Women’s work in agriculture has become more visible over the last few decades. In part, this is due to research and data collection that has attempted to more accurately measure women’s activities in rural areas. But, more importantly, women have broadened and deepened their involvement in agricultural production over the last few decades as they increasingly shoulder the responsibility for household survival and respond to economic opportunities in commercial agriculture. This trend has been called the feminization of agriculture.
As a result of rapid industrialisation, urbanization took place, and a migratory change began to take shape following the gender lines. Men migrated first, for long durations and far – off destinations as the social structure of India permits them to seek off-farm employment opportunities. This results in what is called the ‘feminisation of agriculture“. This is basically a socio-economic structural change found in rural households and farming patterns with respect to the role of women. As the pressure on the poor households to contribute to the commercial economy increases, men start migrating to cities, wherein they get a higher pay. The bias towards male migration has its roots in patriarchal expectations. Women are thus seen as assuming a larger responsibility to meet the family needs back in the rural pockets. About 33.7% of rural males and 44.6% of the urban males migrate for reasons of employment and better economic opportunities. However, in the case of females, it is as low as 3.6% for rural females and around 3.7% for urban migrants. Their upward mobility for employment is restricted.
The women labour force constitutes a significant portion of the Indian labour force. From the moment of sowing all the way to carrying crops back home, women must engage themselves in these activities for a livelihood. It has been a serious concern of the decade regarding the increasing contribution of women to agriculture alongside the declining economic stake of women. Marking aside women engaged in crop production, there have been other activities like poultry, fisheries, water conservation, livestock, work related to the common property resources. In fact, In South East Asia, women play a major role in rice production, particularly in sowing, transplanting, harvesting and processing.
More than half of Indian work force is still dependent on agriculture as a source of revenue. However due to creeping crisis in agriculture, rural men migrate to India’s cities, to work as construction laborers, lorry loaders, rickshaw pullers, domestic servants and street vendors. Due to this male migration, family behind in the village is raised by de facto female-headed families. In addition to undertaking what has traditionally been men’s work, they are also responsible for what are regarded as women’s duties – a double burden.
Feminization of agriculture refers to the ever increasing participation of women in the agricultural labor force. Such an increasing feminization is driven by a combination of socio economic cultural factors operating in tandem.
Social Factors- Increasing feminization of old age: Due to greater life expectancy, women outlive men and hence widows end up heading a family and taking to the agricultural fields.
Cultural factors- Cultural acceptance: Agriculture has traditionally been an acceptable avenue of work for women in rural areas, otherwise infamous for many a stigmas when it comes to women’s employability in workplaces.
Since 2017, October 15 is celebrated as Rashtriya Mahila Kisan Diwas in India. UN observed this day as International Day of Rural Women by the United Nations. In 2016, the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare decided to take the lead in celebrating the event, recognising the multidimensional role of women at every stage in agriculture from sowing to planting, drainage, irrigation, fertilizer, plant protection, harvesting, weeding, and storage. This year, the Ministry has proposed deliberations to discuss the challenges that women farmers face in crop cultivation, animal husbandry, dairying and fisheries. The aim is to work towards an action plan using better access to credit, skill development and entrepreneurial opportunities.
The Agriculture Census (2010-11) shows that out of an estimated 118.7 million cultivators, 30.3% were females. Similarly, out of an estimated 144.3 million agricultural labourers, 42.6% were females. In terms of ownership of operational holdings, the latest Agriculture Census (2015-16) is startling. Out of a total 146 million operational holdings, the percentage share of female operational holders is 13.87% (20.25 million), a nearly one percentage increase over five years. While the “feminisation of agriculture” is taking place at a fast pace, the government has yet to gear up to address the challenges that women farmers and labourers face.
The biggest challenge is the powerlessness of women in terms of claiming ownership of the land they have been cultivating. In Census 2015, almost 86% of women farmers are devoid of this property right in land perhaps on account of the patriarchal set up in our society. Notably, a lack of ownership of land does not allow women farmers to approach banks for institutional loans as banks usually consider land as collateral.
Research worldwide shows that women with access to secure land, formal credit and access to market have greater propensity in making investments in improving harvest, increasing productivity, and improving household food security and nutrition. Provision of credit without collateral under the micro-finance initiative of the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development should be encouraged. Better access to credit, technology, and provision of entrepreneurship abilities will further boost women’s confidence and help them gain recognition as farmers. As of now, women farmers have hardly any representation in society and are nowhere discernible in farmers’ organisations or in occasional protests. They are the invisible workers without which the agricultural economy is hard to grow.
Second, land holdings have doubled over the years with the result that the average size of farms has shrunk. Therefore, a majority of farmers fall under the small and marginal category, having less than 2 ha of land — a category that, undisputedly, includes women farmers. A declining size of land holdings may act as a deterrent due to lower net returns earned and technology adoption. The possibility of collective farming can be encouraged to make women self-reliant. Training and skills imparted to women as has been done by some self-help groups and cooperative-based dairy activities (Saras in Rajasthan and Amul in Gujarat). These can be explored further through farmer producer organisations. Moreover, government flagship schemes such as the National Food Security Mission, Sub-mission on Seed and Planting Material and the Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana must include women-centric strategies and dedicated expenditure.
Third, female cultivators and labourers generally perform labour-intensive tasks (hoeing, grass cutting, weeding, picking, cotton stick collection, looking after livestock). In addition to working on the farm, they have household and familial responsibilities. Despite more work (paid and unpaid) for longer hours when compared to male farmers, women farmers can neither make any claim on output nor ask for a higher wage rate. An increased work burden with lower compensation is a key factor responsible for their marginalisation. It is important to have gender-friendly tools and machinery for various farm operations. Most farm machinery is difficult for women to operate. Manufacturers should be incentivised to come up with better solutions. Farm machinery banks and custom hiring centres promoted by many State governments can be roped in to provide subsidised rental services to women farmers.
Last, when compared to men, women generally have less access to resources and modern inputs (seeds, fertilizers, pesticides) to make farming more productive. The Food and Agriculture Organisation says that equalising access to productive resources for female and male farmers could increase agricultural output in developing countries by as much as 2.5% to 4%. Krishi Vigyan Kendras in every district can be assigned an additional task to educate and train women farmers about innovative technology along with extension service
As more women are getting into farming, the foremost task for their sustenance is to assign property rights in land. Once women farmers are listed as primary earners and owners of land assets, acceptance will ensue and their activities will expand to acquiring loans, deciding the crops to be grown using appropriate technology and machines, and disposing of produce to village traders or in wholesale markets, thus elevating their place as real and visible farmers.