Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru had once said, “You can tell the condition of a nation by looking at the status of its women”.
On the occasion of International Rural Women’s Day designated by the United Nations General Assembly on 15th of October every year, “in recognition of the critical role and contribution of rural women, including indigenous women, in enhancing agricultural and rural development, improving food security and eradicating rural poverty”, tracing the socio-economic journey of Indian rural women, who constitute more than half of the entire Indian population (around 70%) living in rural areas seemed imperative.
The Role and Reality of Indian Rural Women
The status of this huge population of rural women in India, especially in terms of socio-economic aspects of their life and from the point of view of their role and contribution in social enterprise in the field of agriculture and cottage industry – the main two sources of livelihood – its problems, challenges, potential, prospects and progress are important indicators of the overall socio-economic health of our agro-economy based nation.
Women in India are currently caught in a weird hypocritical social status. In fact they have been going through a roller coaster variation in their socio-economic status spanning over thousands of years till today. Ironically, in one hand the majority of the country’s population belonging to Hindu religion still worships various female forms of ‘God’ representing the supreme powerful authority in the most important aspects of life – victorious might over evil (Durga/Kali), wealth and finance(Lakshmi), art, craft, culture and education (Saraswati), following Vedic era rituals while eliminating the rightful status of gender equity attributed to women in those times. However, the situation of actual women community in Indian society, almost across all caste, region and creed in all these aspects is exactly the opposite.
Rural Indian women despite being the backbone of rural economy and bearing the main responsibility of providing food, water and fuel for their families besides taking care of complex multiple household chores, children and the elderly, are no exception to that. Rather they have been subject to the worst status of subjugation, deprivation and dependence in the highly patriarchal system of the society. As per the carefully crafted patriarchal perception, more prevalent in rural India, women have no value proposition in the family hierarchy and economy, notwithstanding the fact that they constitute 30.8 per cent of the work force in rural India.
“Women in India make the major work force in the agricultural sector. If you take the whole of India more than 71% of women work as agricultural labourers which becomes 82% when it is confined to rural India only. That means women are doing most of the works that include sowing, weeding, harvesting, carrying etc. So much of work is done by women, but what do they get in return? This is a big question”, said one of the organising members Vidhya Das of Agragamee while presenting the issues concerning women living in rural and tribal India adding that, “the women subsidize our food produces by over 60% and contributing about one lakh crore to the agricultural economy and a total of two lakh crore to the entire Indian economy. But the benefit is going to the corporates and women still remain neglected.”
Swaminathan, the famous agricultural scientist describes that it was woman who first domesticated crop plants and thereby initiated the art and science of farming. While men went out hunting in search of food, women started gathering seeds from the native flora and began cultivating those of interest from the point of view of food, feed, fodder, fibre and fuel. Women have played and continue to play a key role in the conservation of basic life support systems such as land, water, flora and fauna. They have protected the health of the soil through organic recycling and promoted crop security through the maintenance of varietal diversity and genetic resistance.
Yet, unfortunately women are the most neglected community in rural India.
Problems of Rural Indian Women
This secondary citizenship status combined with lack of access to education, right to land, crop, cash and property, authority to make life decisions, nutrition, sanitation and health care, social evils such as child marriage, dowry, early pregnancy, lack of resources such as banking, transport and other infrastructure, entrepreneurial opportunities and support, wage disparity of rural women in India have restrained their chances of attaining the power of actualising their self-worth.
…while men were paid 70 per cent higher wages than women for ploughing work at the end of 2004-05, the difference rose to 80.4 per cent in end-March 2012 and stood at 93.6 per cent at the start of 2013-14. While men were paid 75 per cent more than women for well-digging work in March 2005, the difference stood at 80 per cent in the current financial year.
As of 2013, the discrimination in wages paid to women tends to be higher in physically intensive activities (such 4 as ploughing and well-digging), but lower in the case of work such as sowing and harvesting.
Progress In The Socio-Economic Conditions Of Rural Indian Women
However changes are slowly taking place. While several government schemes such as Beti Bachao Beti Padhao, Support to Training and Employment Programme for Women (STEP), Indira Gandhi Matriya Sahyog Yojna (IGMSY), Rajiv Gandhi National Creche Scheme For the Working Mothers, MGNREGA, 30% reservation for women in Gram Panchayat among others are intended to improve the condition of Indian rural women, a few non-government organisations such as Barmer, Rajasthan based Grameen Vikas Evam Chetna Sansthan, Ahmedabad based Gramshree Trust, Gujarat based Okhai, Uttarakhand based Purkal Stree Shakti Samiti, Gujarat based Sahaj India, are consistently engaged in rural women empowerment. All these organisations facilitate rural women to work from the comfort of their home; provide them skill training, basic education and awareness, subject knowledge, quality control, micro-financing, material resourcing, equipment, accounting and marketing support through decentralised Self Help Group activities. They aim to upgrade these women from wage earners to entrepreneurs. Besides that they also provide other support such as medical, nutrition and health care, child care, food security, child education, socio-cultural engagement for their holistic welfare. Shri Mahila Griha Udyog of Lijjat papad fame and the Women Dairy Co-operative Societies (WDC) causing the white revolution called Amul are examples of successful rural women social enterprise.
Vikram Singh, the Secretary of Grameen Vikas Evam Chetna Sansthan says,
“ When we started at 1998, initially we faced lot of difficulties and attitudinal barriers in convincing the poorest of poor women and their families in rural communities scattered across Rajasthan, to work under an organised system. Today 11,000 women artisans from 75 villages are working under our organisation. They are now capable of earning Rupees 50 to 200 per day depending on the volume and quality of their work. In many villages where there is no electricity, our organisation has provided solar lighting, so that the women can work during the night and their children can study.”
Prospect and Potential Of Rural Indian Women
The success stories of Rita Kamila from hostile Sunderbans in West Bengal, who has almost single handed transformed her 1.65 acre of land comprising a homestead garden, pond, family home and agricultural land into now producing paddy, seasonal vegetables, fish & duck at a time using only organic manure, vermi-compost, liquid manure, bio-pest repellent, bio-gas and utilizing the space available along the periphery of pond bank & agri-field by planting perennial, semi-perennial multipurpose trees and vegetables (climbers & creepers) using trellis which has enhanced her family’s food and livelihood security; Padma Bai – a Fair Trade tribal Girijan Farmer and Sarpanch of eight villages in Telengana who has started a Custom Hiring Centre, Lingu Bai from Samuguda village, Adilabad who runs a poultry farm with homegrown organic feed, Shobhana from Kerala who is the Secreatary of Thavinjal Panchayat and working to protect bio-diversity, Paneerselvam – another Fair Trade farmer, prove the potential and power of rural women impacting the country’s economy positively.
As a country, we need to unleash the socio-economic potential of rural women through favourable governmental policies, social enterprise and bringing about attitudinal change towards them. It’s only then that our nation can progress in real sense.