In Greek mythology, a tribe of women called the Amazons inhabited the island of Themyscira, a world without men. They lived in 1200 B.C. and were immortalised in Homer’s Iliad as the Antianeira — ‘they who fight like men’.
Women in Badiya, a tiny hamlet in the Himalayan foothills, may have never heard of the Amazons or the Iliad. But, they run their villages not much unlike the ancient Greeks — with minimal patriarchal interference.
Rural India is undergoing a gradual change in its social landscape. As more men leave for cities in search of the ‘great urban dream’, women are being thrust into the role of family head, becoming the sole caretaker for everything from farms to parents. According to the Draft National Policy for Women in Agriculture (April, 2008), prepared by the National Commission for Women (NCW), “An estimated 20 percent of rural households are de facto female headed due to widowhood, desertion, or male out-migration.”
Rita Sharma, Secretary, Ministry of Rural Development, says, “We are aware of the phenomenon. Nearly 13 percent of rural households are headed by wo-men today.”
The figures may vary, but it is still considered significant as in the 1970s only about 5 percent of rural households were headed by women, according to a Delhi-based labour economist. It’s not as if women were never involved in agriculture. According to NCW’s draft policy, women constitute 40 percent of the agricultural workforce. But it was the men who took decisions about which crops to grow, how much bank loan to take and whether it was worth pledging the farm to a moneylender.
Now, the women are getting to make some of the decisions. Yet, even as they step into their husbands’ shoes, they have had to face several challenges. The biggest constraint remains less access to land, credit and technical assistance. In addition, they have to battle tradition, and deal with organisations and equipment geared to service men.
Filling the Vacuum
The man-to-woman ratio in Badiya village, in Tehri district of Uttarakhand state, has witnessed a gradual decline over the years and is now approximately 30:70. Joining the army seems to be a favourite option for the men.
Vinita is one such farmer who now heads the household while her husband is away. Her family owns about 400 square metres of farm land. Like before, she gets up at sun rise, tends to the livestock, works on the land, and also looks after her three young children and aged mother-in-law. But the difference is that she’s the boss now. She sells the surplus and uses the money for household expenses.
But Vinita is an exception here rather than the norm. Most women in a similar position take over production of food crops for home consumption rather than for the market.
The women of Badiya still don’t have a say in property rights. That means they can’t negotiate with banks or micro-finance organisations. In any case their holdings are so fragmented and the scale of their farming so small that they don’t pledge the land.
The vacuum created by the men leaving the villages has forced the women to come together. In Badiya, the women have formed a self help group to address common problems.
They pooled in their meagre funds to buy fertilisers and other inputs. As this co-operation helped increase farm productivity, though marginally, the women began to sell whatever little surplus they grew each season. Over a period of time, they had enough to pool in Rs. 320 each to set up a shop of their own which became the first one to make daily provisions available to the hamlet.
A similar pooling of resources is helping women in villages around the town of Doddaballapur in Karnataka. Under the government’s Stree Shakthi programme, self help groups of women pool in funds, from which money is lent to those in need.
These self help groups are also successfully challenging the patriarchal land ownership. In some cases, men have added their wives’ names as co-owners of their land. Where such joint ownership doesn’t materialise, help comes in the form of a pool-in fund run by the self-help groups. However, in the total number of title deeds, women account for just 10 to 20 percent of ownership, according to N. Venkata Reddy, state vice-president of the Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha, a farmer’s movement.
Dr. Surabhi Mittal, senior fellow, Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations says, “Policy must be conducive to the changes that are happening. Once married, the women should have a joint title to the land, so that they become eligible for credit, Kisan Credit Cards and other government schemes for small and marginal farmers.” Joint ownership will enable them to access various entitlements essential for commercially viable small scale farming, including horticulture and animal husbandry.
Being responsible for the farming doesn’t come easy to women. Duties like ploughing and harvesting that were taken for granted as part of a man’s chore have become an issue. Also, the additional responsibility often adds to their drudgery. “The women of rural Uttarakhand work an average of 14-18 hours a day. Women who want their children to go to school take on the work children traditionally did such as caring for cattle and poultry,” says Pawan Kumar, manager Uttaranchal Gramya Vikas Samiti.
In Uttarakhand, NGOs working to improve rural livelihood realised that the women needed help. Kumar says, “We realised that the women’s lives were tough given the sheer amount of their workload. Our main goal was drudgery reduction.”
They helped introduce high-yielding varieties of seeds and also improved agriculture tools. The women have now begun growing cash crops like mustard and groundnuts that fetches them a higher margin in the market.
Sharma says the government is keeping a close tab on the trend. “Even under our own employment schemes like the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, almost 50 percent are women, going up to 80 percent in states like Tamil Nadu,” she says. According to her, government agencies are working on various initiatives to help women farmers. Earlier agricultural extension agents were largely men. Now more women have been encouraged to join the profession. The men have been trained to be sensitive to the women farmers. The Central Institute of Agricultural Engineering, for example, is developing lightweight equipment, including ploughs, keeping in mind the needs of women farmers.
For Vinita’s family, earlier, the paddy harvest was just enough for the family of six for three months. Now with the improved seeds and soil fertility, the yield has increased five-fold.
The concept of banking was introduced to the village. “Bank itself was a foreign word, unheard of in our remote hamlet of Badiya. Today, having seen the advantages of banking each and every woman has come forth and proudly states that they all visit the bank at least once in two weeks,” says Prameela, a leader of a self help group.
Breaking Social Barriers
With men gone, some social barriers are breaking down too. Vinita, an upper caste woman-farmer, would never have joined hands with Ranjana Devi from a lower caste, while her husband was around. But today all village women come together at meetings where they discuss and solve problems over a cup of tea. This cup of tea hasn’t been an easy brew.
They have had to battle old prejudices. During weekly meetings held at members’ homes, tea is served in metal and plastic glasses depending on what caste one belongs to. “Elders still don’t allow us to mingle at par, hence these practices, but we have overcome all our mind blocks personally,” says Prameela. Missing meetings is out of question. It is, after all, a matter of survival. The initial feeling of incompetence and lack of confidence was overcome within a few meetings.
Challenging the Old Order
The new role assumed by women has changed the perception of their family members towards them. Lakshmi, a woman farmer from Badiya says, “Earlier my husband would speak and I would listen. Today, all major househ old decisions are taken through mutual discussion. Even my in-laws respect me because I have become a major breadwinner.”
Consultancy group Pragmatix carried out a survey in five Uttarakhand districts. It found a 93 percent rise in the number of women influencing household decis ions in the last three years. But some old attitudes die hard. While men are receptive to the changing status of women, they still view domestic duties as part of the woman’s responsibility.
With all the hurdles and the extra work, what is driving the women to take up a bigger responsibility in the villages? Hope for a better life for their children. Back in Badiya, Vinita says she is much more confident today that her 15-year-old daughter will get good education. After all, Vinita is not only making money of her own but also getting to decide how it will be spent.