18th January 2021 will be marked as #MahilaKisanDivas in protest of the proposed farming laws, which will severely impact the women farming community of India.
57 peacefully protesting farmers have lost their lives since September to water cannons, tear gas shells, lathi-charge, and the treacherous cold. More than half a million of them cutting across age and gender continue to ‘live’ on the highway connecting the interstate borders between Delhi, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, and Rajasthan. They are demanding that the government repeal the three farming laws that were passed in the parliament via an emergency ordinance without any consultation with the state governments and the farmer community.
The recent eighth round of talks with the Centre remained inconclusive as the government is shows no inclination to repeal these laws or provide for a minimum price at which farmers can sell their crops. Al Jazeera and Livemint capture the genesis of the protest and the impact of these laws.
Now women are an equal voice and participant in the protests. Six National Women’s Organisations have called for protests on January 18 to observe Mahila Kisan Divas. And women are equally impacted, if not more if these farming laws are unrepealed. But before we look at the impact on women farmers specifically, here are three facts we all must know.
While the farmers representing India’s breadbasket states are putting up a united fight, this is a national issue and not a regional one. The laws affect farmers countrywide. Whether they be in Punjab or they be in Maharashtra or Kerala.
Designed to deregulate the agricultural sector, the laws do not include a minimum support price. Without that safety net, farmers will have to participate in contract farming with private corporations, where these companies determine what the farmer grows and the price they sell. The laws also remove restrictions on companies buying land and stockpiling goods. So the results will be borne by every farmer in this country.
Farmers includes large landowners, middle-range farmers, small-landowners, and laborers. Each different group of farmers is in the protests. Each of their future stands clouded with a fear of losing what they call “their grandfather’s only assets.”
Most farmers’ families own no more than two kanals (one-fourth of an acre) of land. As the laws will drive down the prices of produce along with no safeguards to protect the land against corporate takeovers, it will devastate livelihoods leaving these small-landholding families especially vulnerable.
While women do 75% of all farm work, they own only 12 percent of the land. Either as wives of landowning farmers or as the labor force hired by contractors for sowing and tilling, they do not own land to their name even as they spend their entire life working on it 15-17 hours a day. Hence, thanks to patriarchy, most of them are landless farmers.
In the context of the above three facts, let us look at the immediate and long-term consequences of the farming laws on the women farming community.
The gender gap in farming is set to increase.
Because most women farmers are without land, they are unrecognized as farmers despite their significant contributions to the sector. This marginalization means they are especially vulnerable to exploitation by large corporations under the new farming laws that do not mention any pricing safeguards.
Such invisibility when it comes to being a stakeholder will make landless women farmers even more marginalized. That will widen the gender gap in farming as the premise of the laws to increase competition assumes women can trade just as men do. However, we know that ground realities do not support this assumption.
Women in the hinterland are subject to severe traditional limitations such as being responsible for domestic duties, poor access to transport, etc. The reality is that most women farmers have never stepped outside a one-kilometre periphery of their homes, the cattle shed, and the fields in their entire lives.
Farmers’ children will be left high and dry creating unstable households. Women will bear the maximum brunt.
Most children take to their fathers’ land. And the loss of landholdings and even shrinking land holdings means that the children of farmers will need to be educated or skilled and given other employment opportunities.
But that seems to be a far cry from what the farming laws envision at the moment. They do not take into consideration any consequences.
Today, the youth is sitting idle in villages, taking to drugs and drinking. That will only get exacerbated as bleak landless future and limited earnings will destroy the household income and happiness. And who will bear the maximum brunt of such instability? The mothers, the sisters, and the wives of such youth.
The way of life as farmers families know it and their cultural legacies stand painfully threatened.
Farming for farming households is not merely a business or money-making enterprise or even a profession. It is a way of life. For many older female farmers across India, the issue of land ownership goes beyond the financial. The land is sacred. Ownership is generational, rooted in a rich ancestry and culture.
When women as wives of landowning farmers till the soil, harvest and sun the crops, they do it with pride because “the land is Mother.” The land and the produce are a sentiment as much as an asset. Hence, cultivating crops and tending to the land goes beyond helping the husband or brother to support the household. Even when families and the buyers of the harvested grains break bread together, they remember the farmer as the provider and not a corporate house.
But all of this social edifice stands fundamentally threatened with a breakdown that will undo legacies of farming life including the folk songs and festivals often taken forward and celebrated by women of the farming community. When devoid of land holdings and pushed to live unsustainable livelihoods, that will leave generations of intellectual cum cultural wealth of our country in shambles.
An additional burden to the existing economic difficulties and uncertainty will leave women exposed.
Women farmers are expressing an overarching fear that large corporations essentially steal from the farmers to sell their crops at prices often four times higher in the city.
Unfortunately, it is hard to say that the fears are not logical and time-tested.
When there is no fixed rate or mandi (market to sell the produce), what will they feed their families? Where will they sell the produce? If the corporations lower the prices of their crops, where will they go?
The continued reliance on monsoon, lack of proper storage facilities and grain houses to protect the yield through the year, harassment by commission agents in mandis, and more than 10,000 debt-ridden Indian farmers taking their own lives as they suffer from the lack of an assured price mechanism – all these are an outcome of a lack of agrarian reforms in the country.
And these farming laws are not the reform that the farming community needed. They accentuate the crisis even further. And consequently, they accentuate women’s socio-economic conditions leaving them exposed in ways that have not even been thought about yet.
Image source: YouTube
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