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Women in Agriculture: Recognizing them and Re-prioritizing them?

                                                                                                                                       Biraj Swain &  Ranvir Singh


According to the 2011 census, women account for 586.47 million in absolute numbers and represent 48.46 per cent of the total population of the country. Women have been increasingly recognized as the future faces of Indian farmers. According to the 64th round of the National Sample Survey Organization’s (NSSO) data, women accounted for 38.51 percent of the total rural workers engaged in primary sector during 2007-08[1].They constitute a significantly large proportion (about 80-83 percent) of the women workers as compared to 63-66 percent among rural male workers. Women also play a significant role in the various allied activities - as per the ‘time use survey’ covering six states in the country during 2000, women spent almost an equal amount of time on crop cultivation and allied activities. Unfortunately they receive payment for only 60 per cent of the time they spend in agriculture for a substantial part of their work is likely to be on family farms.

IMG_0167.jpgIn the countryside fields, women work as agricultural labourers, farmers and in certain cases as farm entrepreneurs. Because of male outmigration in search of better employment opportunities, women’s roles and responsibilities increase a lot but their access to resources still remain limited. Women also get engagement in sub-sectors and allied non-farm works as well. Landless women agricultural labourers are involved in most of the agricultural operations, but they still remain largely unacknowledged as farmers and agricultural workers.  

Photo Credits: Raghav Taparia   (cvsraghav@gmail.com)   

In 2010, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) famously concluded "if women had the same access to productive resources as men, they could increase yields on their farms by 20–30 percent. This could raise total agricultural output in developing countries by 2.5–4 percent, which could in turn reduce the number of hungry people in the world by 12–17 percent." Whatever the validity of this calculation, the reality is that food security today depends, even more than in the past, on combating discrimination against women, in order to allow women and female-            headed farming households to produce under better conditions.[2]


Workforce in Agricultural Sector

dalit-women.jpgAbout 50% of total workforce is engaged in agricultural activities contributing 16.6 percent in the total GDP (including forestry and fishery). Currently, women constitute 40 percent of this agricultural workforce and work in a variety of roles: in land preparation, seed selection and seedling production, sowing, applying manure, fertilizer and pesticide, weeding, transplanting, threshing, winnowing and harvesting and other farm related activities till the crop reaches the market. It is interesting to know that 53 percent of all male workers, but 75 percent of all female workers (85 percent of all rural female workers) are engaged in agriculture. Out of a total of 582 districts for which data is available, about 46 percent of the districts have more female laborers than male. Only 8.70 percent of the districts have more than 50 percent women as cultivators. Female agricultural labor is concentrated in backward districts. Although women’s contribution in the agricultural sector is enormous but their efforts have not been recognized with deserving attention. Their limitation in decision making, challenge in ownership and control over land and their limited access to credit play a devious role in the status quo. Their vast involvement in the sector cannot be ignored and they deserve entitlement of key stakeholders in the agriculture sector.

Ownership and Control over Productive Assets i.e. Land and Livestock

Although half of India’s population continues to depend on agriculture as its primary source of livelihood, 83 per cent of farmers operate with holdings of less than two hectare in size, and the average holding size is only 1.33 hectare. This is often in fragments and mostly based on rainfed irrigation. There are also those who are entirely landless, although agriculture is their main source of livelihood. It is very important to note that a small share of landholding also gives certain amount of food security to the households. While considering women’s equal ownership and control (which is not much in practice) it will surely raise their overall situation in the society.

In India, less than 2 percent of women own land. About 86 percent of land is private and 89 percent of rural households own some land, though this may be in the form of small plots. Access to this land is mainly through inheritance. Inheritance laws vary by region and religion, and although they confer much greater rights to women than custom did, significant inequalities remain. Even more important is the enormous gap between women’s rights in law and their disinheritance in practice. This has critical implications for welfare, efficiency, equality and empowerment (Agarwal, 1997). Male control over agricultural technology, especially taboos against women ploughing, and gender biases in extension services, are additional barriers (Velayudhan 2009).

Based on NSS 59th Round data, in animal husbandry, more than 60 percent of livestock-rearers across all size categories are women (NCEUS 2008). About 75 million women as against 15 million men are engaged in dairying in India (Sulaiman et. al. 2003). During the 1980s, 65 percent of the labour requirement in the livestock sector was contributed by women, and this increased to 71 percent during the 1990s (Ali, 2007). Women have greater control over this resource, compared to other resources like land in the village. The ultimate lesson learnt from IFAD-supported Tamil Nadu Women’s Development Project is that land-based activities (including livestock rearing) will invariably yield sub-optimal results when the majority of the target population have neither titles (document of possessions) nor access to land.

In a country where majority of the population still depends on the primary sector for their livelihood, gender inequalities (social, economic and political) can be challenged by granting ownership and control over land to women. It can be done through:

a)      inheritance

b)      direct government transfers

c)       purchase or lease from the market 

To enhance women’s land access from these three sources, a range of initiatives are needed, including joint land titles in all government land transfers, credit support to poor women to purchase or lease land from the market, increase in legal awareness and legal support for women’s inheritance rights, supportive government schemes and recording of women’s inheritance shares, and so on. There is also need for reliable, fair and accessible mechanisms such as social audit with greater participation of women in the audit bodies for resolving disputes and providing remedies in matters related to tenure and security of lease. The 2005 Hindu Succession Amendment Act (HSAA) is a step forward in this direction.

(12th Five Year Plan)

The 2005 Hindu Succession Amendment Act (HSAA) brings all agricultural land on par with other property. This makes Hindu women’s land inheritance rights legally equal to men’s across states, overriding any inconsistent State laws. Various provisions need to be reviewed and strategically acted upon. This includes devolution of a woman’s property in the same manner as a man’s, restricting the right to will to prohibit disinheritance of wives and daughters, protecting women’s right to property by eliminating forced coercion aimed at women relinquishing their shares, and ensuring that HSAA overrides State laws related to agricultural land. In addition, the Ministry of Women and Child Development in collaboration with the Department of Land Resources should start intense monitoring of the progress in implementation of HSAA, and ensure its speedy implementation.

States should also consider the adoption of a “collective approach” in land cultivation and investment in productive assets. States could undertake an assessment of all uncultivated arable land presently with the Government and give women’s groups long term usufruct rights to it for group cultivation. As many states have already given joint pattas on government land in the past, and this trend may continue.

Land entitlement and control over livestock ensure various other essential opportunities for women empowerment, e.g. improvement in social status, food security and access to credit. Velayudhan (2009) also felt the same and mentioned that land entitlement by women is important in the context of growing feminization of agriculture. Supporting women farmers would also enlarge the information base of farming because in many regions women know/practice more than men about indigenous seed selection and cultivation methods.

Women and Food and Nutrition Security

The malnutrition burden of India is double that of sub-Saharan Africa. A higher proportion of children are underweight if their mother has experienced spousal violence than if she has not. The NFHS-3 gender re-analysis clearly reveals, controlling for wealth, this association is explained away for girls, but remains significant for boys. Controlling for wealth and education, employment, not having a main say in decisions about large household purchases, and experiencing spousal physical or sexual violence are all negatively associated with women’s nutritional status. However, women who have the main say alone on the use of their earnings are less likely to be too thin than other employed women.

Twelfth Plan Strategy towards achieving nutrition security for all, especially the most vulnerable children, adolescent girls and women who are locked into an intergenerational cycle of deprivation, is based on a detailed situation analysis and evaluation during the Eleventh Plan. The nutrition strategy outlines: (i) the evolving multisectoral interventions for nutrition, including introducing a strong nutrition focus to sectoral programmes, strengthening and re-activating Institutional Arrangements and the Multi-sectoral Nutrition Programme in 200 High Burden Districts; (ii) Promoting Optimal Maternal, Infant and Young Child Care and Feeding Practices; (iii) Combating Micronutrient Deficiencies in a holistic manner; (iv) Addressing the Dual Burden of Malnutrition; (v) Nutrition Capacity Development; (vi) Nutrition Education and Social Mobilization—including a societal campaign against malnutrition and (vii) Nutrition Monitoring and Surveillance Systems, to monitor and review nutrition outcomes.

But the 12th Plan is silent on an inter-sectoral approach to address violence against women and its knock-on impact on malnutrition. In the context of the national outrage over violence against women, it is increasingly important to recognize the linkage and programme for it.

Technological Incorporation in Agriculture

Since the time of Green Revolution, incorporation of technology in agriculture sector was promoted by the government. Behind it, there was a key notion - technology reduces drudgery, increases productivity and leads to a better and healthy life. Although within a vast country like India where topographic conditions differs a lot from region to region, it was not easy to boost the agriculture sector on technological front. Where earlier it was mainly men’s control over these innovations, after many years access to agricultural technology by women has been recognized by the Government and 12th FYP (Five Year Plan) mentioned that:

(12th Five Year Plan)

Technology transfer to women would be prioritized in all aspects of farming and farm management, including dry land farming technologies, animal husbandry, forestry, sustainable natural resource management, enterprise development, financial management and leadership development. They would be provided training in pre and post-harvest technologies. To train women farmers in new technologies and practices, gain access to information on schemes and subsidies, training in crop planning and so on. Special Resource Centres would be provided. Women and young girls will be given training in the use and repair of bore wells with special focus on promoting low cost irrigation.

Although, small land holding pattern and existing power relationship in village settings are some major challenges which raise serious concerns over the affordability and accessibility for such technologies. Technological inputs and incorporation of global market changed the agricultural practices to certain extent in the past but it also put the farmers in a new domain where their lack of expertise makes them more vulnerable. This vulnerability severely affects women while putting their livelihood practices at severe risks (i.e. market, environmental and social).

Access to Credit

The relative significance of agricultural credit has been on the decline since the 1990s. The percentage of agricultural credit to gross bank credit increased from 15 percent to 17 percent in the 1980s, came down to 11 percent by the mid-1990s and has remained at that level since. Women received on an average only 6 per cent of the total direct agricultural credit in the period 2004-06. The remaining 94 per cent of direct agricultural credit was given to men, who formed about 67 percent of the total cultivators. Such low access to credit for women farmers is because land is the crucial determinant for availing agricultural credit from formal institutions and most land titles are in the name of men (Chavan, 2008). Considering the agrarian credit itself is in a mess and credit to small farmers is increasingly dwindling, prioritization of women’s access to credit requires a holistic approach of prioritizing access to agrarian credit (especially by the small farmers) in the first place.

Male Agricultural Workforce Out-Migratory and its Impact on Women 

Most of the farmers are engaged with small and fragmented land holdings which do not allow them to generate sufficient household income. It leads them (male workforce) to migration into other sectors, leaving the family farms to be tended largely by women and children. Following table makes it clear that in the last decade despite the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme which provided certain employment opportunities to those prospective out-migrated farmers, the proportion share of agriculture sector has been reduced. It is still a big challenge to tackle such out-migration which eventually leads to feminization of poverty.

Most of the farmers are engaged with small and fragmented land holdings which do not allow them to generate sufficient household income. It leads them (male workforce) to migration into other sectors, leaving the family farms to be tended largely by women and children. Following table makes it clear that in the last decade despite the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme which provided certain employment opportunities to those prospective out-migrated farmers, the proportion share of agriculture sector has been reduced. It is still a big challenge to tackle such out-migration which eventually leads to feminization of poverty.

Proportion Share of Sectors in Employment


























(Source: 12th Five Year Plan, Vol III)

The Twelfth Plan recognizes the need to increase awareness about the growing feminization of agriculture through sensitization of policy makers, so that the gender stereotype of farming being solely a male activity is adequately challenged.

But the 12th Plan is silent on the prevalence of wage discrimination inspite of increased female work force participation. A study by Yoshifumu Ushami clearly demonstrates that not only agrarian wage discrimination persists, women work force participation notwithstanding but increased work force participation and feminization of agriculture has led to increased work load on women.

Feminisation of agriculture and care economy:

However, the feminization of agriculture raises questions that go beyond the discrete forms of discrimination they are subjected to and that human rights must guard against. The fundamental question is how the increased role of women in agriculture shall be reconciled with their role in the "care" economy (the minding and education of children, or the care of the elderly and the sick), as well as with the household chores for which, in all regions, they remain chiefly responsible -- the purchasing and preparation of food, laundry, or collection of firewood or water. This is work that is essential not only to the health and nutrition of family members, but also to the maintenance of the agricultural workforce. Yet, it is work that is unremunerated, unrecognized, and largely invisible, because it is work done by women.



It is important to invest in services and infrastructure that reduce the burden this represents for women, for example, by childcare services in rural areas or by water pipes linking villages to water sources. As the discourse on “how to support rural development” proceeds, need to recognize the importance of this "care" economy as a vital adjuvant to the "market" economy increases – and the importance of, for instance, adaptation of extension workers’ providing advice or how employment on farms being organized, to fit the responsibilities women assume within the household needs to be recoginised. Lack of work site facilities in almost all MGNREGS sites after seven years of its launch is an evidence of lack of such recognition.

Gender in Government Policies and Plans

Having analysed the scale of the challenges and its multi-faceted nature and deep-rooted patriarchy that is prevalent, it is important to recognize the evolution in policy approaches towards gender in agriculture since the Sixth Plan, when ‘opportunities for independent employment and income’ for women was recognized as a necessary condition for raising the social status of women.The present approach of `gender mainstreaming’, which means that women have to be part of all the schemes/programmes of the agriculture sector and the strategy of agenda setting aims to provide structural, legislative, and material resources so that women can participate and benefit on par with male farmers by setting their own agenda. According to the National Agricultural Policy, there are three components of Gender Mainstreaming Approach. These are: Women’s Empowerment, Capacity Building, and Access to Inputs as well as technology and resources.

Since many of the programmes most relevant for women are implemented at the third tier of governance - Panchayati Raj Institutions —success in achieving the outcomes depends critically on women’s participation in governance and their empowerment with respect to programme implementation. While realizing the key elements for Gender Equity, the Twelfth Five Year Plan addressed gender issues within the following categories:

1. Economic Empowerment

2. Social and Physical Infrastructure

3. Enabling Legislations

4. Women’s Participation in Governance

5. Inclusiveness of all categories of vulnerable women

6. Engendering National Policies/Programmes

7. Mainstreaming gender through Gender Budgeting

Putting small farmers and women farmers at the heart of 12th plan needs to be applauded. As the movement at the national and various state levels towards women’s land entitlement including enactment of legislations is laudatory (Rajasthan, Odisha, Chhatisgarh, Kerala, West Bengal, Assam), so are positive/progressive legislations like the tabling of the National Food Security Bill after its passing by the Parliamentary Standing Committee, the emphasis on PDS reforms and enactment of a very progressive, almost universal, Chhattisgarh Food Security Act.

Making the vision a reality:

The government’s endeavors to increase women’s employability in the formal sector as well as their asset base are evident from the 12th FYP document. The government’s commitment to improve the conditions of self employed women, with special focus on women’s workforce participation, particularly in secondary and tertiary sectors, however, does raise serious concerns over the future implications for women’s status in primary sector. Plan document ensured decent work for women by their financial inclusion in agriculture and manufacturing while extending land and property rights. But, it is also important to note that the major impediments mentioned in the document which affect women’s participation as the workforce, particularly in secondary and tertiary sectors, is the lack of skills. Abundant focus on skill development puts a scanty picture of State’s willingness to improve women’s stature in agriculture sector.

On policy and programme front, it is desirable that the methodologies, time frame, physical access and other factors must be appropriate to the needs of women. Women must also be acknowledged in their central role in production, processing and ensuring of household food and nutrition security. With the charged public discourse on status of women in India, the post-2015 processes around the country and globally, the increased focus on MDGs and India’s achievement of the same, this is an opportunity which cannot be missed.

The government of India can achieve a lot when the public discourse and political will are at a tipping point. The concrete agenda for the next five years (not in the order of importance or chronology) should include the following but even push the ambitions further, i.e:

1.       Generating gender disaggregated data for reportage, monitoring and programming

2.       Supporting the policy and programme implementation environment for women’s collectives

3.       Engendering the department from highest policy making level down to the extension services

4.       Operationalising a coordination mechanism between Women and Child Development Department and the Agriculture Department for linking agriculture, nutrition and                         recognizing spousal violence’s impact on malnutrition

5.       Supporting research towards drudgery reduction

6.       Generating evidence and policy on farmgate discrimination

It is only a maximalist vision and sincere resourcing (human and financial resources) coupled with prioritization of agricultural sector that can bring meaning to the platitudes in the 12th Five Year Plan document.


Agarwal, B. (1997); A Field of One’s Own: Some Salient Features of the Book; In Rao, N. and Rurup, L. (Ed.) A Just Right: Women’s Ownership of Natural Resources and Livelihood Security; Friedrich Ebert Stiftung; New Delhi

Ali, J. (2007)Livestock sector development and implications for rural poverty alleviation in India. Livestock Research for Rural Development.Volume 19, Article #27.http://www.lrrd.org/lrrd19/2/ali19027.htm; Accessed January 6, 2011

Chavan, P. (2008); Gender Inequality in Banking Services, Economic and Political Weekly, Nov 22

De Schutter, Olivier, The Recivilisation of Men by Women, Oxfam Discussion on “Making the Food System Work for Women”, November 2012

Ghosh, Jayati, Nutrition Policies that work for Women, Oxfam Discussion on “Making the Food System Work for Women”, November 2012

GOI (2012); 12th Five Year Plan 2012-17, Planning Commission, New Delhi

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Kabir, Rokeya, Working Harder isn’t working, Oxfam Discussion on “Future of Agriculture”, December 2012

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Saxena, NC, Hunger and malnutrition in India, IDS Bulletin, Volume 43, Special Issue 1, July 2012

Shabodien, Fatima, Women Farm Workers Dying for Food, Oxfam Discussion on “Making the Food System Work for Women”, November 2012

Shah, Amita, Priority Changes for Strengthening Women’s role as Producers, Processers and Providers of Food and Nutrition, IDS Bulletin, Volume 43, Special Issue 1, July 2012

Sulaiman, R.V., Jafry T., and Ashok M.S. (2003); Cafeteria for Women in Agriculture, NCAP Working Paper 4, National Centre for Agricultural Economics and Policy Research, New Delhi

Usami, Yoshifumi, A Note on Recent Trends in Wage Rates in Rural India, Foundation of Agrarian Studies, 2009

Velayudhan, M. (2009); Women’s Land Rights in South Asia: Struggles and Diverse Contexts; Review of Women’s Studies; Economic and Political Weekly, Volume XLIV No. 44, October 16



[1] Biraj Swain is an independent researcher working on the inter-sectionality of food, nutrition and agriculture policy and the citizen-state interface. She has various teaching affiliations, including the UN University Tokyo, Swedish University of Development and Agricultural Sciences, Uppsala and the Pondicherry Central University, India. She claims to be dedicated to working (read nomading) over the poorest and hungriest parts of the world i.e. South Asia and East Africa respectively.

[1] Ranvir Singh finished his PhD in Public Health from Jawaharlal Nehru University and has keen interest in spatial dimensions of the social aspects.  He has expertise in information management system for efficient modeling, monitoring and evidence based planning.  His expertise on Geographical Information System (GIS) and its usage in various settings by putting equity on the centre stage further enhanced his research and programme implementation skills.

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