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Not yet a done deed
Bent over their crop fields, labouring away in the scorching sun, women farmers are a familiar sight across most of India's agricultural landscape. Hence it is ironic that they should be cloaked in a garb of near-invisibility when it comes to ownership of agricultural land.
Their shameful absence, particularly the lack of a rightful stake on land owned by the family, has been captured in a recently-released study commissioned by the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women) and conducted by the Rural Development Institute (RDI), Delhi. There is no dearth of data to show the gender-skewed nature of land titling and farming practices in the country, but the study reveals how patriarchal mindsets, lack of legal awareness and social realities bar women not only from owning land, but also mould them to accept their unequal plank as a given. Even in the few instances when women have owned land, true empowerment could be light years away.
The law gives men and women an equal right to inherit property and a newly-amended marriage legislation would also give women a slice in their husband's property acquired after marriage. Yet, UN estimates show that less than 10 per cent of rural women own land, though over 86 per cent of women in the hinterland depend on agriculture for a livelihood.
There is a veiled silence about land ownership. The RDI-UN Women research, for instance, surveyed women and their family members in 504 land-owning households in 19 villages in Andhra Pradesh and Bihar. While the sample might be small and such data comes with its own pitfalls, their findings are indicative of a gaping lacuna.
Only 7 per cent of the rural women interviewed owned land;over 84 per cent of land deeds were in the name of males. "Without the title and control of land with them, women are at best treated as unpaid workers on someone else's land. If you speak to women on the ground they talk about access and control to land not just as an economic need but also as a key factor linked to their status and aspiration for dignity, " says Govind Kelkar, senior advisor, women, land and productive assets, Landesa/RDI.
Farming itself is steeped in gender biases, says Vijay Jawandhia, an activist from the farmer suicide-ridden belt of Vidarbha. He points out that women farm hands earn only about 70 per cent of the wages of males for similar tasks, a disparity reflected in the wages announced by the government's own price commissions. "This could be because they spend lesser work hours on the field due to other roles such as bringing up children, but it's time their worth is recognised, " he says.
Yet years of patriarchy have made women imbibe and justify a landless existence. Nearly 42 per cent of women in the survey showed no desire to own land;they would rather have a job and believed owning land would involve trouble with the community.
The attitudes cut across generations with nearly 73 per cent of sons and daughters who were surveyed not seeing any rationale behind women owning land. A majority of the girls said there was no need to own land since they expected husbands to take care of them. Even those who held land titles may not always have a say in decisions regarding land use. Anne Stenhammer, regional director, UN Women, perceives this as an outcome of social conditioning. "Women's life choices are restricted or influenced by social norms, which are predominantly patriarchal not just in India but across the world, " she says.
Most women farmers are in the dark over entitlements. Many, like Meenakshi Patil from Satara's Athpadi taluka in Maharashtra, are forced to pay attention only when disaster strikes. Patil has been running from pillar to post figuring out ownership details of her half-acre field after her husband died recently in an accident. "I know that this land is ours but I don't know details about the paperwork, " she says. Like her, many women have never interacted with revenue officials.
But change may be on the horizon. Jawandhia points out that local officials have slowly started probing women's shares under such laws, thus initiating positive changes. Stenhammer too believes proper recording of land titles at the local level can make a difference. "Gender-sensitive training of officials and more dialogue in gram panchayats will help change attitudes, " she says. Newer schemes such as the National Rural Livelihood Mission could incorporate such changes.
Joint titling of land is nearly non-existent in pilot states Only 22 per cent of families knew about women's right to inherit land under the Hindu Succession Act, 1956 61 per cent of rural women said they had never interacted with government revenue officials 77 per cent of women in dual headed households whose names were in land documents were likely to participate in decisions about the plot use. In contrast, only 18 per cent women whose names weren't there were likely to participate in such decisions
Scoping Study on Gender and Land Tenure Security: 'Barriers to and Impacts of Women's Entitlement to Land', by UN Women & Rural Development Institute
540 households in Bihar, Andhra Pradesh
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