The women of rural India are not meek – and we do not help them when we pretend that they are

women farmers in UP

The meeting started off with a comfortable simplicity. In a village in Uttar Pradesh, India, a  group of semi-literate women greeted the visiting development professionals with garlands and tikas and food. A song was sung, the visitors were thanked. Then the subject changed to a complicated scientific assessment of fertilisers and pesticides, and the conversation became one-sided. The development professionals were completely unable to keep up.

Asked to picture in their mind a group of expert agriculturalists, few see women like these, the backbone of farming across India. India’s rural women are imagined as meek souls who accept their allotted role. It is a myth, but a powerful and harmful one.

In our discussions in Uttar Pradesh I was reminded of the determined struggle which women are conducting for equality. “We are not farmers’ wives, we are farmers.” They spoke of how their group had helped them to raise their incomes. “And guess what I got with the extra money?”, one woman asked me. I thought she would say something pious. “These anklets!” she announced proudly. Brilliant. In the development myth of the Indian and global establishment, women’s groups exist primarily to “help families through women”. And it is true that helping women helps everyone. But that narrative boxes in women’s own stories, pride and strength. Women’s empowerment is needed primarily because women should have more power. It is not a tool.

“So what does the group do?” I asked. There were, of course, stories of how improved farming techniques and working together helped them boost earnings. And there the myth of the meek rural Indian woman would have concluded the story, in a depoliticised market where women’s hard work combined with innovation enables women to escape poverty without ever confronting what holds women back. But the story the women told was rooted in power, and rights. Only 6% of women in Uttar Pradesh have their own land. Almost all of those who do are widows or have no brothers. Only 3% of women have joint title to land with their husbands. “We want the land in our name as well as our husbands. The  government charges a huge duty on anyone who transfers land to joint ownership. We’ve got thousands of signatures from husbands agreeing to transfer if it is without government charge. But the government has not yet unblocked it. So we march. We will march until we get our land. We marched to demand access to rural extension services. The government used to offer agricultural training only to men. Women only got offered classes in making pickles! Now we have been guaranteed one third of places on all training schemes. We are demanding half.”

They were clear that their empowerment requires government action, and clear that government should work for them. It is the 66th anniversary of India’s freedom this week, and they want their freedom too. They are demanding that government provides loans, irrigation and changes in the rules on land title. They want universal access to public services too: “When services are targetted, in the end the muscle men get them all. To reach the poor, services must be universal, that’s the only way that we won’t be prevented from using them. The rich must share with the poor. If only one person keeps all the food then only one stomach is filled. How can that be right?”

“Do women in the UK have equality at work?” they ask me. “They earn less,” I admit. “Aren’t they allowed out?” “They are.” “They go out and they still earn less?”

“Mahila bhi kisan hai! – Women are farmers too!” they shout, not seeking mere improvement but demanding equality. The group was initially inspired by the example of a Gandhian activist called Vinobha Bhave, who led a land campaign in a the 1950s. He was a determined but gentle man. He rejected confrontation. He would ask landlords to give, appealing to “the little goodness in their hearts”. Sometimes it worked. Often it didn’t. He kept on. The women I met in Uttar Pradesh have all of the determination of Vinobha Bhave. I am happy to report, however, that they are a little less gentle.

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Ben Phillips

About Ben Phillips

Ben Phillips, currently based in Nairobi, is co-founder of the #FightInequality alliance, the growing movement for a more equal world. He has lived and worked in four continents and a dozen cities, and led programmes and campaigns teams in Oxfam, ActionAid, Save the Children, the Children's Society, the Global Call to Action Against Poverty and the Global Campaign for Education. He began his development work at the grassroots, as a teacher and ANC activist living in Mamelodi township, South Africa, in 1994, just after the end of apartheid. All his posts are personal reflections. He tweets at @benphillips76