Women in rural India play a major role in food production. Over 80 percent of women in rural India work in agriculture, from sowing to harvesting crops to collecting and caring for seeds to caring for livestock collecting water. The role of men in agriculture tends to be limited to plowing, applying pesticides, and the business side of farming (like marketing). Although women are the backbone of agricultural production, they are not formally recognized as full-fledged farmers but rather as “farm laborers,” with the tasks they perform put in the category of “unskilled labor.” Without formal recognition as farmers, women don’t have access to credits, compensation and relief benefits offered by the government. And that’s something that the Tamil Nadu Women’s Collective wants to change.
The Women’s Collective was founded in 1994 to empower disenfranchised communities, particularly women and Dalits, in the Tamil Nadu region of India. For the past few years Grassroots International has supported the Women’s Collective and their Women’s Empowerment Project, which works with rural women farmers to increase their self-reliance through the use of ecological farming practices and the establishment of collective farms. The Women’s Collective works with almost 900 women farmers in 84 villages throughout the Tamil Nadu region. Tamil Nadu has a semi-arid climate and the population relies greatly on the monsoon rains and river water. In 2005 a Coca Cola bottling plant was granted permission to draw massive amounts of water out of the Tambirabarani River every day. This river is the main source of irrigation for the farming communities of the Thirunelveli and Tutucorin districts (with a combined population of 2,223,813). This kind of exploitation of ground water by industries, combined with a lack of rain water storage facilities and a decline in monsoon rains, has contributed to a reduction in agriculture production and, subsequently, resulted in many men moving to cities in search of other types of work. This leaves agriculture and food productions in the hands of women farmers more than ever, although few women own their own land. The Women’s Collective organizes through holding meetings where women can share their farming experiences. They conduct trainings on ecological farming, seed banking, collective farming, water conservation, and methods for dealing with the impacts of climate change. They also work to raise awareness around the impacts of chemical farming, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and resource grabs by big corporations. Tamarai, a 45-year-old widow and mother of three, owns 2.5 acres of land which she received after her husband’s death. (Her husband died in an accident when he was climbing a tree to pluck leaves to feed their goats and cow.) Tamari and her sisters, who are also widows, are all small farmers. She used to work as a sugarcane cultivator but now practices ecological farming. She has attended Women’s Collective conferences and has learned farming techniques which she has been able to put into practice on her land. She is very interested ecological farming and has a strong understanding of its benefits. On her land she has cultivated millet, a variety of mung beans, rice, and sugarcane. She is also raising goats and cows whose manure she uses to fertilize the crops. The Women’s Collective also conducts its trainings through the model collective farms they have established. The farms demonstrate first-hand the application of collective farming, ecological farming techniques, and seed banking to those who visit as part of the training process. They also support women in starting new collective farms. These collectives function as a way for women to gain access to land and provide food for their families through sharing a plot of land with other women in the community. Over the past year, the Women’s Collective has formed four new collective farms, which includes many single or widowed members. Together these women were able to successfully cultivate millets and pulses and were able to put away six months’ worth of grain. They had planted vegetables as well but, due to a monsoon season that brought 30 percent less rainfall than normal, they lost most of their vegetable crop. In April 2013 the Women’s Collective participated in the South Asia Agroecology Learning Exchange, held in Jodhpur, Rajasthan in northwest India. The purpose of this exchange was to bring together groups from all over South Asia to share knowledge and experience of agroecological farming, to strategize around agroecological policies from a local to national level, and to develop relationships between groups that are doing agroecology work. The Women’s Collective was able to share its experience in collective farming, seed banks, and agroecological farming practices specific to their region. The Collective was also able to learn about seed preservation methods from other regions, such as the Himalayas and Rajasthan. The Learning Exchange was organized by a joint agroecology project between Grassroots International, International Development Exchange, Focus on the Global South, and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.
In October 2013 Grassroots supported the Women’s Collective to participate in the CSM-CFS (Civil Society Mechanism Forum of the UN Committee on World Food Security) meeting in Rome, Italy. This meeting brought together over 240 civil society representatives from 175 countries all over the world. The CSM-CFS meeting serves as a forum for civil society to participate in agriculture, food security and nutrition policy development at the global level. Topics of the meeting included responsible agricultural investment, the use of biofuels, price volatility, and investing in small holder agriculture for food security and nutrition.