Limited land ownership, very little or no decision making powers, measly returns— women from villages in Uttar Pradesh face harrowing circumstances while working in sugarcane farms. For these women, who have worked simply alongside their husbands or other family members in the field for years, even being called a “farmer” is progress.
Meenu, a woman farmer in early 40s, works 18 bighas of farmland along with her sister Sheela in Western UP’s Meerut. She now maintains the piece of land but ownership came only after her husband’s demise following long illness. A vast majority of women farmers interviewed during Oxfam’s study- Human Cost of Sugar were found working as shadow farmers—without decision making powers. The land holding pattern, as found during the study, is also a reflection of the paternalistic social norms existing in the region.
Meenu’s sister Sheela, married in the same family, works the farm that was transferred to her son Vasu because her husband, now paralysed, cannot carry out grueling agricultural chores. Although women constitute a third (32%) of India’s agricultural labour force, in a large agrarian state like UP, the percentage of women holding land is limited to a mere 6.1%.
For both these women, who are reminded of their hardships every day, acceptance in the community as “women farmers” didn’t come easy. They were criticized by people for they still don’t consider taking lead in farm activities, a woman’s job.
“We were very young when we stepped out to work in the fields. Forget support from men, even woman whom we once considered our well-wishers failed to understand our endeavours,” laments Meenu. She also recalls facing harassment by old men, boy half their age as they marched towards their farms to work. “But giving up was not an option,” she adds.
Like her, several women farmers commonly face criticism and discouragement when they get involved in cane cultivation, especially in the management of farm workers and sale of crops. Officials spoken to during course of study acknowledged that social norms prevent women farmers from visiting cane society offices and from participating in trainings on cultivation techniques.
Fighting all odds and braving hardships, they educated their children from sparse earnings that came by selling their farm- grown crops. Sugar cane farming provided special help to them as the revenues from burning of cane came in bulk. After years of arduous labour, Meenu’s efforts are now paying off. Her son is employed with the Indian Army and daughter is happily married. “I had to marry off my daughter just after senior secondary. We were concerned for her security as she would mostly be alone at home after we left for the farm,” she says while closely monitoring wet paint on her newly installed window panes.
Seeds of Stigma
Several women, especially those belonging to upper caste families (general and OBCs), still believe that farm work is not made for women. Many women farmers try to shrug the label fearing the social stigma attached to it.
However, women belonging to scheduled castes households are more likely to work in agricultural fields along with their spouses. “We are not shy of coming out of the house and working alongside our families. We do not belong to caste, don’t follow such taboos,” says Phoolan from Muzaffarnagar district. Trying to balance a bunch of harvested sugar canes on her head, Phoolan is one of those few women farmers who engage in laborious tasks of loading cane.
These women have challenged the norms set by society by taking on sugarcane cultivation.
(All names have been changed to protect identity)
Read the full report here.