January 18th, 2021 saw thousands of women celebrating at the Delhi borders. Across India this date has been fixed as the Women Farmers' Day by the protestors to highlight the vital role of women in agriculture.

AP Photo/Manish Swarup
"Women units of Sangrur, Barnala, Ludhiana, Fatehgarh Sahib, Mansa and Patiala will go to Dhanaula village while women units of Bathinda, Ferozepur, Fazilka, Muktsar, Faridkot, Moga, Jalandhar, Amritsar, Tarn Taran and Gurdaspur will go to Kathera village. When we started struggle against farm laws, our union had district bodies in 13 districts of Punjab and now it has district bodies in 16 districts of Punjab. Jalandhar, Tarn Taran and Fatehgarh Sahib are the new districts from where membership has been done in large numbers.”

Sukhdev Singh Kokri Kalan, general secretary of BKU Ugrahan.

It's imperative we understand this: women are not only integral to the Indian agricultural industry, but they're also the main characters when it comes protesting farming rights, past and present, women farmers are the organisers. They plan meticulously and with passion, driven by the fact that they know they aren't seen, simultaneously shouldering the domestic responsibilities that comes with months and months of protesting, seeing to the welfare of both men and women, ensuring that everyone is fed.

January 18th was specifically selected by the farmers to spotlight and celebrate the contributions of women farmers throughout India. Women took over protests sites, meetings demonstrations and marches were led by the women, who could be seen driving tractors, an act heavily associated with men.

"I work manually in fields as well. Farming can no longer be associated with men alone. It is a family’s job. Hence, every village woman is a farmer."

Paramjeet Kaur Pitho, BKU Ugrahan leader.

Oxfam India found that around 60 - 80% of women were solely responsible of India food production and 90% of the country's dairy production, the Agricultural census found that out of the 11 million cultivators, around 30% were women. Despite the major presence of women in the agricultural industry, when it comes to disputes, challenging and policy-making they are excluded, rendering them severely under-represented.

Some of the challenge women farmers face are:

  • Land ownership: Despite there being so many women farmers, they only own 13% of the land they cultivate.

  • Availability of formal credit: This is vital factor in influencing investment. Land is used as a collateral for providing agricultural credit by formal financial institutions. Women rarely are given the opportunity to own land and consequently cannot then use land to secure credit. It is a catch-22.

  • Lack of access to machinery: Women farmers are mostly engaged in labour intensive tasks. There's a huge problem with the lack of use of technology throughout the agricultural industry in India but this disproportionately affects women, where almost all women farmers use their bodies as their biggest tools when cultivating. Men and women differ ergonomically in regards to their characteristics. These differences in characteristics are often over-looked in machinery-design, hence why men are often always found using these machines, they're specifically designed for men. Thoughtfully-designed and specific interventions to introduce gender-friendly, tailored farm tools and equipment is necessary.

  • The increase of land-holdings: More men farmers are able to secure land and have been doing so. The increase of those able to hold land, means land plots have got smaller, this then means that more farmers fall under the category of "small and marginal" category. Considering the introduction of collective farming more widely could prove to help, this has been implemented in other Indian states such as Kerala and has had positive affects.

This day was incredibly important. Due to government failures, these women were rendered invisible, making it impossible for them to be seen or heard, and yet with everything they had, they managed to do both.

Despite living in a patriarchal society, and facing multiple marginalisation, with the world as their audience they claimed January 18th to be theirs. By calling for and marking this day they encouraged the whole of India as well as the BJP to pay attention to their experience, the gendered experience of the female farmer. Being part of the rural landscape of India whilst being a woman is layered and already challenging. The daily lives of these women are made difficult because of their gender, but now doubly, as working women their lives are being made difficult in the face of these new agricultural laws.

Trying to maintain a sustainable life in a society that's peddled by a government who largely excludes farmer input in farming laws, but worse, erases farming women from the conversation all together, is impossible.

It's our responsibility as activists and civil society to recognise the willingness of these women, to be seen and to look beyond just how they're being impacted but to reach for multiple solutions - the same solutions that the women farmers themselves have been calling for and suggesting for decades.

We must not let January 18th become a commemoration, reduced to an annual Instagram post and hashtag. We need to ensure we're doing the work, we're supporting the women and we're looking to longevity in all aspects of our solidarity for farmers in Panjab and wider India. This is something we at Restless Beings have committed to and hope you will join us in fulfilling for the coming months and years.

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