Gendering Agriculture: Putting Women First
Having worked for over two decades with small and marginal women farmers from low income dalit families in the Medak District of Andhra Pradesh, the Deccan Development Society has been privileged to acquire a range of exciting perspectives offered by the women on their agriculture. This paper presents some of those perspectives which turns the arguments by the formal agricultural economists and scientists on their head and present an unique vision of food and farming born in and nurtured from the ground.
The issues raised here confront us with the question whether gendered vision of agriculture is an exercise in cloning men’s concerns on to women or creating and nurturing the authentic women’s paradigm in agriculture especially that of the small and marginal women farmers from ecologically challenged areas? This is the issue that we have been raising for a long time. Since our own work with over 5000 dalit women farmers has spawned rich decades-long dialogues with them, we are in a position to mirror many of their thoughts on the subject.
The women’s agricultural paradigm is marked by a process of humanisation of all things related to farming. Let me illustrate this with the epistomology of the women farmers of DDS:
The examples are umpteen. But they all point to one thing. Women farmers look at the entire farming process as a cycle of life. Food is produced in a cyclical and nurturing process of birth, growth, maturity and regeneration. This vision is as different from the vision of the Green Revolution agriculture as chalk is from cheese. This is the paradigm that women are presenting to us. This challenges some of the key principles held up by the industrial agriculture and the science on which it is based.
The first and the foremost is the principle of productivity. The industrial agriculture is totally focused on a single grain productivity and therefore it measures farming success in terms of the highest quantity of kilograms of grain produced per unit of land. For agricultural science and economy, the primacy of yield is non negotiable. But the women reject this totally. They say that if a large quantity of a single grain is produced through monoculture and brought home, the first impact is that it moves out of the home and reaches the market. The money earned from selling the grains goes into the pockets of the men who control the marketing of the produce. Chances are that much of this money goes to non food purchases. Even if food is purchased from the market, they try to cut corners and purchase cheaper [and therefore low quality] grains in smaller quantities. The chances are also high that the purchased food is chemically produced and makes them health insecure. Secondly with smaller quantities available to eat, the nutrition is heavily compromised. This has a serious negative consequence for the food and nutritional security of the children and women who have no control over the market. Therefore the women actively oppose single grain yielding, monocultural farming and reject the argument that higher yield can be sold to buy what you want from the market.
Instead, they argue that a biodiverse ecological farming that they practice leaves the control over the produce in the hands of women. Since diverse grains come home in smaller quantities the men will not be interested in taking them to the market. The grains therefore stay at home. Women can use them as and when they want in quantities that they decide. Since the production is ecological, there is no threat of chemically contaminated food. This way of production also ensures a variety of foods in the plate. Such a diverse diet is the first principle of health and nutrition.
In the case of DDS women, being farmers of millets which are five to eight times more nutritious than rice or wheat, they are also assured of much higher level of nutrition through consuming home grown millets. On the other hand, if they go out to the market to purchase food, they end up buying cheap rice which offers no nutrition whatsoever. This control over their agriculture prompts the women to reject the mainstream argument of monocultures and higher yields.
Weeding out the concept of weeds
The other holy cow of the Green Revolution model of agriculture is the issue of weeds. Most of the modern agriculture is almost obsessively focused on removing weeds from agriculture. Some of the most poisonous weedicides have entered the market. But is the threat of weeds real? Ask the women.What do you mean by weeds? There is nothing like a weed in our agriculture. We eat whatever grows on our land. If we can’t, our cattle eat them. There is no weed on our land. …. Yes. I have seen weeds in those lands where they use Sarkari Eruvu (Chemical fertilisers). In fact weeds started with Sarkari Eruvu. You know why? All that you call weeds are born out of tiny seeds on our lands. They are all tender and edible. Because we don’t apply Sarkari Eruvu on our lands. Therefore our soils are soft and they allow the tiny seeds to germinate. But on those lands where Sarkari Eruvu is applied, land gets encrusted. Top layers get hard. And no tiny seed can germinate through those soils. What germinates and comes out of
those soils are hardy and inedible. You see, Sarkari Eruvu really gave birth to weeds. Not our agriculture. In ours, all plants are edible.
Over the last 20 years DDS has done a series of PRAs with the women farmers and rural women health workers. This revealed an amazing gold mine in the form of Uncultivated Foods which have been undermined by the formal science as weeds. Weed is defined as a Right Plant at A Wrong Place But for the women farmers of DDS, there is no wrong place. A weed is either food for humans or livestock or it is a medicinal plant. Therefore it does not matter where they are found. Even if they are standing at the centre of crop fields they are still food. And therefore they are a part of the cropping system itself. Therefore undermining weeds and getting them exterminated instead of studying their health, nutrition and economic benefits as the mainstream science does, is an issue of gendered agriculture. Uncultivated foods enhance access to food and nutrition by women and promote their vision of ecological agriculture. As early as 1993, DDS discovered along with its women health workers that over 165 uncultivated greens are a gift from their farming and commons. Later in 1999 a more systematic study done by the Society established an inventory of 40 uncultivated food plants.
Uncultivated Food Plants of Zaheerabad, Medak District, Andhra Pradesh.
The third major aspect of agriculture for the women is the issue of biodiversity. While the “scientific” agriculture of the Green Revolution variety has no value whatsoever for agrobiodiversity, women farmers cannot think of their agriculture without biodiversity. This is another area where they are compelled to set up a direct clash with the formal agricultural institutions. Several years back in a video conference set up by the NBPGR, abour fifty women, all marginalized biodiverse farmers, sat at one end while on the other end were a high powered panel of agricultural scientists. The theme of the video conference was agrobiodiversity.
When some of the women initiated the conference with their views of biodiversity, the learned scientists at the other end were alarmed. They said something to this effect: No, no no, biodiversity is not your issue. It is a scientific issue. We will take care of it. Once we look at diverse crops we will decide what you should plant. We will make available to you seeds which you should plant. Do so. Don’t bother your silly heads with grave issues such as biodiversity. In my paraphrasing of the conversation, I am doing a bit of exaggeration in language. But the sum and substance of what the scientists said was essentially the same.
On the other hand, in collaboration with the International Development Research Centre of Canada, DDS did a study on Farmers Perception of Agrobiodiversity with a sharp focus on the gendered disaggregation of the data. The study conclusively proved what DDS had been saying all along. Women, particularly from low income dalit sections of the society, have a worldview which has a profound relationship between Diversity and a number of elements in their food and farming. They include Moisture requirement [which is critical to their dryland farming system], household needs, Diet and Nutrition, Seed Selection and Culture. In this manner biodiversity is intricately linked to all aspects of women’s life, culture and agriculture.
My purpose in making these points is to establish the conceptual differences between the institutionalised, formal, “scientific” agriculture and women’s paradigm of agriculture. While the former is one-dimensional and is focused on monocultures and productivity, the later is far more complex, multidimensional and integrates biodiversity, ecology and control of women over food and farming into its agricultural vision. This vision, when practiced, results in gendered agriculture that spells autonomy for women.
Over the last two decades, the work of DDS has been steadily moving in this direction. Through their initiatives the women’s sanghams of the Deccan Development Society have assured their full control over their agriculture, continuous access to food and nutrition for them and the children in their families and have heralded community sovereignty over food and seeds. In the following paragraphs I will try to trace the course which the DDS sanghams charted for themselves over the years.
Heightening the access
Almost from the beginning of its existence, Deccan Development Society has worked towards the issue of access to food for its members. In the early years, this access was aimed at providing them interest-free consumption loans that would enable the women to purchase grains regularly from the PDS system [which many of them were unable to do since they would not have cash when their ration would arrive at the village and therefore they would forego the ration] as well as from the market at advantageous moments such as harvest time when prices would be at their lowest..
But soon DDS realised that this was not the best of the strategies to make them gain food autonomy. Therefore in the second phase we started helping them to reclaim the infertile lands that they owned but due to their incapacity to invest on enhancing their fertility, had left them untended. Over a period of ten or more years, a programme called “Eco employment” brought over 5000 acres of marginal lands owned by the members of DDS and created nearly one million person days of employment. Most of all it increased food availability to each of the participating families by over 400%. The lands that were addressed through this programme had been semi abandoned by the women and yielded less than 50 kg per acre per year. Through the eco employment women bunded, destoned and at times added top soil to it. This rejuvenated the soils and with the hard work that women put in, the fields started yielding between 200-300 kg of a variety of grains per acre. Since the women brought into their lands their traditional practice of farming millets, legumes and oilseeds simultaneously, it was not only cereals that were coming into the family but also nutritionally rich pulses and oilseeds. Thus alongside extra food extra nutrition also entered the family kitchen. This meant that over 2000-3000 women were able to feed themselves and their families and increase their food and nutritional security four to five times.Another major step that the DDS sanghams took towards their access over land and food was to start a Land Lease programme. Under this initiative the Village Sanghams of DDS would rent a piece of land from the bigger land owners in the village and farm it collectively. They would share the produce that came out of their lands. This initiative increased the food availability at around 100 kgs per woman per season alongside a host of green leafy vegetables and fodder. Thousands of women have participated in this initiative by renting over 3-4000 acres of land in the last 20 years. The size of the leased in land has ranged from 5 acres to 100 acres per group. This initiative did not only increase food and nutritional availability but also gave the women a critical confidence that they can manage large tracts of land. This liberated them from their feeling that they can only manage tiny pieces of land. It also made it possible for them to collectively manage agriculture. Both these aspects were vital to gendering agriculture.
Another significant aspect of both these programmes was that the women practiced their own traditional millet based farming on these lands. Therefore the food that was coming into their family was not rice which is a grain at the lowest rung of the nutritional table. They were now raising and eating a variety of millets that included Sorghum [jowar], Pearl millet [bajra], Foxtail millet, Proso millet, Kodo millet and Barnyard millet.
These millets were at the top of the table in every single nutritional parameter. In terms of their mineral content, they dwarf rice and wheat. Each one of them has more fibre than rice and wheat. Some as much as fifty times that of rice. Finger millet has thirty times more Calcium than rice while all other millets have at least twice the amount of calcium compared to rice. In their iron content, Foxtail and Little millet beat rice hollow.
Nutritional comparison between millets, rice and wheat
It is not just these major nutrients that pack in them but also a host of micronutrients. While most of us seek a micronutrient such as Beta Carotene in pharmaceutical pills and capsules, millets offer it in abundant quantities, while the much privileged rice, ironically, has zero quantity of this precious micronutrient.
Vitamin content of millets as compared to rice and wheat (per 100 grammes of edible portion)
Source: C Gopalan et al 2000, Nutritive Value of Indian Foods, National Institute of Nutrition, Hyderabad, p 59
Community Controlled Food Sovereignty
The third and the most seminal initiative called the Alternative PDS through Community Grain Bank was initiated by DDS in 1994 The basic objective of this jowar [the local millet which is nutritionally very rich] based PDS programme was to ensure local production, local storage and local distribution. This was operationalised by advancing financial assistance to the marginal farmers in 30 villages in the first phase to reclaim their fallow lands through timely cultivation, application of farmyard manure and carrying out other timely farming practices. The agreement was that the money advanced will be returned in the form of grains which are stored in their own village and sold at a cheap price to the poorest families in the villages. All the decisions related to this programme were made by the community. In each village a committee of dalit women were elected to lead and manage this programme. Thus the women had taken over the food leadership of their village communities, an extraordinary achievement for them.
In the first phase, this programme was piloted in 32 villages in 1994 involving about 1600 families. This has given DDS a range of experiences.
Thus what the Alternative PDS programme has done are the following:
In terms of nutrition, this return to traditional food systems has made an enormous contribution to the women and children. A collaborative study on the food systems rejuvenated by the Alternatve PDS done by the Centre for Indigenous Peoples’ Nutrition and Environment, School of Dietetics and Human Nutrition, McGill University, Montreal, Canada, and ³ Deccan Development Society, came up with the conclusion that Traditional food is a major source of energy, protein, iron, vitamin C and vitamin A forural Dalit mothers and young children in Andhra Pradesh, South India. The study categorically stated that “These results confirm that malnutrition is a predominant problem in this area and that increased consumption of traditional food (particularly sorghum, pulses, vegetables, and animal source food) is protective of malnutrition, and highlights the importance of an intact traditional food system”. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, May 2006
Over the last five years the DDS has expanded this programme to over 7000 acres in 134 villages in eight districts of AP benefiting nearly 100000 persons. Through this programme the access to food and nutrition by women and children, especially from the vulnerable ranks for the Society has been steadily ensured.
Community Gene Fund
The next major step for DDS Sanghams was the COMMUNITY GENE FUND programme, which had as its aim, Seed Sovereignty for all the women in DDS communities. This programme has restored critical control over seeds in the hands of the rural women in general and dalit women in particular. In tune with the paradigm of women’s agriculture, this initiative has laid heavy emphasis on biodiversity in agriculture and recovery of traditional landraces. Within a span of five years about 900 women who participated in this programme recovered over 85 traditional landraces and have set up banks of traditional seeds in 50 villages.
Ten years later, the situation has completely reversed the gender and caste relations within their societies. Every DDS woman now has 10-15 varieties of seeds at her home. Once upon a time, she would have eaten these seeds when she had no food grains at home. But with her food sovereignty assured now, she has moved towards seed sovereignty. Even as every single woman was achieving her seed sovereignty, 55 villages now have ten year old Community Gene Banks managed by one or two women seedkeepers selected by the village sanghams. Each of these Community Gene Banks store between 50-80 varieties of seeds. Anyone can borrow seeds from this bank and return the quantity in the form of seeds. The higher castes and men come to these banks to borrow seeds, thus completely reversing the gender and caste based power relations. 20 years earlier it was dalit women who used to go for begging seeds from high caste men. With the reversal of their status from seed seekers to seed providers, dalit women have actually portended a gender revolution in agriculture.
Childcare and Nutrition
Apart from the consistent growth in the household nutritional status for women and children, DDS communities have institutionalised some of these efforts. Since 1988, DDS sanghams have run their own Balwadis -- day care centres for their children. In 1996, they redesigned the menu for their children which was predominantly millet based. Their weekly menu ran like this:
This has ensured that the children from the low income families in the villages of DDS have access to good food on a regular basis. Many studies done by the Society on the children in the DDS balwadies has pointed to at least 30% to 50% higher nutritional status for them in comparison to the children outside of the balwadies.
Hunger Mapping and Community Kitchens
As if to cap all the other achievements of theirs the women started doing a hunger map of their communities in 2006 and identified the destitutes and people unable to do any work. In 2007 they had started community kitchens for these people with their own grain and labour contributions. For people who are typically under $2 a day earning this was indeed remarkable from any angle.
All these interventions that focused on retrieving women’s food and farming systems had irrefutably established their health and nutritional advantages to their families.
In 2006 the DDS took another seminal step by establishing its Food Sovereignty Trust composed completely of nine rural dalit women. The Trust has its own corpus fund to look after the agricultural and food sovereignty initiatives of the Society. The Preamble of the Food Sovereignty Trust point to the character of the Trust by emphasising on
The DDS Food Sovereignty Trust has the basic aim of restoring the dignity of the poor by helping them to establish total autonomy over their food production, storage and distribution systems at the community levels.
Such work of the DDS FST should lead to the following achievements:
In the final analysis, by tailoring its agriculture, food and nutritional initiatives to the paradigm of women, the Deccan Development Society has not only ensured their basic needs such as Food,Nutritional and Health Security but also addressed their strategic needs such as Leadership and political roles, articulation space and visibility in the public domain. Many of them are today seen as a unique dalit women group which travels all over the world, as far as Canada, and articulate their vision of food and farming. Thus by recognising and implementing the women’s vision of agriculture DDS has completely altered the discourse on Women and Agriculture
p v satheesh