While we are still talking about women, let us spare a thought for those who do not appear on the pages of our newspapers or on television channels; women who seem invisible even when the subject under discussion relates directly to them.
The monsoon was deficient in many parts of the country last year. As a result, the first reports of drought setting in have already begun to be reported. In Maharashtra, 16 districts have already been declared drought-affected impacting an estimated 12,000 villages. Crops have withered, water is difficult to find and the summer has not even begun. You hear stories of indebtedness and suicide once again. The state government has already predicted that this will be the worst drought since 1972, one that many people would have forgotten but not those who till the land and know the price it extracted from them.
The face of the farmer afflicted by this drying up of land is almost always that of a man. Forgotten most of the time is the fact that the bulk of work done on farms across India is by women. Just statistics never tell the full story but the fact remains that while 79 per cent of rural women are agricultural workers, fewer rural men, 63 per cent, work on land. Despite this reality, where the bulk of the workers on land are women, only nine per cent of women own agricultural land. The untold story of Indian agriculture is not just one of mismanagement — of water and other resources — but also of the refusal to acknowledge women’s contribution to agriculture. Despite numerous studies that have established beyond doubt that the bulk of the work to produce the food that all of us consume is done by women, they are still not recognised as farmers in our official agricultural policies. As a result, whenever the government announces schemes for farmers, the women who are actually doing the work are left out of it.
A telling example of this is the dairy industry. According to some estimates, 93 per cent of dairy products are attributed to the work of women. Something like 15 million women are involved in the dairy industry. They tend the cattle, collect fodder, collect and deliver the dairy products for further processing. Yet, few of them actually own cattle or land. As a result, the men and not the women who do the work usually take the benefits extended by the government to dairy farmers.
The majority of agricultural assets — land, machinery, money and credit — remains firmly in the hands of men. The irony is that despite several policies, where women are supposed to be joint holders with the men of land, or even sole owners, many women are not even aware that they own the land. No one, least of all the men, have bothered to inform them.
Why is any of this important, we can well ask. After all, these are agricultural families where everyone works. What does it matter if women work longer hours than the men? Why is it so important for them to be owners of the land they till? If the men own the land, does that not automatically mean they too are the owners?
There are numerous reasons that can be given for why women should be acknowledged as principal workers on land, and they should be the owners of that land. The chief reason is that, in the patriarchal culture that continues untouched in this country, a woman without an economic standing stands little chance of asserting her rights not just as a woman but as a human being. Of course, even women with independent economic means are not necessarily respected or heeded. But they have a greater chance to make choices than those who are forced into dependence and as a corollary to that, subservience.
Much of the violence that we do not read about, because it takes place away from the location of our media houses, is rooted in this powerlessness of the women. Every now and then a horrific story will catch our attention. But for every one such story, there are thousands that go unreported because the women at the receiving end do not count — not even in government records. In rural areas, almost half of all rape cases are related to land. In some parts of India, to ensure that women do not get their share of the land, they are declared witches. In others, even where they are entitled, they are forced to sign away their share.
At a time when the airwaves are full of talk about the budget and financial allocations, all those who are concerned about violence against women ought to look at policies towards farmers — and whether any of them address the women who do farm work. Let us begin by accepting that women are farmers, that they should get the benefits extended to all farmers and that it is pointless talking about ending violence against women without seeing and recognising women’s work and contribution to agriculture.