Move over 'Sons of the soil': Why you need to know the female farmers that are revolutionizing agriculture in India

Move over 'Sons of the soil': Why you need to know the female farmers that are revolutionizing agriculture in India

The dream of socio–economic empowerment of women will not be complete without empowering those who are living at India's last periphery. The ones whose day starts before sunrise and continues after sunset. These are the women farmers of India, whose voices often go unheard owing to their gender, and who struggle to establish their identity at a grassroots level due to patriarchal traditions and gender socialization. Women’s work in agriculture is in addition to her role as a wife, a daughter-in-law and as a mother. However, gender based discrimination continues in multiple ways: women are not recognized as farmers in Indian policies thereby denying them of institutional supports of the bank, insurance, cooperatives, and government departments.

These voices need to be heard at both the policy and implementation levels if we are to realize the dream of a progressive India. Women farmers in India perform most of the big farming jobs, from sowing to harvesting, yet their access to resources is less than their male counterparts. Closing this gender gap is essential in order to accelerate the pace of growth in the agriculture sector.

Did you know?

  • Agriculture sector employs 80% of all economically active women in India; they comprise 33% of the agriculture labor force and 48% of the self-employed farmers.
  • In India, 85% of rural women are engaged in agriculture, yet only about 13% own land. The situation is worse in Bihar with only 7% women having land rights, though women play an important role in various agricultural activities. 
  • Economic Survey 2017-18 says that with growing rural to urban migration by men, there is ‘feminisation’ of agriculture sector, with increasing number of women in multiple roles as cultivators, entrepreneurs, and labourers.
  • Bihar’s agriculture sector is highly feminized, with 50.1% of the total workforce engaged in farming activities being women (‘Women in the informal economy of Bihar’ – ADRI)
  • 70% of all women engaged in cultivation are from households witnessing migration. (Report released in 2014 by IHD, New Delhi)
  • About 60-80% food are produced by rural women. 

Meet Kanchan Devi, an Agent of Change

Till a few years ago, 29-year-old Kanchan Devi was just another resident of Lodhipur Khurd, a non-descript village in Baghalpur, Bihar, with just 134 households that are largely dependent on agricultural income and daily wage labour for livelihood. The village that has almost 50% representation of female residents, unfortunately can only boast of approximately 15% female literacy rate. Women here could earlier only dream of economic empowerment.

In May 2016, Oxfam India and SEWA Bharat collaborated to start a unique initiative. The project involved Economic Empowerment of Women Farmers through vegetable supply chain in 35 villages of Munger and Bhagalpur district of Bihar. Lodhipur Khurd was selected as this project’s first intervention village.

Women farmers were on boarded through multiple village awareness programmes. Finding the participants a little hesitant at first, the project implementation team decided to build a rapport with the female farmers and appealed to them to join hands for the shared goal of economic empowerment.

It was during these village meetings that Kanchan Devi contacted our implementation team and took the lead in our community awareness programmes. During initial phase, she was also apprehensive but her confidence in the future success of the programme grew. The collective action and participatory approach of the project design too restored her faith in the project.

As a lead farmer, Kanchan attended several training and capacity building programmes on sustainable agricultural practices and learnt about women farmers’ rights and entitlements. Soon, she was equipped to be a local trainer in her community.

Now she is the president of a village-level women vegetable producer group and has been nominated by her community as member of the Board of Director of Farmer Producer Organisation in the state. She is cultivating vegetable in her 0.5 acre of land through Integrated Nutrient Management and Integrated Pest Management. She has also reported a 30% increased net return from vegetable farming through recommended package of practices learnt in training. Thanking Oxfam India and SEWA Bharat she told us, “My increased income helped me in repairing my house and fulfilling the basic needs of my family.” Last year, she prepared a demonstration site at her farm to provide practical training to other women farmers. 

On 26th April 2018, Agriculture Production Commissioner, Government of Bihar awarded her as an ‘Agent of Change’ appreciating her efforts in empowering women farmers.

But the accolades didn’t stop here. On 27th May 2018, Prabhat Khabar (a leading print media agency) organized ‘Aprajita Samman’ (an award ceremony to recognize contribution of 14 women leaders in agriculture, heath, sports, art, literature and social development sector) in Bhagalpur district. Kanchan was awarded for her contribution in incorporating the first women managed Farmer Producer Organisation. 

She believes, “two years back, no one could have believed that we will write our own story in rural business and agriculture productivity enhancement through sustainable agricultural practices, but now people are recognising our initiative”. Now Kanchan has paved the way for her community and other women farmers nationwide.

How women's economic empowerment can help the world:

Women’s economic empowerment could reduce poverty for everyone. In order to achieve it, we need to first fix the current broken economic model which is undermining gender equality and causing extreme economic inequality. The neoliberal model has made it harder for women to have better quality and better paid jobs, address inequality in unpaid care work, and women’s influence and decision making power is constrained. To achieve women’s economic empowerment, we need a human economy that works for women and men alike, and for everyone, not just the richest 1%.
Read more in this Oxfam India report here.

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