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Oct 31, 2013

She tills, she sows, but she does not own

Vanita Suneja

Posted October 31, 2013 by Vanita Suneja

‘A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction’, so said Virginia Woolf. It was a great realisation eighty years back which, unfortunately, still remains to be realised. Though many more things since then have been added to the list. A woman must have land of her own; if she cultivates that land she should be known as a farmer and not as farmer's wife. She needs to have safe infrastructure and space, when she walks outside, so that she does not feel like a second grade citizen

Though ownership of property is an issue, which connects urban and rural women alike, the situation of a woman farmer cultivating land becomes all the more precarious. She tills, she sows, but she does not own. Half of India's population is still dependent on agriculture and allied activities. Three fourth of the total female rural work force is engaged in agriculture. Due to out migration of men for work , around one fourth of the total rural households are headed by women. And yes, despite their active role in agriculture, women are anonymous when it comes to recognition of their profession. Even today socially and culturally, men are considered farmers and women are supposed to play second fiddle to them. And access and right to land is a major determinant of the position and status, despite the work being done by women on the field. Access to credit and government schemes automatically screen out women as they do not have any proof to show that they are farmers in absence of land in their names. Who could understand this better than Suresho, a 45 year old woman farmer who challenged the stereotype of a “farmer” in western Uttar Pradesh. She fought for her right to be the owner of land in her marital family, Suresho became the first woman in the village to own an independent farmer credit card.. The self-pride of Suresho lies in the fact that she drives a tractor, she owns a farmer credit card and she owns the land which she cultivates. As she says “Change how women are thought of; create new visions. It does not matter if you are different, as long the difference is meaningful and right for you!”.

But story of one Suresho hangs out like an oasis in a desert. Women hold less than 11 % of agricultural land in India. Culturally and socially women have been denied right to land for centuries. Though very recently the government has learnt to take care that if any land is to be distributed, it should be as joint titles (in the name of wife and husband), but such distribution has been few and far between. Conflicting claims on public or government land, absence of mapping of available land and surplus ceiling land supposed to be redistributed, remain entangled in litigation for decades. As more than 85% of agricultural land is privately owned, it becomes important that how a women owns land within the family. Irrespective of the amendment made in Hindu Succession Act (HSA), 2005 which gave equal rights to women from parental property through succession, the increase in agricultural holding in the name of women in the last five years is not more than 1%. The social-cultural practice of denying a woman her right to property by making her sign off her right in favor of brothers and sons is widely prevalent in India. The implementation of HSA can strengthen the right of women, but it needs an attitudinal change in the society to be able to give women their rightful share.

A women farmer tills the land of her husband after marriage, and this is the land where she is based. Sharing titles on marital agricultural land with her husband could have an easier solution for the rural women in this context. But the change of title from husband to a joint title for a woman farmer, even when the husband is willing to do so, is again saddled by legal hurdles and requires shelling out of money to the government in the form of registration fee . A campaign in Uttar Pradesh on identity of women farmers resulted in 7000 men coming forward in 2009 for their willingness to share their land titles with their wives, but could not be taken forward due to the government’s inability to waive off the registration fee .

The issue of equal property rights for women can not be sorted out with administrative and legal reforms alone. There is a need to ask a lot of disturbing questions to both men and women on silent assumptions about patterns of property ownership and bring an attitudinal change.

Oxfam India’s campaign on inequality “ClosetheGap” aims to initiate discussions on various facets of inequality including women’s right to property. It is imperative to close the gap between men and women on equal right to property and give women their fair share.

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