Women in Farming
In policy formulation, the archetypal farmer is a man. There are many reasons for this perception, one of them being the failure to recognize the work of women as being work at all.
Recent research on peasant households based on gender-disaggregated data from the Project on Agrarian Relations in India provides new insights on women workers in such households. First, in general, within peasant households, when we examine the ratio of time spent by workers on their own farms (as family labour) to the time spent by them on others’ farms (as hired labour), we find that women in poor and middle peasant households did indeed work on their own fields. Secondly, all sections of the peasantry employed hired workers, male and female, for crop production. Thirdly, men and women workers from poor and middle peasant households spent fewer days of work on the family’s own fields (that is, as family workers) than as hired workers on others’ fields. Women from peasant families are thus very much part of the agricultural work-force in India, partly on their own family farms, and more significantly, as workers on others’ farms.
A striking finding emerges from the data collected by the recent national time-use survey conducted by the National Statistical Office, presented in a report titled Time Use in India 2019. This survey is the first of its kind in India. The data show that 44 per cent of all women (above the age of 15) surveyed were engaged in some economic activity (that is, activities within the production boundary or system of national accounts) during the reference day. We can thus estimate that there were around 194 million women workers (on a given day) in rural India, a number exceeding the population of all but six countries of the world. By contrast, the estimate based on the latest labour force survey of 2018-2019 suggests that only 110 million rural women were in the workforce.
Micro-level research on rural women workers establishes the multiple roles played by women in and around farms and the long hours of ensuing drudgery. Village-level time-use surveys show that women participate in varied economic activities, including production on the farm and in allied activities (such as care of farmyard animals), in wage employment (on others’ fields or public works), and in volunteer work (for instance, in managing accounts of self-help groups). In addition, women spent several hours a day cleaning, cooking, and caring for children and elders. Though the components of a work day vary across women and across seasons, a woman typically worked for more than 50 hours a week, and sometimes as much as 80 to 90 hours a week.
How then are we to rectify the failure to recognise the work of farm women? The reasons for this failure are, of course, deeply entrenched in our patriarchal society. Nevertheless, certain immediate measures can be implemented. Women must be given land rights, and this must be considered an urgent social task. At the very least, women in farm families should be given joint titles and made joint owners of agricultural land. Collection of data on women’s work must be improved at multiple levels, from survey and questionnaire design, to sensitisation of those collecting and compiling the data. Existing gender-disaggregated data, such as data from the cost of cultivation surveys on male and female labour use in crop production need to be disseminated (currently, these data are collected but not published). No organisation of farmers can be representative of the countryside unless women are adequately represented in their membership and leadership. These long-standing demands of the women’s and progressive movements and many other policy suggestions that are part of the draft National Policy for Women in Agriculture must be brought back on the immediate agenda and implemented.