20 March 2017 | Belinda Goldsmith, Thomson Reuters Foundation | Reuters


Gender roles in tradition-bound rural India are slowly changing with women having to take control as large numbers of working-age men migrate to cities for jobs and amid a wave of suicides by male farmers battling to provide for their families.

For Hira Kanjarya, a 17-hour day is the norm as she gets up before dawn to cook for her five children, do the washing, milk her two buffalos, and also run the family’s cotton farm.

Kanjarya, 36, is one of a growing number of women being trained to take charge of some of the millions of small holder farms across India where about 70 per cent of agricultural work is done by women but with little recognition of their input.

Acknowledging the growing role women play in India’s key agricultural sector, state governments, farming groups, and private industry are starting to train women to run farms, teaching them about crops, irrigation, and finance.

Repeated studies show that when women control the family’s finances, they invest more in their children, businesses and communities, which can be a step out of poverty.

“This is the way forward, women taking over the farms and investing in children’s education,” Kanjarya told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in her family’s spotless four-room home in Mayapur in the western state Gujarat.

“From age five I had to work on my family’s farm but I want to work now so my children get an education, better jobs and better husbands. Maybe one day my son will buy a big car and drive me around,” she said, laughing.

Women like Kanjarya taking the lead on farms is a major cultural shift in India where old superstitions often blame women for poor harvests, drought and disease – with some punished as witches accused for causing such disasters.

Kanjarya is one of 1,250 female farmers being trained to grow sustainable cotton and run her farm as a business in a project by social enterprise CottonConnect and India’s Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) funded by British retailer Primark.

At a training session for about 20 women in Mayapur, a village 160 km from state capital Ahmedabad where buffalos and cows wander the dusty streets, the women joke about knowing more than their husbands about farming and banking.

Aruna Kanjarya, 32, who has two children aged 10 and 13, said she had doubled her cotton yields while lowering her costs in three years – and the extra income changed their lives.

“Our children are in school and I’ve helped pay to educate my husband who is now a computer operator for the state government,” said Kanjarya who, like most women in Mayapur, had an arranged marriage and first met her husband at their wedding.

A report by the charity Oxfam released in January, titled An Economy for the 99 per cent, said more than 40 per cent of 400 million women living in rural India – a third of India’s 1.2 billion population – work in agriculture.

“However, as women are not recognised as farmers and do not own land, they have limited access to government schemes and credit, restricting their agricultural productivity,” it said.

According to official data, women make up more than a third of India’s agriculture workforce, yet only about 13 per cent of farmland is owned by women.

United Nations studies have indicated closing the gender gap in agriculture could lift an estimated 100 to 150 million people from 800 million globally out of the clutches of hunger.

Campaigners hope a set of United Nations global goals agreed in 2015 and aiming for gender equality by 2030 could help elevate women’s role in rural India with a commitment to give women equal access to decent work, education, and healthcare.

Reema Nanavaty, executive director of India’s Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) – the world’s largest organisation of informal workers with more than two million members – said women’s critical role in farming needed to be officially acknowledged.

Farming accounts for about 16 per cent of India’s economy and 10 per cent of export earnings.

“Women have just not been recognised as farmers,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“They farm to feed their families but we want them to turn the farm into an enterprise. If you can train women to do that then you can also talk to them about health, education and nutrition and it benefits everyone.”

The women in Mayapur said their husbands were won over to them taking the lead on the farms when they saw the boost in income that resulted from better farming practises such as less water and chemical usage and better timing of crops.

Kanjarya’s husband Ishwar, 38, said the training his wife received had boosted profits from the cotton farm held by his family for generations and helped them buy a television, mobile phone and a motorbike.

“When we married we were partners but since joining this program she is the boss. If I don’t work she bosses me about,” he said with a laugh.

“There was no access to education and no money for education when we were children but now we have money and even savings in our pocket. We feel very lucky.”

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