now grows a range of vegetables including bitter gourd, water gourd, mustard, peas, apart from crops like groundnut and maize. She convinced her husband to transfer the land in their joint names. She purchased a plot and registered it in the name of one of the daughters-in-law. She plans to do the same for her other two daughters-in-law. This is a big step for a big cause.

When AAROH Campaign was initiated, the emphasis was on providing social recognition to women farmers so that they could own agricultural land, access institutional credit, new technologies and relevant government programmes. Each of the regional NGOs supported by the campaign started work in 10 districts (it later became 14 districts after a few of them were bifurcated). The Campaign was built through innumerable meetings with farmers (men and women) and government officials by way of padyatras, signature campaigns, petitions to the Chief Minister and other legislators, and public hearings.

The first few years were spent in socialising the idea among people that women who were engaged in farming were farmers. The first task was to convince the women themselves. “Women thought of themselves as nothing more than agriculture labourers. They had to be told they were farmers and that the Campaign was about getting them the social recognition,” says Neelam Prabhat, Campaign Coordinator, AAROH Campaign. The NGOs were already working with women Self Help Groups (SHGs) in the districts prior to 2006. Though it was easier to bring them together for the Campaign, some women did face resistance.

Nirmala and Saroj of Patni village in Saharanpur, for instance, became victims of domestic violence when they wanted to attend the meetings. “Since men resisted, they were made a part of the campaign. We invited them to Pati-Patni Sammelans,” recalls KN Tiwari, director, Disha Samajik Sansthan which is one of the NGOs.

Many meetings were held. Women farmers then came together under the banner of AAROH Mahila Kisan Manch. “Earlier when we met, it was about collecting and managing money. But the Manch was informative. We became aware that we were not benefiting from many schemes because we were not socially recognised as farmers,” says Shanti Devi, a member of the Manch from Ambedkar Nagar district. The Manch now meets regularly every month.

Apart from these monthly meetings, the padyatra was also strategic for the Campaign. 43,000 women farmers walking together on the streets, some of them driving bullock carts made for good impact.

“Men were shocked to see women drive bullock carts, then. They still remember it. Men realised that we were indeed farmers,” says Suresho. Popularly known as the ‘tractor lady’, for being the first and perhaps the only woman driving a tractor in and around her village, Suresho is a Manch member from Saharanpur.

The padyatra brought the women farmers into the spotlight. The agriculture department took note of the Campaign and provided farm tools and implements at subsidised rates to women farmers. They were also identified for exposure visits to agriculture universities in Delhi (Indian Agricultural Research Institute, New Delhi) and Uttarakhand (G B Pant University of Agriculture and Technology, Pantnagar). In the media, terms like ‘mahila kisan’ or ‘women farmer’ gained currency and women farmers received invitations for televised panel discussions on agriculture on Doordarshan (the government-sponsored television channel).

The Campaign then advocated for decision-making roles for women farmers in different agriculture forums/ government bodies like ATMA. Oxfam India trained partner NGOs on building linkages with government schemes and ensuring last-mile delivery for women farmers. Workshops dealt with women land laws, Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana (RKVY) and sustainable agriculture practices.

Some successes include women farmers on the board of ATMA and as members of Kisan Club or farmers club – an initiative by NABARD.

In all, they have entered what has traditionally been an all-male bastion.

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