India's neglected women farmers are seizing the moment to dust off their own long-standing demands
By Anuradha Nagaraj
CHENNAI, India, Feb 16 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - As protests against agricultural reforms catch global attention, India's neglected women farmers are seizing the moment to dust off their own long-standing demands - from land rights and farm credit to grains subsidies.
Hundreds of miles from the sit-in demonstrations near the capital, Ponnuthai said the protests were helping her and other women farmers gain recognition - spurring her local collective to draft new petitions for demands first made decades ago.
"The protests in Delhi have given us our identity as women farmers," Ponnuthai, who goes by one name, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation from her home in southern Tamil Nadu state.
"Now they see us and our contribution on the fields, we are voicing our demands even louder, hoping they will hear us too."
About 75% of rural women in India who work full-time are farmers, the charity Oxfam says, with numbers rising as men migrate from the countryside to work in factories and construction sites in the cities.
But farming is still widely seen as men's work and only 13% of women own the land they cultivate, making it more difficult for them to access government grants, bank loans and take part in collective negotiations, women farmers' leaders said.
The protests in Delhi have given a forum for women growers to press their particular demands, and many have traveled to join the tens of thousands of angry farmers camping out on main highways near the capital for more than two months.
They want the withdrawal of farm laws passed in September, which they say benefit private buyers at their expense. The government says the reforms will make the sector more efficient and help growers.
Hira Rautela, a farmer from northern Uttarakhand state who has taken part in the demonstrations, said she had spent as much time as possible talking to the farmers about what their overlooked female counterparts wanted.
"The farm laws are one issue but we also tell the protesters that while men may drive tractors, it is women who sow the seeds," she said in a phone interview.
'NOW THEY ARE LISTENING'
Women farmers have long complained about their particular difficulties in accessing wholesale markets, securing credit aimed at agriculture and gaining inclusion in government subsidy and aid programmes.
At Ponnuthai's Women's Collective in Tamil Nadu, members used to be "shooed away" from monthly farmers' grievance meetings and told it was no a place for women, said K Jothi from Madurai, who has been working her land for 10 years.
"We were initially never allowed to speak and are only now finding our voices," she said, adding that the national protests had helped them get the attention of state farming authorities.
"We have been demanding that land under government control be given to us to cultivate. Now they are listening," she said.
Buoyed up by the protests in Delhi, members of another group representing women growers, MAKAAM or Forum For Women Farmers' Rights, have adopted the slogan "This time, our rights" as they campaign and lobby officials.
"We hope the ongoing protests give an impetus to women who besides recognition are also pushing for sustainable farming," said Sheela Kulkarni, a member of the forum.
"The women have been persistent in their demands, discussing it in village council meetings, with officials and protesting on the streets. It is a question of striking when the iron is hot and now is that time."
Khatijaben Khirai, a 45-year-old mother-of-five, is waiting for paperwork to come through that will give her joint ownership of land with her husband in western Gujarat state.
She traveled two days by bus to support the farmers in Delhi and said she felt optimistic after the journey.
"As we sang, chanted slogans and found men farmers listening in, it re-energised us to continue our own protests till our demands are met," she said.
Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.