Empowering India’s women farmers: Bridge the gap
Purvi Mehta, head- Asia, agriculture development, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation
Agriculture, one of the largest contributors to India’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and a driving force for country’s economic development, relies heavily on women employing the largest number of women in India. Women’s continued role in agriculture is well marked, well realised, however, it is often underestimated. Close to 75% of the full-time workers on Indian farms are women.
In rural India, the percentage of women who depend on agriculture for their livelihood is as high as 84%. India’s livestock sector, which is the world’s largest livestock production systems--over 70% livestock work is done by women. Women's participation rate in the agricultural sectors is about 47% in tea plantations; around 47% in cotton cultivation; 45% growing oil seeds, and 39% in vegetable production.
Despite their large presence and their contribution, women farmers, often, are not equipped with what they need to succeed in farming. Studies have shown that women have less access to inputs (seeds, fertiliser, labour, and finance), critical services (training, insurance) and organised markets when compared to their male counterparts.
This inequality comes with a social and economic cost. Research has consistently shown that inequity in access to resources impacts both the economic well-being of women farmers as well as overall agricultural output of the country. The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations estimates that if women were to have the same access to productive resources as men, they would increase the yields on their farms by 20-30% and this would end up adding at least 2.5–4% to the total agricultural output in developing countries. Similar inequalities are evident in price realisation where in view of unequal access to formal markets, women often realise less price for their produce than their men counterparts.
One of the key areas for addressing inequality is land ownership. Land is a fundamental resource for farming. With less than 8% of women farmers owning land, they often end up farming without being categorised as farm owners or landowners. Access to land and access to good soil (women also often own land that have inferior soil than their men counterparts), therefore, would be a fundamental requirement towards addressing the inequalities. Limited ownership of land is not a problem associated just with India, it is in most agriculture dependent countries, where, unlike India, women often do not even qualify to own land.
The second factor is markets. If land is the first step in farming, markets are the ultimate reason for farming. The consistent disparity in price realisation has been well documented. One of the key reasons behind this is the disparity in access to catalytic technologies. Take the example of digital technologies that are increasingly becoming essential to connect farmers to markets. Mobile phones, for example, are becoming a very important tool in farming- to buy, sell, report, debate, transfer money, claim insurance. However, across low- and middle-income countries, women are 10% less likely to own a mobile phone than men, and 313 million fewer women than men use mobile internet. As such, social inequalities are often manifested into digital inequalities.
The recent thrust by the government on aggregation through Farmer Producer Organisations (FPOs) is an impactful mechanism for addressing some of these fundamental challenges of lack of agency, price inequalities and women’s participation in production and market systems. Legally registered as a collective of farmers, and often built around self-help groups (SHGs), FPOs are formed by collectivising a set of farmers with an objective of enhancing their incomes and providing better economies of scale. Over the years, FPOs have shown the potential to create value across different post-harvest phases, including harvesting, primary processing, storage, secondary processing, and market linkages. There has also been increasing evidence that FPOs have been effective in driving enhanced market access, bargaining power, collective agency and decreased transaction costs for women farmers. In Bihar, for example, the JEEViKA programme - has mobilised over 200,000 women small-farmers into commodity-based FPOs. These FPOs have achieved significantly higher turnover and successfully marketed grains, fruits and vegetables. Farmer level returns, in some cases, have gone up by 20-30%. The success of the FPO model per se, and the success stories of women owned and managed FPOs are beginning to emerge as a very positive trend.
An added consideration will have to be climate change and woman’s ability to adapt. Changes in climatic conditions and uncertainties due to it has begun to adversely impact agricultural production systems globally. India's agricultural sector is not immune to it and will be affected especially in view of the dependence on natural resources and weather conditions defined by monsoon season. Small holder agriculture producers in general and women producers in particular will especially have a shorter side of the stick in dealing with the volatilities. This calls for a more augmented approach for making women farmers better equipped to adapt and manage their livelihoods through agriculture. India’s commitments at COP 26 highlights it’s leadership role in exploring the potential held by agriculture and agriculturists- the farmers. As several of the country’s climate mitigation and adaptation strategies include women farmers as an important stakeholder, state level implementation and inclusion of all--land holder and landless--will be important.
A gender specific and gender sensitive approach in terms of adaptation of best practices in agriculture, addressing structural inequalities is essential to realise the immense potential of women farmers. The goal of doubling farmers' income can be achieved by a capable and skilled women workforce. Empowerment of women workforce in agriculture, by ensuring equal access and opportunity will lead to a foundational transformation in India’s rural economy, improving lives of millions.
(Purvi Mehta, head- Asia, agriculture development, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation)