Women play a crucial role in agriculture – more than a third of the total agricultural workforce is women. Not only do they till land, sowing and harvesting the food we eat, they are instrumental in caring for animals and poultry – important sources of supplementary income. Yet, their contribution remains largely unrecognized.
The Mahila Kisan Adhikaar Manch, or Makaam, is a platform that brings women farmers together from all across the country to exchange concerns, share information and articulate, in a collective voice, a way forward. This includes amending current legal and regulatory frameworks to account for the role of women farmers, so they are guaranteed resource rights and can access government services and subsidies.
In Guwahati, at a Makaam consultation organised in partnership with UN Women, stories emerged from across the region of the hardships women face when they cultivate. But for many, Makaam is also a chance to deepen the bonds of sisterhood forged from facing – and fighting – the same challenges, be they land ownership, improper irrigation, or access to credit (which emerged as the three biggest problems faced by women farmers). The Makaam consultations, they hope, will lead to create a single, powerful voice that will have to be reckoned with. Here are some of their stories.
Kailang returned to Manipur from Japan a year ago because she wanted to help educate farmers – men and women – about sustainable farming practices. “People here don’t know how to manage their time. That’s why we’re so poor,” she said. While training farmers to allocate time better, she discovered that in the hilly regions of the state, women farmers knew little of new techniques and methods of farming. She has made it her mission to educate them about appropriate technologies.
“I want farmers, both men and women but especially women, to use crops smartly, to not uproot old trees from mountains and make them bald and use fewer chemicals. We have to start thinking about which seeds we should cultivate to preserve soil health.” Makaam, she says, offers a forum in which she can learn about new methods, government extension services and other information to take back home.
Though Ibechaobi enjoys growing her own vegetables and rice, she wouldn’t have been a farmer had she been allowed to study past elementary school. But, spurred on by the fact that she earns an income that is hers alone, she is quietly rebelling against the strictures placed on her. Farming has given her the chance to carve out a space for herself. “The money I earn from farming is mine, I can use it as I want, my husband has no say in it,” she says. Ibechaobi thinks of farming activities as portals to empowerment, with the potential for women to earn and for that to lead to a reduction in domestic violence.
As a farmer, she finds inadequate irrigation to be her biggest roadblock. She suffers alternately from flooding and droughts. “We need to invest more on livelihood programmes and irrigation… Perhaps Makaam will help us present these issues in a way that gets them attention.”
For more than a decade, Moon has been the sole breadwinner – quite literally – for her family. After her father died, as the eldest, Moon took on the mantle of tilling her family’s land, looking after her sisters and growing turmeric and vegetables. These days, she finds it difficult to plough her land. “Because of overuse of fertilizers and pesticides, the soil has become tough. I can’t plough it using traditional methods,” she explains. “I need a tractor but it is so expensive. I am not sure it’s worth the investment.”
She described her experience of trying to get a loan from the Assam Grameen Vikas Bank. “I heard about a loan programme for farmers. I wanted to start cultivating mustard, so I went to try and get credit. But they wanted lease agreements to recognise my right to till the land. The agreement was in my father’s name, and since he had passed on, the bank asked if there were other male members in the house. But there weren’t, so they turned me away.” The land is now lying unused.
Moon has been attending Makaam consultations for a year. Last year, she met other women from the North-East who shared many of her concerns – irrigation, land rights and limited access to the Kisan Credit Card. They discussed their problems and forwarded them to Makaam, which she hopes will put them before the state government.
Biju has been running a social enterprise since 2001-02 where she helps women, and especially women farmers, access formal education, assist in self-help group formation, and conduct advocacy on women’s issues. She has found that women farmers have boundaries imposed on them – they can only dream so big without inviting censure. They’re also hobbled by a lack of training and limited access to formal credit.
She describes how government subsidies are misused. “The tractors available on subsidy to farmers are all cornered by the rich because the poor farmers, the ones who really need the tractors, can’t afford to pay even the subsidised amount. Women, especially, never get loans, even though they are more conscientious about returning them. They don’t have land rights so they can’t get even the Kisan Credit Card. I don’t see why the person who tills the land, who puts their blood, sweat and tears into it, shouldn’t be eligible for the credit card,” she argues. “I’ve seen land lying uncultivated because it is so capital intensive to till and people can’t afford it, she says.
She believes Makaam can present women farmers’ issues to the government in one voice and effectively advocate for their rights, especially for land rights.
Barred by her uncles from continuing in school, farming is all Akrole has known since she was five. Marriage only changed how much paddy she’d grow – times are tough, and she needs the money – but not her occupation. Her husband’s family owns land, but most of what she cultivates is leased from others. Akrole wants her children to have a different future, so she uses her income to send them to school.
Climate change, she says, has made farming difficult. “Weather patterns are unpredictable. When we expect rain, we don’t get any. When it’s supposed to be dry, we have flooding,” she laments. She used to collect banana leaves and stems and other vegetables and fruits from the forest near her house, but the forest gives less and less now, with the growing population.
The government, she suggests, could make farming easier for women by making available heavy machinery designed to be used by women. “It would be good if we could get light and easily manoeuvrable machines,” she explained, “so women like me, can benefit from technological advances on their own, without the need for male assistance.” When she attended a Makaam consultation in 2016, she was too shy to share her own experiences, but was inspired and motivated by the stories she heard. “I felt a sense of solidarity, that’s why I came back,” she says.
In the 20 years she has been farming, Sukhitra hasn’t seen too many ups and downs – with the notable exception of the violence that periodically sweeps Chirang district, where she lives.
“The area and its people need special attention,” she says. “When we [she and her husband] need a loan, we only know about loans that self-help groups give and so we go to them.”
At Makaam, she wants to learn more about advances in farming, and the facilities she can avail of. “I want to implement what I learn back home,” she smiles.