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Women farmers: From seed to kitchen

Women contribute 50-60% of labour in farm production in India. There is evidence to suggest, writes Kavya Dashora, that if agriculture were focused on women, outputs could increase by as much as 10-20%, the ecological balance could be restored, and food security of communities improved

In India, there are distinct male and female roles in the rural economy. Women and girls engage in a number of agro-oriented activities ranging from seedbed preparation, weeding, horticulture and fruit cultivation to a series of post-harvest crop processing activities like cleaning and drying vegetables, fruits and nuts for domestic use and for market. A disproportionate number of those dependent on land are women: 58% of all male workers and 78% of all female workers, and 86% of all rural female workers are in agriculture. Female-headed households range from 20% to 35% of rural households (widows, deserted women as well as women who manage farming when their men migrate). Although the time devoted by both women and men in agricultural activities may, in several communities and agricultural situations, be taken to be almost equal, women are dominant within the domestic tasks. Rural Indian women are extensively involved in agricultural activities, but the nature and extent of their involvement differs with variations in agro-production systems.

There are community-based differences regarding women’s participation in agriculture, therefore location, cropping patterns, ethnic affiliation and economic and educational background also have implications for the specific division of labour within a given family unit. Usually, women’s representation is greater in allied agriculture than in grain production, and poor households require the greater involvement of women in income-generating activities than financially stable ones.

Women play an important role in all dimensions of agricultural production -- in certain regions, women’s time input equals men’s, while in other regions traditions restrict their work to the household where they are involved in crop processing and are in charge of household maintenance. In most cases, women’s efforts are non-monetised although they make large labour contributions to a range of marketed products such as dried fruits, fuelwood, dairy products and handicrafts.

The problems of women in agriculture resemble the ‘progressive set of problems’ that other marginalised communities face in the general population, but in a more acute and distressing manner. These problems relate to land ownership, security of tenure, land quality issues in cases where land ownership is assured, and land management issues in terms of agriculture and the support systems it requires. Any changes in land ownership and agricultural patterns affect women far more than men (positive or negative), given the existing gender roles that women are expected to fulfil, mainly related to management of the household in their reproductive roles -- fuelwood collection, fodder collection, livestock tending in general, food security needs and so on. Their dependence on agriculture on common lands, on forests and water is that much greater and more acute.

The mode of female participation in agricultural production varies with the land-owning status of the farm household. Women’s roles range from managers to landless labourers. In all farm production, the average contribution of women is estimated at 50% to 60% of total labour, much higher in certain regions. Girls are preferred in cottonseed production because their wages are lower than those of adults (see table for wage differentials in agricultural labour). Moreover, they work longer hours and more intensively, and are generally easier to administer. Gathering of fuelwood is the exclusive responsibility of women and girls. In general, male activities such as land preparation, planting, sowing, and fertiliser application are one-time jobs, usually accomplished within a stipulated time. Female activities, however, such as weeding, are recurrent daily activities, lasting from the time the seed is planted until it is harvested.

Rural women are often dependent on the natural environment for their livelihood. Maintenance of households and women’s livelihoods are, therefore, directly impacted by climate-related damage to or scarcity of natural resources. Limited rights or access to arable land further limits livelihood options and exacerbates financial strain on women, especially in women-headed households. Poor women are less able to purchase technology to adapt to climate change due to limited access to credit and agricultural services (for example, watering technology, farm implements, climate-appropriate seed varieties and fertilisers). Damage to infrastructure that limits clean water, hygienic care, and health services can be especially detrimental to pregnant or nursing women (10-15% of all women, at any given point) as they have unique nutritional and health needs. Public and familial distribution of food may be influenced by gender and make women and girls more susceptible to poor nutrition, disease and famine, especially when communities are under environmental stress. Increased time to collect water (due to drought, desertification or increased salinity) and fuel (due to deforestation or extensive forest kill from disease infestations) decreases the time that women are able to spend on education or other economic and political enterprises, and increases their risk of gender-based violence.

All-India average daily wage rates in agricultural occupations (Rs) -- 2007-08
  Ploughing Sowing Weeding
  Men Women Children Men Women Children Men Women Children
Jul-07 86.72 52.14   74.80 53.57 41.77 68.45 55.82 40.06
Aug-07 86.96 46.88   75.10 55.00 43.91 67.53 55.32 41.25
Sep-07 88.43 46.43   76.26 56.18 45.25 66.82 55.14 41.46
Oct-07 89.68 48.13   77.74 56.53 45.01 68.69 56.35 43.24
Nov-07 89.46 46.50   77.54 55.79 44.00 68.71 57.04 42.15
Dec-07 89.84 47.14   77.79 56.13 43.91 69.23 57.56 42.28
Jan-08 92.56 46.00   79.60 58.26 48.80 70.30 58.67 43.01
Feb-08 92.62 64.38   79.64 58.45 44.44 71.21 59.61 43.91
Mar-08 94.72 52.00   81.92 59.04 44.44 70.95 59.35 42.23
Apr-08 95.16     82.86 59.17 45.00 72.00 60.05 41.67
May-08 94.91 50.00   84.06 59.46 45.56 72.49 61.80 43.00
Jun-08 95.47     84.03 58.54 44.50 74.41 62.49 43.89
  Transplanting Harvesting Winnowing
  Men Women Children Men Women Children Men Women Children
Jul-07 71.78 58.96 44.00 73.27 60.62 38.44 68.88 53.70  
Aug-07 71.38 58.63 44.71 73.66 61.83 39.60 69.93 54.89  
Sep-07 71.96 59.95 46.24 75.08 61.98 40.18 71.46 54.79  
Oct-07 73.12 61.41 44.67 74.45 61.12 41.48 70.30 54.30  
Nov-07 72.59 61.31 45.14 73.37 60.83 41.40 68.38 55.13 38.53
Dec-07 72.96 61.63 45.14 74.21 60.73 43.14 69.75 55.15  
Jan-08 74.76 62.85 46.19 74.78 61.87 44.02 71.34 56.70 43.45
Feb-08 74.10 63.05 45.79 74.19 61.36 44.10 71.74 57.22 40.53
Mar-08 74.97 63.31 45.79 75.13 62.94 45.11 71.99 57.22 40.53
Apr-08 75.67 63.74 45.79 76.95 63.82 44.54 72.12 57.83 39.53
May-08 75.51 63.95 46.67 78.23 64.50 43.83 73.03 58.39 40.45
Jun-08 76.71 64.38 48.24 79.58 66.11 44.68 73.76 57.80 42.53
  Threshing Picking Herding livestock
  Men Women Children Men Women Children Men Women Children
Jul-07 72.40 61.27   70.26 57.95 40.02 46.07 36.89 30.55
Aug-07 72.21 61.14   72.01 57.63 36.68 46.41 36.92 30.62
Sep-07 72.94 60.38 40.53 71.07 56.98 38.56 46.57 36.50 30.80
Oct-07 73.47 58.00 38.78 74.57 57.37 39.77 46.88 37.46 30.45
Nov-07 72.91 58.32 38.07 74.88 57.14 40.82 47.47 37.46 30.81
Dec-07 71.96 58.45 38.24 71.55 56.16 41.24 47.30 37.39 30.75
Jan-08 72.56 58.15 41.10 69.40 57.17 46.74 48.07 37.53 31.32
Feb-08 73.32 58.08 39.08 70.75 56.51 42.40 48.26 38.06 31.47
Mar-08 72.77 57.62 41.27 72.88 59.97 45.27 48.53 38.23 32.05
Apr-08 74.44 58.34 40.27 72.20 60.19 43.20 48.49 38.78 32.16
May-08 75.33 61.06 41.96 74.59 60.07 38.16 48.29 38.81 32.36
Jun-08 77.66 62.13 42.53 75.29 60.65 37.89 49.38 39.29 33.45
Source: 'Wage Rates in Rural India 2007-08, Ministry of Labour, Government of India

The role of women in agricultural production is largely determined by the lifecycle of the household, location of household fields and other tasks that women undertake during the agricultural year. Their traditional role as primary seed-keepers and seed-processors is well known in our society. They have conventionally been both experts and producers of food from seed to kitchen, and as globalisation shifts agriculture into capital-intensive mode, women bear the disproportionate costs of both displacement and health hazards. They carry the heavier work burden in food production and, because of gender discrimination, get lower returns for their work. However, when addressed in a woman-centric manner, the potential for increased productivity, restoration of ecological balance, for high positive social impacts like increased status, self-confidence and food security for communities, all increase much more tangibly than working in a gender-neutral manner. It has been reported that output could be increased by as much as 10-20% if inputs were reallocated from plots controlled by men to those controlled by women. Women also put land to more sustainable use. The arguments for land fragmentation do not hold much ground given the outweighing advantages of land ownership vesting with women.

Organic farming needs promotion to increase women’s productive role in agriculture, decrease health hazards from chemicals, and avoid a drain on scarce family income to pay for unnecessary agricultural inputs. There is a wage disparity based on gender which must be addressed. One solution is for minimum support prices to be fixed for the plantation sector (such as tea, coffee, rubber, arecanut and cardamom) in which a large number of women are directly and actively involved. Empowering women farmers with landholding rights and joint bank accounts with their husbands would go a long way towards achieving gender equity in Indian agriculture. Therefore, effective land rights for women -- not just in law, but in practice -- seems to be the crux of the matter. As researcher and writer Bina Aggarwal has argued, this is not just for the welfare, equality and empowerment of women but also for efficiency in land use. There is empirical evidence to suggest that women can give increased outputs with secure land rights.

Feminisation of agricultural labour

Women constitute approximately 70% of the agricultural labour force, and perform more than 70% of farm labour in less industrialised Asia. In India, women constitute approximately 50% of agricultural and livestock workers. A general pattern in India and throughout Asia is that the poorer the area, the higher the contribution of women, largely as subsistence farmers who work small pieces of land of less than 0.2 hectares. While the rate of feminisation of agricultural labour differs across regions, it reflects common circumstances -- increased employment of women on a casual basis in small unregulated workplaces -- and common causes for distress migration of men for better paid work in agriculture and non-agriculture sectors. These factors are often combined with the relegation of less profitable crop production to women.

Indigenous communities are not immune to this feminisation of agricultural work. As is seen worldwide, women are the chief producers in jhum fields and in home gardens, bearing responsibility for choosing seeds and locations, weeding, fertilising, processing produce, and so on. It is the reliance of adivasi and indigenous women on natural resources and agriculture that makes them exceedingly vulnerable to climate change, especially as they often live among the world’s most poor, with limited access to resources. In Nepal, for example, large-scale migration of men has led women to become de facto farm managers. Yet, effective management by women is constrained by women’s inability to secure credit when they need it, if at all they get it, since most land titles remain in the men’s names and men’s signatures are required before credit can be provided. This causes significant delays in procurement of credit and agricultural inputs.

In the consultation on the impact of macro-economic policies on women, held by the Human Development Resource Centre of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in India in 2004, valuable perspectives and insights emerged from a study conducted in Maharashtra and Gujarat, both states pursuing industrial capital and whose rural agricultural land use is under growing pressure from urbanisation.

In their study ‘Impact of Maharashtra’s Agriculture Policies on Women Farmers: A Gender Budgeting Analysis’, Alka Parikh and Sarthi Acharya say that the proportion of female workers in agriculture to total female main workers in Maharashtra was 76.72% in 2001. Thus, women seem to be more confined to agriculture than men. More than half of women farmers were engaged in the capacity of labourers in agriculture. In contrast, this proportion was lower by over 10% in the case of male workers. “Real wages have increased, leading to a decline in the percentage of people living below the poverty line,” they note. “The growth in agricultural wages was faster in the case of female (104%) compared to male workers (71%), in the 1990s. Just 6% of the budget funds allocated to agriculture (less than 1% of the total budget) is devoted to schemes explicitly addressing the needs of women farmers.

After trying to maintain irrigation expenditure levels for four years (1998-2002), allocations were slashed in 2003-4. Irrigation would benefit women, but they might find jobs only in the lowest rungs; their workload would increase if men migrate due to increased irrigation outside. Budgetary allocations to animal husbandry and the fisheries sector have been declining in the four years under this study, 1998-2002. But it is open to further investigation as to whether animal husbandry programmes substantially raise women’s status or whether they only increase their workload as unpaid family workers.

In Gujarat, the study ‘Impact of Agricultural Policies and Programmes on Women of Small and Marginal and Agriculture Labour Households in Gujarat’, by Darshini Mahadevia and Vimal Khawas, found that an overall budget analysis showed that the approach to women’s development and gender equity is too fragmented. “There are a large number of schemes and programmes, all getting meagre funds,” say the authors, “thus each of the programmes have very meagre coverage. A few women here and a few women there benefit. There is no reflection of the achievements of any of the programmes on the overall development of women and improvement of their status. Impact is also not observed at the taluka level, though in a few individual villages some positive impacts of some programmes are observed. This thin spread of few resources is not a new observation in government programmes. Adequate budgetary allocations for women’s development and gender equity, and their appropriate utilisation can take place only in a policy environment that is congenial, that is, one which is human/women-centric.”

The study says that Gujarat state’s policy environment has always given primacy to industrial development and economic growth. In the decade of the 1980s, the policy environment reached a situation of pursuing economic growth at any cost. Serious deterioration on the environmental front started taking place, leading to stagnancy in agricultural growth and a decline in per capita incomes in agriculture, which still continues to occupy half the working population. Water, fuelwood and fodder scarcities followed and, as a consequence, women’s work increased.

“In the dry region, one was confronted with reverses in literacy levels,” the authors say. “Moreover, allocations to rural development and the agriculture sector have not been much. Thus, the overall policy environment has not been favourable to the cause of women’s development and gender equity. Education is a precondition to the success of most programmes and schemes. Hence, improvement in girls’ enrolment and retention in schools is very important. For this, not only does funding for education have to increase but incentive schemes have to be introduced to encourage families to put their daughters in school and ensure the continuance of girls in school till they complete elementary education.”

(Kavya Dashora is a scientist at the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources, New Delhi)

Infochange News & Features, July 2010