In India like in much of the world, the face of farming is female. Yet age-old gender-specific obstacles prevent female farmers from improving their lot in life. Women invariably enjoy no access to land, financing, markets, agricultural training and education, suitable working conditions, and equal treatment.

All these problems put most female farmers at a significant disadvantage.

‘Seventy five years down, the state of women farmers remains precarious. They contribute labour and know-how but continue to be denied the ownership of land even when they alone till it. Land pattas are seldom allotted to women so they are unable to access bank loans or crop insurance.

The fate of women farmers in mountain states like Uttarakhand is grim indeed. They bear the largest physical burdens of cultivation, made more tough because of the difficult terrain but get little credit or money. Whether it is agriculture or horticulture, the women do the back breaking work but the men pocket the money because they sell the produce,’ Dr. Suman Sahai who has been battling for farmer’s rights for decades told The Citizen.

Padma Shri Sahai is founder Chairperson of the Gene Campaign, a leading research and advocacy organisation, working on issues relating to food, nutrition and livelihoods. Her work in rural areas coincided with the liberalisation of the country’s economy more than three decades ago when the gates of Indian society were flung open to the vagaries of capitalist approaches to development.

Sahai first waged war against the seed patent, and she succeeded. The success led to a struggle for the farmer’s rights that culminated in legislation. Today Sahai’s work concentrates on a number of issues like the recognition of indigenous knowledge, protection of our biodiversity, the demand for transparency and public participation in decisions on genetically modified crops.

The biggest roadblock as far as female farmers are concerned is right to land. When a female farmer is not empowered to make decisions about the land she works, it is impossible for her to enter contract farming agreements that could provide higher earnings and reliable sources of income.

The agriculture sector employs 80 percent of all economically active women in India. Women comprise 33 percent of the agriculture labour force and 48 percent of self-employed farmers. Despite the large percentage of women engaged in agriculture, only about 13 percent own land. The situation is worse in Bihar with only seven percent women having land rights.

Land and agriculture are state subjects and most existing laws are well meaning. But in practice people are often influenced by religion, tradition and socio-cultural norms, which thanks to patriarchy and inheritance laws largely exclude women from accessing land rights.

Attempts at recognising land rights of women began with the sixth Five Year Plan in 1980 when the government granted joint titles, while distributing land and home sites. The larger problem is that of land ownership versus land control, as merely granting joint titles does not necessarily mean that control of the property rests with the female.

The draft of the Land Reform Policy of 2013 of the Union government recognised the need to grant land ownership rights to rural women and to redistribute land to all landless poor. However, the implementation of land reforms in India remains tardy. Entrenched gender roles in a country like India continue to prevent women from bringing their crops to the market or even leaving their villages without the permission of the husband.

This is a worldwide problem. It is no secret that female farmers work more hours per year than men yet they lag behind their male counterparts when it comes to crop yields and earnings. Women-run farms produce 20 percent to 30 percent less than farms run by men around the world. The reason for the ‘crop gap’ according to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), has nothing to do with an aptitude for farming and everything to do with gender-specific obstacles.

Inherent gender bias in the economic system, for example, regularly limits a woman’s access to credit. Without adequate funds for capital investments, female farmers are less likely than men to buy and use fertiliser, drought-resistant seeds, sustainable agricultural practices, and other advanced farming tools and techniques that increase crop yields.

The FAO recommends the abolishing of gender-specific barriers in farming and to empower women to achieve their highest economic potential which can help to feed all the hungry in the world.

There is an ancient quote that says when a man farms his family gets to eat but when a woman farms there is food for the entire community. The solution to fair farmer practices is quite simple. Just respecting the basic rights of women, especially in rural areas is by far the most effective means of fighting hunger and poverty in a sustainable way. Basic rights include the freedom to choose whether to marry, and if and when to have children.

Whether women can exercise their right to learn to read and write, to own land, to have access to water, livestock and machinery or whether they are allowed to open a personal bank account or take a loan are all decisive factors in women’s chances of being able to provide for themselves and their families. Whenever women have the opportunity to self-organise and to take part in decision-making, often the whole community benefits.

Bina Agarwal’s 1994 book, ‘A Field of One’s Own: Gender and Land Rights in South Asia’ as well as the Socio Economic Caste Census from 2011 have classified land as the most important economic determinant of poverty and deprivation. Over 57 percent of rural households own no agricultural land.

What is worse is that women do 80 percent of farm work but they own only 13 percent of land, according to the international non-profit Oxfam in 2013. This is despite the country having undertaken agricultural reforms in the 1950s.

The country in fact faces an agricultural collapse today, its ugliest face being numerous farmer suicides and the exclusion of women agricultural labourers from the narrative of reforms. The year 2016 marked 25 years of India’s neo-liberal economic reforms and economic liberalisation, that was followed by a disturbing trend of farmer suicides. Media reports point out that millions of farmers have committed suicide due to socio-economic pressures and poverty since 1997.

Almost a decade ago I had spent time in several villages of district Gorakhpur in eastern Uttar Pradesh (UP). At that time I had talked to many female farmers living in a region that is prone to both drought and flooding.

I met activist Archana Srivastava who has helped many women in rural areas to gain recognition as farmers, to own agricultural land, and gain access to institutional credit, new technologies and government programmes. Part of her job is to convince the State to adopt a pro-farmer agriculture policy developed by farmers themselves.

Archana has helped women to organise themselves in the Small Marginal Farmers’ Union, an independent body registered under the Trade Union Act. The idea is to collectively engage in a positive dialogue with the government, donors and other like-minded institutions.

The union focuses on the sustainability of agriculture for small holding farmers, the reduction of input cost and assistance in the form of non- chemical bio inputs, market access and rational support prices. This is an excellent example of a new micro-planning model in which grassroots-level community institutions are at the heart of the interactions.

Archana had told me that the bottom-up approach can fill the huge gap between what national policymakers advocate and the solutions needed at the ground level.

‘In a rural setting, every problem is unique but there has been a tendency so far to apply the same solution to all problems — an attitude that has made millions of poor people poorer in villages and rendered programmes like the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) ineffective,’ Archana said.

Archana is able to do the work that she does because her mother encouraged her to educate herself. As a child Archana had wanted to be a doctor to care for the poor. But the rural based family realised how expensive it was to study medicine, so she took up social work. She has a postgraduate degree in rural studies.

Archana’s advocacy work includes the grooming of women in the rural area to be community leaders and to help women to resolve their own problems. The issues discussed in rural areas include women’s right to property and their recognition as farmers. Women learn to form self-help groups and once they have acquired enough confidence, they branch out to other villages to spread what they know.

Landless farmers form about 72 percent of UP’s agrarian workforce and with the help of Archana some of them have learnt how to approach the panchayat for work, to ask for a widow’s pension, a kisan credit card, or a one-room house under the Indira Awaas Yojana. Apart from information about their entitlements they have learnt about sustainable agricultural practices.

Experts have visited them to talk about ecologically viable models of agriculture in the face of drastic changes in weather patterns. These are tough times for the agrarian community, with climate change completely transforming their way of living and working. For female farmers the struggle is amplified because, unlike their male counterparts, they are not equipped to handle the consequences of change.

Unaware of their legal rights and entitlements, women farmers end up suffering more than other citizens. Archana understands all this more acutely as she comes from a rural family from the Mau district where natural resources have traditionally ‘belonged’ to local feudal landlords.

The only viable recourse available to vulnerable communities, particularly landless women farmers are various government employment and livelihood schemes. When I met Archana, she had concentrated on MNREGA.

“A scheme like the MNREGA has all the potential of being a real boon, but it has been rendered meaningless as people, especially women, don’t really know how to benefit from it,” Archana said.

Initially introduced in 200 most-backward districts in 2006, the scheme was rolled out across the country. In the past it had provided at least 100 days of wage work, of unskilled manual labour to adult members of a rural household.

The process was straightforward as applications were submitted to the Gram Panchayat, the local self-government office, after which a job card with photograph was issued. If no work was found within 15 days, the applicant was entitled to an unemployment allowance. Importantly, at least one third of those given work were expected to be women.

Ideally, this intervention should have proved the perfect solution for agricultural communities affected by climate change as it guaranteed wage work during the off-season, while it also helped to create beneficial local infrastructure. However the scheme’s inherent promise has remained unrealised, marred by rampant corruption, discrimination and misinformation.

I tried to contact Archana before sitting down to write all this as an International Day of Women special report but was unable to connect with her. I have no clue as to how the female farmers of district Gorakhpur are faring today. Are women still being married off in their teens, bearing children and spending the rest of their life cooking food and taking care of livestock? Or are some of them continuing to reshape farming in the community?

Uttar Pradesh is one of India’s poorest states. It has seen harsh new pressures on farmers as the planet heats up, from longer summers and harsher winters to much more unpredictable rain. Women have often proved to be more open about trying out new ideas to deal with life’s pressures, even when they have been teased or beaten for wanting a change in life.

Meera Chaudhary of village Janakpur had said that she was married at 13, but lost her husband when she was 22 and when the youngest of their six children was just eight months old. Her husband had done the farming while she did the sorting of seeds and taking care of the livestock.

Before the death of her husband, Meera had rarely visited the fields just a five-minute walk from her house. On those rare occasions when she did go to the fields, she was escorted by her husband. After the death of her husband the villagers advised her to sell her land.

Meera refused to do that. Instead she began to till the land. When too much rain had ruined the paddy crop she moved to growing vegetables, which improved profit and helped her to buy another cow.

Meera belongs to a region that has the highest child marriage rates and the poorest participation of women in the workforce. A series of agricultural initiatives have inspired women to take up farming professionally.

The programmes have helped rural women to tackle changing weather patterns and also gender relations in the villages. Till a few years ago there was no concept of women as farmers, despite the fact that most of the work was done by women in the agricultural sector.

Where Meera lives, the area sees floods almost every year and villagers plan their farming around the natural calamity. Today farmers like Meera receive weather updates and warning advisories in a text message. With the added information and help, women, who are over 40 percent of the agricultural workforce in the area, are increasingly making decisions on farms and elsewhere.

Meera has been part of the Janakpur village council, and as master trainer has held weekly classes for farmers in her village, many of them men. She has used her clout and position to help women claim joint ownership of farmland with their husbands. Meera gets calls from neighbouring villages to help with various problems faced by rural people.

When Shanti Devi first wanted to attend meetings of female farmers she was taunted for being part of a tea and samosa gang. At the meetings the women were offered a cup of tea and snacks.

The men felt that the women of their respective families were wasting their time away from home and away from taking care of the family. As the meetings of the women became more regular the men had wondered what was being taught to them.

Some women did not get permission from male family members to attend the meetings. Some were beaten up when they returned home. But the women continued to collect. They learnt to sow gram in a line and not to sprinkle it all over the soil. The result of that simple tip improved the yield and the husbands too were eventually impressed.

At similar meetings, women learned about retaining moisture in the soil to protect their potato crops from the cold. They added vegetables to their crop cycles and started storing their onion and potato harvest in storerooms made of bamboo and mud to protect them from rotting.

The women learnt to cut down on pesticides and started using cow dung as organic fertiliser. The tips cut farming costs, improved yields and resulted in better earnings. The earning of some households was sufficient enough to discourage the men from seeking work in cities.

In a state where over 60 percent of the population depends on agriculture, these small changes brought about by female farmers were making a difference. Like having added vegetables to farms had helped to increase earnings even when the farm was a small one.

The improved earnings also affected relationships and the confidence of women.

Hemlata Yadav said that she had spent much of her 30-year marriage fearing her husband’s temper, until she joined the training sessions. Her husband did not like her speaking to others, but she was curious about the meetings. Hemlata concentrated on listening to herself and finally she was able to decide what had worked best for her.

Watching her mother attend the training sessions encouraged Hemlata’s daughter Nisha to enrol in college. After completing computer training courses, she prepared for entrance tests for a job in a bank. Nisha was impressed that her mother who had never stepped out of the home would attend meetings regularly.

These are the little changes I had observed a decade ago in eastern UP. Since then governments have changed along with policies. What is the plight of female farmers in UP today? The question merits yet another visit to the farmer friendly fields of the Indo Gangetic plains to find out if the agricultural policy of the ruling party is as gender, and farmer friendly as the landscape.