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Women forging change – Editorial

Women forging change

We have been talking about women in agriculture – that they are important to farming, that they perform around 50% of the farming activities, despite having less access to resources and technical inputs. And we have been discussing this for more than three decades…with very little being done for them.

But experiences in this issue show that women, despite the challenges and limitations are still doing a lot. They are the ones who are making the farming move. They are the defacto custodians of local culture, diversity and cuisine. They are the ones pioneering family farming which is primarily responsive to household needs – be it food, nutrition and income. They have shown immense credibility in managing finances through Self Help Group movements and collectives displaying extraordinary wisdom, discretion, accountability and enterprise management. They have dispelled the myths regarding their ability to handle technical aspects of farming, marketing, shared leadership and lastly even scale of operations. All this inspite of lack of support and supportive policies. It is repeatedly proven that what they rightfully need is an ‘opportunity’, enabling conditions, a little bit of encouragement and guidance, where necessary. Even with limited and skewed access to resources like land and finances, they show they can achieve.

Food and nutrition first

Women are more concerned about the food for the household and its nutrition aspect. This makes them go in for cultivating food crops. Their choice is always the local crops, for instance millets, which can grow with very few inputs and on degraded resources. Women generally start with what they have and improve upon that. Concerns on nutrition pushes them to grow multiple crops and vegetables which not only provides balanced nutrition to the family but also helps in maintaining biodiversity. Narayanamma, a farmer from Srikakulam in Andhra Pradesh says “Earlier we used to eat only brinjal and beans available in the village. But now, we consume10 types of vegetables thus reducing the cost incurred for vegetables”. (Kumaran and Babu, p.11)

Women do understand the benefits of mixed cropping and are the first to switch over from monocropping, given an opportunity. For instance, women in Wayanad district shifted from monocultures of Coconut to diverse vegetable gardens with training support from Thanal, an NGO (Usha S et.al., p.14). They managed vegetable cultivation without external inputs and were able to convert a degraded land to a fertile one.

Preference is for organic ways of cultivation for two reasons – first to grow healthy food and the second, is that organic inputs are more accessible, as they can be prepared by the women themselves. When women take up farming, the dependence on external inputs is reduced to a great extent. Naturally, the response to programmes which promote ecological ways of cultivation has always been very good from women. Invariably, they are involved in learning and using locally available materials for preparing manures and biologicals for plant protection. There is a natural interest and inclination to practise safe farming.

Nurturing diversity for multiple benefits

Women being the major providers for the family well being, they are not satisfied by growing just one crop or engaging in just one enterprise. However small the land may be, they look for opportunities to produce multiple outcomes – food for the family, fodder for the cattle, trees for better environment. Many times it also includes some enterprises like chicken or mushroom cultivation for income. Thus, it is a holistic approach for the wellbeing of the family.

Again, they are also very particular when it comes to choice of species. They look for local, traditional ones which are available, nutritious and tasty too. This automatically results in building the biodiversity, which otherwise is being lost. Farm diversity also minimises the risk involved. Benefits are not only in terms of increased incomes but also in terms of reduced costs of cultivation, as they depend largely on available farm and organic resources. These resources are meticulously recycled from one crop or enterprise to the other.

For example, the farm waste serves as fodder and the cattle dung is recycled back to the farm as manure. For instance, around 530 women farmers in Wayanad in Kerala started dairy accessing soft loan from the group. For the first time, there was milk available in these families. The other by-products such as cow dung was used as manure and also for producing biogas.(T K Omana, p.34)

Get together to benefit

In the absence of adequate support and access to resources, women willingly come together to pursue their goals of family well being. They are keen to learn as a group. They manage to save whatever is possible in the group. Trust plays a major role. The small savings that they do is used for buying quality inputs for farming.

Sharing and exchange is a natural trait of women. When they come together, there is always sharing of knowledge, seeds and even cuisine, thus resulting in organic outreach. For instance, 30 women groups in Kerala participated in the seed exchange mela where each one had a seed variety to share. Women later produced the seeds and shared, thus conserving and increasing the availability of local seeds.(T K Omana, p.34)

As they go along, women groups federate to gain additional strength of collectivisation. The groups or sanghams come together, federate, form collectives so that they gain as a larger group, be it for production, value addition or marketing. In Kerala, for instance, women groups federated into Edava Women’s Association (EWA) in 2010, has been successfully marketing their products through value addition (Anitha Kumari and Krishnakumar, p. 23). With adequate support, these federations often take the form of an institutional arrangement, like producer association.

Closing the gender gap in agricultural inputs alone could lift 100-150 million people out of hunger.

FAO, The state of food and agriculture, 2010-2011

With a little support women can succeed

“If women had the same access to productive resources as men, they could increase yields on their farms by 20–30 percent”, says FAO. This has been said in various ways in different platforms, meetings and conferences and over years across the world. If we truly believe in the statement then why are we not able to make any dent in closing the gender gap?

On the other hand, women are not waiting for something to happen, but are constantly exploring opportunities to move ahead. Time and again they have proved that what they need is a little support to make a big difference. And there are few examples too which are worth emulating. For instance, the Kerala State government has enabled landless women to emerge as commercial organic farmers by integrating local self governments with the women’s collectives through Kudumbashree, the State Poverty Eradication Mission of Kerala (Geethakutty P S, p.6). In another instance, a women’s federation with the support of ICAR and several government departments could add value to their homestead production. (Anitha Kumari and Krishnakumar, p. 23).

Empowering women by building capacities and confidence, utilizing existing skills and providing support where necessary and integrating all the farm based activities through recycling, are some of the factors which can bring the poor women out of poverty. Along with gaining necessary skills on agriculture, these women also gain leadership qualities, discovering themselves as decision makers in their families as well as in their villages. The experiences in this issue show that when women farmers are meaningfully included in agricultural development opportunities, not only do farms become more productive but overall family health improves too. Let’s give these brave women, the space, the support and the recognition they deserve.


‹Key facts

– In developing countries for which data are available, between 10 percent and 20 percent of all land holders are women.

– If women had the same access to productive resources as men, they could increase yields on their farms by 20–30 percent.

– Female farmers are just as efficient as male farmers but they produce less because they control less land, use fewer inputs and have less access to important services such as extension advice.

– When women control additional income, they spend more of it than men do on food, health, clothing and education for their children. This has positive implications for immediate well-being, long-run human capital formation and economic growth through improved health, nutrition and education outcomes.

– An estimated two-thirds of poor livestock keepers, totalling approximately 400 million people, are women.

– Women comprise, on average, 43 percent of the agricultural labour force in developing countries, ranging from 20 percent in Latin America to 50 percent in Eastern Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.

– Women are much less likely to use purchased inputs such as fertilizers and improved seeds or to make use of mechanical tools and equipment.

– According to a 1988–89 FAO survey of extension organizations covering 97 countries, only 5 percent of all extension resources were directed at women. Moreover, only 15 percent of the extension personnel were female.

– Increasing female participation in the labour force has demonstrated positive impacts on economic growth.

(Source: FAO, The State of Food and Agriculture, 2010-11)