Since the 1960s, the feminization of agriculture in South-East Asian countries has been a significant development. Women are emerging as important contributors in the agricultural sector. The mass migration of men from rural areas to cities, in search of jobs has primarily fueled this growing transition.
Women account for 42% of the total agricultural force which employs more than 50% of India’s total workforce. Further, 73.2% of women in rural areas are engaged in agricultural work. They are most often classified as only ‘cultivators’ or ‘agricultural labourers’ despite doing majority of the labour-intensive work from sowing to harvesting. Only 12.8% of women own the land they cultivate.
Agriculture is the single largest economic sector in India. Yet, the Agricultural GDP is increasingly declining and deep poverty is a major concern in the rural areas. On the other hand, there's a larger crisis looming- with malnutrition rates in children, low agricultural productivity and food insecurity rising to its highest in years. There is a tendency in locals to find an explanation to this great calamity in women’s increased participation in agricultural work.
However, a closer look at the history of land ownership rights and social position of women in India depicts a clearer picture:
Manu Smriti written in 200 BC is one of the earliest ancient literature that sheds a very illuminating account on the status of women in the Indian Society. According to Manu, a “woman is a perpetual minor and has to lead entire life under the guardianship of the father, the husband or the son”.
The shift from hunting and gathering to more or less settled agriculture implied a shift in the earlier division of labour between men and women, which was based on mutual respect and codependency. The emergence of family and related institutions gave rise to ownership of land and property which was largely acquired through muscle power. Women were now treated as ‘the weaker sex’. Obligated under a contract of servitude to men, they were restricted to largely domestic roles- the obedient housewife, the caring mother, the dutiful daughter.
Such a patriarchal social system fully materialized in the Indian society during the medieval period and gradually women’s social, economic and political rights were usurped by their male counter-parts. It wasn’t until the end of the ancient period that the emphasis from collective ownership of land shifted to the Crown’s and individual ownership of land. However, only men enjoyed the legitimate claim to inheritance and ownership rights throughout the course of history.
In contemporary Indian Society, women’s land rights are preceded by personal and customary laws that reflect systemic bias against women and lack standardization.
Women lack direct access to land and are dependent upon inheritance from a male relative, usually her father or husband to inherit land. The Hindu Succession Act (1956) stated that “any property possessed by a female Hindu, whether acquired before or after the commencement of this act, shall be held by her as full owner thereof and not as a limited owner”. In 2005, it was amended to ensure that daughters by birth become a coparcener in her own right in the same manner as the son in a joint family and widows could claim a share of land/property along with her children. This act is extended only to Hindus, Jains, Buddhists and Sikhs. Nonetheless, if the Hindu succession law had been implemented fully, women should have received an average of 11.88 decimals of land. Whereas, women have only received 0.93 decimals of land.
The inheritance rights of Muslims are governed by the Muslim Personal Law (Shariat) Application Act of 1937 and it allows women one-third share of the land while men get two-third. However, it doesn’t apply to agricultural land with the exception of some states.
As per the Indian Succession Act, 1925, Christian widows are allotted one-third of the property while the remaining two-thirds are divided equally between the children of the deceased. Yet, only 38% of women in India own land or property, either individually or jointly.
Even Government land-allotment policies and insurance schemes like the 'Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana' suffer from structural discrimination as it only reimburses the male owners of the land. Government officials and local authorities themselves hold sexist attitudes resulting in only half-hearted realization of policies. Lack of awareness of rights among women due to barriers to education -resulting in a general lack of consciousness- is a major obstacle to land ownership by women. In what capacity women acquire land can also impact its welfare effects. In India, government statutes and policies tend to emphasize either widows or daughters at the cost of one another which leaves both in a constant struggle for social legitimacy.
According to a 2018 survey by the Mahila Kisan Adhikar Manch (MKAM), out of 505 female farmers whose husbands committed suicide, 40% of widows did not obtain rights to the farm they operated. Out of this 40%, one-third were not aware of their entitlement to a pension. In North India, the archaic ritual of “Haq Tyag” still prevails which compels women to give up their rightful claim to a share in her ancestral property as compensation for her dowry and for her brother’s well-being.
A study conducted by S.Raju and Nitya Rao(2017) in 12 villages in two districts, Wardha in Maharashtra and Koraput in Odisha showed that 50% of the children aged 0-5 suffer from malnutrition. Women- both landowning farmers and landless labourers- in these villages spent 80% of the time that men spend on income-generating activities being engaged in agriculture despite owning less than 5% of the land holdings. They worked as ‘unpaid family helpers’ and in addition to agricultural labour also took responsibility for all household and childcare activities. In Koraput, women worked for about 13 hours in the fields, leaving them sleep-deprived and under-nourished. The double burden of work and care is dangerously hazardous for mothers and their children.
Gender equality, food security and women’s empowerment is indistinguishably interconnected. Along with the burden of social norms, even the land holdings that women acquire are smaller and of poorer quality, resulting in low productivity.
Most women are engaged in subsistence farming thus, they are seldom able to sell off the produce in the markets. Their bargaining power in markets are also compromised and they settle for lower prices because of low self-esteem from years of misogynistic gaslighting. Often, they take up supplementary jobs with huge gender-based pay gaps. Lack of ownership to land exposes women to greater domestic violence and economic vulnerability. They’re not allowed to take decisions for cultivation and lack access to support systems and institutional agricultural credit so they’re depended upon microfinancers who heavily exploit them.
In context of all the aforementioned institutional discrepancies, it becomes clear why women have been at the frontline of the farmer’s protests against the recent farm bills. The farm bills proposed expose small and marginal farmers- largely comprising women- to disadvantageous positions and unconstrained exploitation while negotiating contract agreements with private entities. Empowering women through affirmative land and ownership rights can bring more equitable changes to patriarchal institutions and have the potential for positive ripple effect over agricultural GDP growth, eliminating poverty and reducing hunger throughout the world by 12-17% although the ground reality of patriarchal customs prevent affirmative implementation of policies and laws.