Women represent one of the major development forces in the world. According to an United Nations report, women work longer hours than men and in third world countries especially, they supervise family and homestead activities, including agriculture in rural areas. The official statement of a 1995 UN conference on women lamented that women still had little access to or ownership of productive resources and markets.
Although women in most countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America play a major role in rural development, they do not get any credit for it; the men walk away with all the rewards and the recognition. Also the needs and priorities of female farmers are ignored. They are not, for example, given access to new technological innovations. In most third world countries, women are confined to the roles of wife, mother, sister and homemaker. No wonder, women farmers are worse off in developing countries like ours.
But lately, there has been greater acceptance of women’s abilities. In India, 84 per cent of all economically-active women in villages are involved in agriculture, directly or indirectly. A National Sample Survey Organization report of 1993 stated 18 per cent of all farm families are headed by women. The figure varies from state to state. While women’s participation in Haryana and Punjab is only 1.45 per cent and 4.28 per cent respectively, it is 28 per cent in Maharashtra and 40 per cent in Tamil Nadu. In the Northeast, 70 per cent of all women take part in agricultural activities, while in Andhra Pradesh the figure is as high as 95 per cent.
Self-help is best
Women in agriculture could be organized into self-help groups in order to empower them economically. A self-help group is a voluntary association of 10 to 20 female farmers with common interests to help them mobilize savings, manage credit, take low-interest loans for income-generating activities and solve other financial problems. Such a group is democratic and without any political or religious affiliations.
Many of these groups, with the assistance of nongovernmental organizations, have successfully developed schemes of revolving credit which have enabled the members to reap greater benefits from their savings. Rural women should also be encouraged to form cooperatives and directed into areas of rural industry like fruit and vegetable processing, mushroom cultivation making handicrafts, tailoring, embroidery, making toys, dolls and so on.
In this, government-sponsored schemes like the Mahila Samriddhi Yojana of August 1995 which provided poor women in the villages an allowance of Rs 75, to be deposited in post office accounts, are very helpful.
Analysis of development projects in India and elsewhere in the developing world reveals that women perform better than men and are more reliable. Allowed greater exposure to economic activities, they can become leaders.
But few attempts have been made to study the participation of women in agriculture and allied activities. Although they do everything from managing the livestock, to sowing, transplanting, weeding, cutting, harvesting , threshing, winnowing and even storing crops, they are exploited as cheap labour. In addition, they also have to perform household duties and look after the children. In the absence of machines, they are assigned laborious tasks like transplanting paddy, harvesting with traditional sickles, drying the produce in the hot sun, parboiling the rice using traditional arduous methods, and so on.
But if women farmers’ condition is to improve, the government must take policy initiatives to allow them access to technology, give them recognition and plan and execute suitable programmes for them. Policymakers should also be sensitized to gender issues. Women should also be allowed to own land and be made aware of their legal and constitutional rights. Panchayats, especially, should be directed to devise programmes especially for the sustainable development of women farmers in the villages.