Women farmers, until now, were working in the shadows of our food systems. However, the recent farmer protest and their global coverage has changed this. The voices of our distressed women farmers can be easily heard in vast numbers, expressing, as TIME magazine quotes it “Who are we, if not farmers?” Therefore, on this International Women’s Day, it is important to acknowledge the ongoing phenomenon of feminisation of Indian agricultural workforce that has been in play since the past few decades.
In 2011, India had about 481 million people in its workforce (as per Census 2011); about 31 per cent or about 150 million of these workers were women. This share was about 14 per cent in 1981. Multitudes of women have entered the Indian workforce in the last few decades, and this growth has been exceptional in the case of the agricultural sector.
In 2018-19, 71 per cent female workers are employed in agriculture, followed by manufacturing (9 per cent), construction (6 per cent) and hospitality (4 per cent) (Figure 1).
Figure 1: Distribution of female workers by industry
Indian agri-workforce is split under two heads: cultivators (who own the land or have the right to operate on it) and labourers (ones who do not own land but work on land owned by others in return of wages paid to them in cash or kind). As per Census 2011, there were about 263 million agricultural workers in India and 37 per cent (or 98 million) of them were women. Between 1991 and 2011, more than 85 million agricultural workers entered the agri-workforce and 49 million (58 per cent) of these were women. In the two decades since 1991, while the number of male cultivators reduced by 3 million, that of women cultivators jumped up by 14.2 million. There was an increase of 74 million agricultural labourers in these two decades, and about 47 per cent of these were women.
Table 1: All India rural agricultural workers (gender-wise)
If in 1991, for every 10 men in the agricultural workforce, there were four women, then by 2011, there were six women for every 10 men. This phenomenon of increased participation by women, particularly working as agri-labourers, is referred to as the process of feminisation of the Indian agri-workforce. With increased pressures of migration of men to urban areas, this trend of feminisation is likely to continue and gain momentum in coming times. In livestock activities, this extent of feminisation is much larger. As per the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO), the percentage share of female workers was 60 per cent in cattle, 40 per cent in goat and 60 per cent in poultry in 1983-84 and this increased to 70, 55 and 70 per cent respectively by 1999-2000. In states like Tamil Nadu, Manipur, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, and Maharashtra, women accounted for more than half of their agri-labourers.
Despite the rising and high share in the agri workforce, only 37 per cent of these women were cultivators (ones who owned land) and the remainder about 63 per cent worked as agri-labourers (on farms owned by others).
How farm issues impact women more
Perverse and grave problems faced by the Indian farming community are well known, but the problems of women farmers top them all. These problems are multi-dimensional in nature, and compared to men, involve a disproportionately larger level of deprivation in terms of rights to land, to inputs and to markets, inter alia. Compared to men, these women lack equal access to opportunities and even to the decision-making process. As per Agri Census 2015-16, only 14 per cent of the operational holdings in agriculture were owned by women. Such lack of collateral adversely impacts a woman farmer’s ability to access institutional credit, subsidies like fertilizers, seeds, etc. and benefits like installments under PM-Kisan or other governmental schemes that are mostly designed for land owners.
There is another problem. As per Agri-census 2015-16, close to 90 per cent of women-owned landholdings fall in the category of small and marginal landholdings. Due to the small landholding size, these women farmers are also not able to harness benefits of economies of scale. They produce a small portion, bring a tinier portion of marketable surplus and due to lack of access to market opportunities, get a relatively lower value realisation for that produce.
If women farmers suffer, the suffering of the women agri-labourers is fierce too. Data on daily wages from the Labor Bureau suggests that, for seven activities specific to agriculture, wages received by women were, on average, 35.8 per cent lower than wages received by men (for the period between 1998-2015). Tamil Nadu (75.2 per cent) had the highest wage gap, followed by Karnataka (54.8 per cent) and Maharashtra (48.9 per cent).
Contribution of women in rural economies is significant and their role and importance is only likely to grow in coming times. From earning to providing for family nutrition, the role of women is multi-dimensional. It is more imperative than ever that we find ways to empower them. Despite being a substantial member of the farming community, these women agri-workers lack voice in decision-making, and lack access to opportunities. Their problems are nearly unrepresented in the popular policy debates.
Therefore, on this International Women’s Day, we should not only acknowledge their contribution and growing role but also find ways to improve their access to productive resources and opportunities. As per Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), if women had the same access to productive resources as men, agricultural yields would grow by 20-30 per cent, expanding a developing country’s agricultural output by 2.5 to 4 per cent.
How to empower these women
Creation and promotion of women-led micro enterprises will go a long way in validating female agency both on micro and macro-levels. This would require increased extension services such as capacity building, training and access to credit. Specifically, in agriculture, due to increasing feminisation of farms, providing cultivator status to women will be critical. This will help them in accessing benefits under multiple agricultural schemes that are only reserved for landowners.
Adapting extension services to the needs of women farmers will be beneficial. Under farm mechanisation, a focus on innovating farm machines that are better suited to female use will be rewarding. Continued efforts to aggregate women under Farmer Producer Organisations (FPOs), and organising and training them via women self-help groups (SHGs) will also be crucial towards their empowerment.
Finding ways to increase female representation on the decision-making forums is a must. This will eventually help in bridging wage gaps and current deficit in women sensitive policy making. Gender budgeting is another area where much can be done. In 2020-21, only 5 per cent of the total budget was sensitive to gender neutral outcomes and focused specifically on women-centric schemes. This has scope to be increased.
There is no blueprint that exists that can close the gender gap. But by promoting equal access to opportunities and resources, and by making policies and programs gender-sensitive and gender-aware, we can start by providing our women farmers a level-playing field. This is not just the right thing to do today, but is also a necessary thing that will ensure the sustainability of agricultural development in the country.
Shweta Saini is Senior (Visiting) Fellow at ICRIER and Pulkit Khatri is Research Assistant. Views are personal.