Empowered women farmers can help fight malnutrition
Nutrition has been a focal point of the human development efforts in India for the right reasons. However, for women, it attains special importance because of the intergenerational carry over of the impacts through children. The nutritional status of women can make or mar entire generations, thereby carving a deep furrow on the nation’s human resources pool over time. Since we celebrated the national nutrition month in September, it may be worth looking at the link between rural women, agriculture and nutrition.
Agriculture in India is significantly dependent on women. Women make up about 33% of cultivators and about 47% of agricultural labourers in rural India. Overall, the percentage of rural women who depend on agriculture for their livelihood is as high as 84%. But systemic barriers to finance, inputs, extension services and land rights have limited their potential and recognition as the mainstay of our agrarian ecosystem. Juxtapose this with the findings of the National Family Health Survey 2015-16 which state that 26.7% of rural women are underweight and 54.2% anaemic. Clearly a majority of our women agricultural producers and workers are themselves victims of malnutrition.
However, these women can be co-opted in to the solution itself. One such evidence comes from the Pathways programme implemented by CARE India. Given financial support and choice in crop selection, women farmers preferred crops that would contribute to household dietary diversity while promoting food and nutrition security. Male farmers, on the other hand, were found to be more inclined to use the farmland for cash crops. They also preferred mono-cropping instead of cultivating a diverse set of crops.
Making agriculture sensitive to nutritional needs isn’t a new concept. It had interested MS Swaminathan, the father of the Green Revolution. What is needed, however, is a realistic approach to achieving that goal. That is where the focus should be on enabling women. Making women participants in the financial aspects of the farm and family is both a cause and result of achieving success in this regard. Financial support specifically ensuring availability of institutional credit to women farmers is the key. The complementary necessity is skill and knowledge transfer in sustainable agriculture techniques, crop varieties and farm management. These efforts need to be strengthened by engaging with existing village level collectives of women for social mobilisation, accessing formal financial services and collective market action. Naturally, these steps have broader connections to providing women with greater autonomy, participation and influence in household decision-making and the ability to exercise their choices which lead to better food security and nutrition outcomes.
This isn’t to say that empowered agricultural women is a panacea to the malnutrition problem. To plug the lack of nutrition in pregnant women and infants the government should keep running schemes like the Integrated Child Development Scheme. The shared theme that needs to be applied there too is strengthening the choice of the women about what should go into their and their children’s food intake. This again is possible through providing them financial support to exercise their choice and necessary knowledge about nutritive resources.
Overall, rural women’s close interdependence with agriculture points to solutions which co-opt cultivation practices in addressing malnutrition. Already multiple models of nutrition-layered agriculture are being experimented with under the leadership of women land holders and their collectives. One hopes that these will provide an evidence-driven pathway to policy reforms that promote availability and affordability of a more nutritious food system; and build capacity and leadership to institutionalise nutrition sensitive agriculture in India.
Shashank Bibhu is a technical specialist with the economic development unit of CARE India.
The views expressed are personal