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Invisibilised Women of Agriculture and how the Farm Bills add to Their Woes

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The agricultural sector like all others has been subconsciously gendered in our head – a farmer is a middle-aged man. This mental construction comes from our understanding of agriculture as physically strenuous – and thus outside the ambit of women. As protests erupt all over India against new farm laws, we must ask, where are the voices of women and where are the female farmers in our coverage? Over 250 farmer organisations are protesting this new farm law with doesn’t come with any mention of a minimum support price (the government-decided floor) and gives freedom private players and others to operate.

How do the Current Farm Sector Bills fare?

All over India, there have been several protests by farmers concerning the recently passed ‘Farmer’s Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, The Farmer’s Empowerment and Protection Bill, and The Essential Commodities (Amendment Bill). In West Bengal, Maharashtra and Karnataka women farmers’ organisation and Dalit farmers’ organisation have been at the forefront of these protests. The bills have been opposed for various reasons. It is believed the bills will lead to loss of revenue for state farmers and under private contracts farmers will have weaker positions.

We reached out to Aditi Yagnik, Associate Coordinator for Organizing at SEWA Bharat, India’s labour union of poor self-employed women workers in the informal economy .”The bills that have been passed put an already vulnerable category of workers far more vulnerable. Contract farming is becoming a huge thing now, but it is not the most desired form of agriculture. Minimum wages are scrapped, MSP is scrapped. The Social Security Code give entitlement only to those that work in establishments. Farm fields are not seen as establishments, so farmers are left out of these entitlements and social security. Domestic workers are not included in the labour codes and women form 70% of the informal sector.”

The new contract farming rules affect small and marginal women farmers as their bargaining power at mandis decreases.

Currently, less than 4% of women have access to institutional credit, middlemen, which are now eliminated were an important source of credit for these women. The corporatisation is going to have detrimental impacts as currently, farmer’s markets are far from a level playing field and now lack of government safeguards will increase this problem. This assumption of ‘competition’ overlooks the many problems women farmers face, like mobility, access to mandis, and generational networks to secure buyers and current price information.

Number of Women In Agriculture

47% of the agricultural labour force of India is comprised of women. Today, even though 73.2% of women are involved in agriculture, only 12% own the land they work on. 81% of women farmers are also Dalit and Adivasi. And only 8% of women farmers have control over their agricultural income as a study by Oxfam India shows. Therefore, even though women are adequately represented, their efforts are unrecognised due to lack of landholding, access to government provisions and traditionally institutionalised gender roles.

Women are seen as cultivators, not farmers

The census calls anyone who operates a piece of agricultural land a ‘cultivator’. Operational land is land used by anyone for agricultural production – irrespective of whether the person using it owns it or not. Since more than 87% of women do not own land, the benefits of land ownership are not enjoyed by them. As they are not categorised as ‘farmers’ in official records, they do not get institutional credit for farming or farming subsidies. This reduces the agricultural productivity of the land tilled by women. In 2011, M S Swaminathan, Rajya Sabha member (2007-13) proposed the ‘Women Farmers Entitlement Bill’, which lapsed in 2013. This bill emphasised on issuing ‘Women Farmer Certificates’, which can later be used to issue Kisan Credit Cards. It would allow women to receive financial support for agricultural activities. Their cards were to ensure quick access to institutional credit. These are mostly available to men because they require the cardholder to own land. Aditi states, “One of the most problematic areas that remain is that women are not seen as agricultural labourers or as farmers. Thus most of the work that women do goes unnoticed. The language of the law only states a ‘he’ as a worker, the discourse of labour only revolves around a ‘he’.”

Women Farmers’ Suicides

Even in families with landholding, these are registered in the names of brothers, husbands, fathers and sons, thus women who contribute greatly to the cultivation this land still do not qualify as ‘farmers’. This is also reflected in farmer suicide data, as women’s suicides are usually under ‘landless labourers’. Therefore, the families of these women are not entitled to a pension or other related funds that are provided by the government and government records show gross underreporting of women’s deaths. Recently, a survey conducted by the Mahila Kisan Adhikar Manch (MAKAAM, 2018) of 505 women farmers (whose husbands committed suicide due to farm crisis) in 11 districts across Marathwada and Vidarbha, found that 40 per cent of women widowed by farmer suicides between 2012 and 2018, were yet to obtain rights of the farmland they cultivated. Among them, only 35 per cent had secured the rights to their family house. The survey also found that 33 per cent of women didn’t know they were entitled to a pension. Agricultural distress has a ground-level impact on food and nutrition of women, education opportunities for girls, health and sanitation of households, and other such factors.

Since 2013, over 12,000 farmers have died by suicide every year and the burden of debt repayment has fallen on the wives who often have no assets and have to work full time as farmers to pay back debts

Also Read: Farmer Suicide Data Incomplete As Women Aren’t Considered Farmers

Feminisation of the Sector

Several other problems also add to this, menstruation being one of them. In sugarcane intensive Maharashtra, women increasingly take to hysterectomy to prevent days off work due to periods and also forgo the recurring costs of sanitary napkins. Between 2016 and 2019 more than 4,500 young women in Beed, Maharashtra has undergone a hysterectomy due to this reason. An estimated 52-75% of Indian women engaged in agriculture are illiterate and there are also lower levels of awareness which directly impacts productivity. Additionally, many women participate in agricultural work as unpaid subsistence labour. This type of informal, home-based work impacts official statistics and leads to underreporting of women’s work in agriculture. Men’s wages in agriculture, meanwhile, are 1.4 times higher than the wages earned by women.

According to the Agricultural Census of 2015-16, only 9% of the total land is owned by Dalits (or Scheduled Castes). The problem is not only about whether the people belonging to lower castes own land or not, but also about how much land they own. A survey showed that nearly 61% of the total land owned by Dalits is not more than two hectares. Thus, women in these families face the larger brunt of lack of caste privilege and deeply ingrained patriarchy.

The agricultural labour force is also seeing ‘feminisation‘, as more and more men migrate to urban areas in search of work, women left at home tend to agricultural landholdings. Almost 84% of women in rural India depend on agriculture for their livelihood. Between 2001 and 2011, the female workforce in agriculture increased from around 54% to 63%, while the male workforce decreased by 9% to 37%, for the same period. However, in light of the pandemic, this is estimated to be reversed due to higher unemployment rates countrywide.

What are Women in the Agricultural Sector demanding?

In November 2018, more than 10,000 farmers from across India participated in the Dilli Challo (On to Delhi) or Kisan Mukti (Farmer’s Liberation) march. A sizeable contingent of female farmers took part in the march, pushing for the Women Farmers’ Entitlement Bill. The monsoon session ended and no bills for the recognition of Women farmers or extension of any benefits were raised.

Throughout the country, the many protests show the dissent of farmers towards these new legislations. “We had to fight for a very long time for women to get representation in the parliament, and for women to get recognition and acknowledgement as workers, there is a very long way to go.” says Aditi. On 26 November, several farmer unions have decided to partake in the All India General strike with trade unions. Farmer’s country wide have decided on rail roko andolans and other means of protests to reject the recently passed anti-labour and anti-peasant laws and also the expansion of MNREGA to provide 200 workdays per year. The labour reforms passed in September are also bein protested against .