Bearing the Brunt: Impact of Rural Distress on Women


Swarna S. Vepa

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    To the tribal woman of Koraput, drenched in the rain and shivering in the cold, at dusk to collect few fish in the rain puddles.

    List of Tables


    Gender equity and justice constitute an important part of the UN Millennium Development Goals. The Beijing Platform for Action developed in 1994 provides a comprehensive blue print for achieving the goal of mainstreaming gender concerns in all areas of development. Agriculture in particular is getting increasingly feminized and women are forced to share the burden of farm management and post harvest technology without appropriate support services. Because of lack of land rights, women in agriculture have extreme difficulty in getting access to institutional credit and other essential inputs. The present publication clearly brings out the many dimensions of the consequences of women bearing the brunt in relation to agrarian distress.

    An extreme manifestation of this distress is found in 33 districts of India, which have been identified as ‘agrarian distress hotspots’. In many of these districts, particularly in the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra, indebtedness and other hardships lead to farmers engaged in a life-giving profession taking their own lives. In such cases, the men often leave behind young widows and children. The households then become headed by women. Unfortunately the land title is invariably not a joint one between husband and wife. Therefore, the wife is denied the right to ownership and thereby the right to credit and inputs. On the other hand, the responsibility of educating and bringing up the young children is on the shoulders of the widows. This compounds the tragedy and the plight of such women and children. This is why M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) has started in Vidarbha a Mahila Kisan Sashaktikaran Pariyojana (Women Farmers’ Empowerment Programme) in order to empower women farmers with the needed technology, inputs, and remunerative marketing opportunities.

    Indian agriculture is going through a phase of stagnation. Obviously, there will be agricultural renaissance only if women, who constitute over 70 per cent of the workforce, are enabled to play their rightful role in moving agriculture forward. The role of women in the conservation of natural resources, cultivation, consumption, and commerce is becoming more significant day-by-day. The present publication bring out this fact very clearly. The National Commission on Farmers has offered in its very first report submitted to the Government of India (GOI) in December 2004, detailed suggestions on the empowerment of women in agriculture. Unless action is taken to provide women the essential support services and the right to land, the fatigue in agricultural productivity and production will continue.

    On the occasion of the Indian Science Congress held at Visakhapatnam, the Jamsetji Tata National Virtual Academy for Rural Prosperity organized a National Virtual Congress of Mahila Kisans. Women farmers from different parts of the country suggested the following nine point charter for enabling them to do their best in improving the productivity, profitability, and sustainability of the major farming systems of the country. Given the right support, women farmers can take the country to great heights of achievement as is clear from India's leading position in the world in milk production. It is estimated that nearly 75 million women are involved in small scale dairy enterprises in the country. They have been empowered through cooperatives, which ensure producer-oriented processing and marketing. We should learn lessons from this women farmer-led milk revolution in the country and transfer this experience to other farming systems. The nine components of the charter for Mahila Kisans are the following:

    • Title to land: Joint pattas are absolutely essential for Mahila Kisans to get access to Kisan Credit Cards and institutional credit.
    • Right to credit, to both individuals and to women self-help groups, and right to insurance: New insurance schemes should be started for Mahila Kisans to cover them from occupational hazards, like Leptospirosis infection in paddy fields.
    • Support services, like crèches, anganwadis, and so on, to take into account the multiple demands on a woman's time, such as child rearing, home keeping, and income earning activities.
    • Access to quality inputs like seeds, organic, mineral, and bio-fertilizers, extension advice, and so on, at the right time and place, and at affordable cost.
    • Training, capacity building, and imparting quality; genetic, trade, and legal literacy; engendering the curricula of agricultural, veterinary and fisheries universities and Krishi Vigyan Kendras (KVKs). The agricultural university movement will be 50 years in 2008 and it is high time that the gender dimensions are mainstreamed in the curricula.
    • Jal Swaraj or water security for irrigation and domestic needs through training in water harvesting, aquifer recharge, and ‘more income per drop of water’ techniques.
    • Meeting the needs of mixed farming involving crops, livestock, fish, and trees; special attention to fodder and feed in the case of livestock, and to seed and feed in the case of aquaculture; appropriate post-harvest technologies for processing, storage, transport, and marketing.
    • Assured and remunerative marketing; linking Mahila Kisans to markets, ensuring fair price and timely payment; provision of rural godowns and warehousing facilities; training in safe storage, sanitary and phyto-sanitary measures.
    • Reduction in drudgery and enhancing income per hour of work; farm implements, which can help to enhance work efficiency and reduce drudgery, are urgently needed. Travelling exhibitions and ‘Knowledge on Wheels’ programmes may be organized to familiarize Mahila Kisans with the gender sensitive implements available in Agricultural Universities, Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) institutions, Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and KVKs.

    The above nine point charter should be implemented in an integrated manner. Panchayati Raj Institutions, with one-third representation to women, can be the catalysts in farm-womens’ empowerment.

    Above all, the mindset of official agencies needs to change if we are to see progress in enabling women farmers to play their rightful role in agricultural renaissance. The National Policy for Farmers presented in Parliament in November 2007 clearly identifies both women and men as farmers. This policy needs to be converted into programmes starting with land rights. Unfortunately, we are witnessing increasing gender discrimination including growing female foeticide in the more affluent parts of our country. Maternal malnutrition is leading to every third child born in the country having a Low Birth Weight (LBW). LBW children are handicapped at birth in the full expression of their innate genetic potential for mental and physical development. Denying a child at birth an opportunity for the flowering of its personality is the cruellest form of inequity. This is why empowerment of women and enlightenment of men need to go hand in hand.

    We owe Dr Swarna S. Vepa and her colleagues a deep debt of gratitude for their dedicated efforts in bringing out the book. I hope this book will be read widely by all interested in both gender equity and agriculture progress.



    I express my heartfelt gratitude to Professor M.S. Swaminathan, Chairman, M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF), who had given me an opportunity to work on this topic during my tenure at MSSRF. Throughout the drafting stage, I received enormous encouragement from my late husband Mr Vepa K. Sadasivam to complete the book. I am also grateful to Ms Mina Swaminathan, trustee and adviser MSSRF, who had given me several insights into the gender issues. I enormously benefitted from the interaction with a large number of gender specialists and scholars who either visited MSSRF or participated in the seminars and workshops organized by MSSRF from time to time.

    I worked on this book in 2007 when I was holding the position of Ford Foundation Chair for Women and Sustainable Food security at MSSRF. MSSRF was kind enough to provide full support for this publication. I gratefully acknowledge the support of Ms Madhubala, honorary associate at MSSRF for the painstaking compilation of useful material for second and third chapters. I would like to thank Ms Anusha Hari, honorary associate, for providing ample support to draft the portion on Microcredit and Ms Kadambari Anantaram who helped me on an earlier occasion to draft the portion on Community Conservation. All of them joined me out of their interest in gender issues.

    Chapters two and three are mostly based on large amount of information available on the websites and the published case studies of the Non Governmental Organizations. I used these rich resources to try to understand the relationship of women's participation in development activities and natural resource conservation. I also apologize for any lapses in giving the source of all the information used as the compilation of the relevant material has been done over a long period of time and some of the web addressees are lost.

    I have also greatly benefitted from the workshop ‘Gender concerns in Food Security’ organized by MSSRF in February 2007. I thank all the resources persons whose presentations enriched my knowledge.

    I received continuous help for data entry, tabulation and formatting of the document from my junior colleagues at MSSRF, without whose help the book would not have seen the light of the day. Mr B. Ananda Kumar's flawless tabulation and formatting skills and Ms Chandrakala's computation and web search skills have been great assets.

    I also thank the Ford Foundation that instituted the endowment grant by way of a chair at MSSRF to which I was selected in 2003. My special thanks are due to Dr Ganesan Balachander, Representative Regional Office, Ford Foundation, New Delhi.

    I would like to specially thank Dr Sugata Ghosh, Vice President, Commissioning, SAGE Publications, who initiated the writing of the book. I am equally grateful to Ms Elina Majumdar of SAGE Publications, who has been patiently reminding me about the deadlines that I missed many a times. Last but not the least, I am grateful to the anonymous referee, who had given constructive suggestion on an earlier draft.



    At the turn of the century no doubt India's picture is rosy with regard to growth rate of gross domestic product, fiscal health, inflow of foreign capital, net export earnings, and so on. However, they do not always reflect the welfare of the population. Now it is well known that the economic growth favoured some but not all. A large number of people do not have access to basic amenities and sufficient earnings to make a decent living. Many people do not have steady incomes. Incomes vary from year to year. There is inequity in access to income earning opportunities.

    The modern sectors are contributing to the growth of per capita income and those employed in these sectors had handsome gains in incomes. The low productivity traditional sectors are lagging behind. There is a squeeze on their livelihood opportunities. The turn of events in the past decade and half brought about distress in rural sector and especially to agriculture at the lower rungs.

    There are several reasons for the state of affairs. A structural change of the economy is one of the reasons. The unskilled and uneducated and asset less were left out of the growth process. They find fewer and fewer income earning avenues. The second important reason is that the growth was not able to create sufficient new productive employment for all even after a decade and a half of reforms. The third reason is insufficient public investments for decades in human capital, physical capital and institution building. Employment of labour requires complementary physical capital and institutional support. Without complementary capital investments, labour remains unemployed and underemployed. Institutions help in translating the labour demands and skill requirements of the economy into a matching supply of skill enhancements. In the absence of these critical public investments and institutional mechanisms, a situation of labour shortages coexists with huge unemployment. The fourth reason is the lack of effective safety nets and social security support systems to take care of the vulnerable. Lack of safety nets allows the low-income population to slide down to a position where it becomes difficult for them to be on their own again.

    The imbalances and inequities created by the system between the modern and the traditional sectors of the economy are now well recognized. Public forums often acknowledged these facts. The relevant data brought to light the facts that support the view. The government is now trying to take care of some of the problems, though it has not been effective so far.

    Rural distress and agricultural distress are apparent at the turn of the century. There are some major components of rural distress. The foremost is the decelerating growth of agriculture and its declining share in the gross domestic product, without commensurate decline in the population dependent upon it. It implies lower per capita productivity of agricultural workers. Lower productivity translates into lower earnings per worker. Declining profitability of farming is apparent. Given an alternate opportunity, 40 per cent of the farmers reported that they want to quit farming. Debt burden of the poor is on the increase. The opportunities of gainful employment seem to be declining for the rural poor. Most of the employment is self-employment with very little asset base. The issues are shrinking land base, marginalization and casualisation of rural workforce, and increase in unemployment among the poor. Increase in non-agricultural employment in the rural sector is negligible for the country as whole. The major implication is not only a lack of upward economic mobility of rural poor, but also a threat of deterioration in the economic status of those left behind. Distress migration is apparent from backward agriculture. All these issues are discussed in detail.

    One major neglected aspect of the agricultural and rural distress is the gender dimension. While everyone caught in a situation of distress suffers, women especially seem to bear the brunt of the situation. This dimension has not been sufficiently highlighted. Gender discrimination is already ingrained in the system. The distress factors accentuate this discrimination leading to a widening gender gap. Women bear the disproportionate burden of deteriorating public services in rural areas. The burden of inadequate basic facilities such as ration shops, roads, transport, water supply, electricity, cooking fuel, safe drinking water, sanitation and healthcare also falls disproportionately on women. Women's work burden at home and outside the house increases to substitute for the lack of basic amenities. The adverse consequences are felt on health and foregone income earning opportunities. For example, lack of water supply for cleaning and drinking and lack of fuel for cooking and lighting makes women walk long distances in search of water and firewood. Lack of clean fuels affects their eyes and general health. Lack of affordable health facilities puts the burden of caring for sick on women. Lack of public distribution system and high price of food grains affects their calorie intake in times of income constraints.

    While all these instances are of common knowledge, they are not quantified and valued, and the burden is not systematically assessed to initiate public action. Quantifying the loss in value terms is an uphill task due to the vast diversity of the country and the diversity of cultures and activities performed in rural areas within and outside the household. However, if time spent is considered of value, then some indication of the burden becomes obvious.

    Women are highly visible in government programmes and the programmes sponsored by international aid agencies and the Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs). The women members of the self-help groups, participants in watershed programmes and members of Panchayati Raj Institutions are often cited as the empowered lot. Yet gender equity in daily life remains a distant dream for many of the so-called empowered women who participate actively in these programmes.

    Thus, it is common knowledge that the ingrained gender discrimination in the socio-cultural system percolates to the economic domain and women gain less from development than men. However, the point being made here is that the gender gap widens with rural distress. It is important to give an a priori reason as to why women are more adversely affected than men.

    The main aim of the book is to examine the gender gap in welfare indicators over the decade and a half that witnessed spreading rural distress. The book considers women's welfare from various angles. Some of the factors leading to gender gap are measurable and some are not due to paucity of data. The perceptions of data collectors and the nature of the social and cultural processes lead to gender bias in data collected. The definition of work, worker, the status of the worker within the household enterprise, and the distinction between the main and marginal work are at present biased against women. All the same, some indirect assessments of the relative work burden of women from Time Use surveys support these facts. Despite the disadvantage, the data analysis is useful. Visible signs of gender gap related to rural distress, such as lower levels of incomes, increased work burden, rising unemployment, are relatively easy to capture.

    There are some obvious but not so visible factors at work such as access to productive assets and natural resources. Data are inadequate to capture these factors. Yet there are a number of case studies available to support the argument of gender discrimination in asset ownership, use, and transfer. Similarly, there are case studies that show women's involvement in natural resources management without much direct control over the natural resources. Direct, tangible, and sustainable long-term benefits to women from natural resource management are limited. These descriptive accounts capture the state of affairs.

    Surely there are other elements at work, such as deteriorating juvenile sex ratio, that foster discrimination. Deteriorating juvenile sex ratio, which reflects survival disadvantage of females, ought to widen gender inequity. Cultural and social factors no doubt are the root cause of sex preference of the child. However, the relationship to the economic well-being should not be ignored. Some of factors such as sex-selective abortions and neglect of the girl child leading to higher death rates of female foetuses, infants, and children have their roots in perceived welfare. The welfare is perceived to accrue to the boy child and denied to the girl child. Lack of public investments in healthcare, support services, and value education are some of the reasons for such perceptions. Lack of institutional support to women and girl children and a very weak legal system accentuate the gender gap in welfare. Perceptions about lower levels of welfare, lower earning capability, and much lower capability to defend oneself against social evils discounts the value of a girl child. Juvenile sex ratio is an indirect measure of women's welfare. Hence, it is included in the study as a welfare indicator.

    Though it is difficult to trace the connection between deteriorating juvenile sex ratio and rural distress, in essence a link exists. Lack of any public support to the girl child and her vulnerability in times of distress weighs on the minds of all. As rural and urban prosperity occurs and people prefer a smaller family, they show a boy preference that translates into deterioration of juvenile sex ratio and prosperity effect.

    Gender equity no doubt is a part of the nation's welfare. A situation of increased burden on women from the distressed rural economy and inadequate public services would widen the gender gap at the turn of the century in respect of many welfare indicators. However, the choice of indicators and method of measurement, and aggregation bias often hide the gender inequity. Often studies look at female literacy rates, work participation ratios (WPR), and life expectancies to conclude that the gender gap is declining.1 This book seeks to examine various other aspects of women's well-being and finally computes a gender gap index to see where the gender equity problems are more acute. Gender disaggregated data are scarce and hence often it has been an uphill task to show substantial and clinching evidence in support of the existence of gender inequity in many spheres. The best possible attempt has been made to study gender gap at all India and state levels.


    The first chapter is ‘Spreading Rural Distress at the Turn of the Century’. It gives evidence of deteriorating rural livelihood opportunities to support the thesis of spreading rural distress at the turn of the century. The chapter illustrates how rural livelihood opportunities for the poverty groups are dwindling on several fronts. The chapter looks at the situation from several angles to show that the situation has worsened for the rural poverty groups at the turn of the century.

    Given the distress, the next three chapters, chapters two, three, and four show how women did not benefit much despite their participation in economic activities and their inclusion in rural development projects. The fifth chapter shows how women even missed the benefits of nutrition and healthcare and chances of survival, except in longevity. The corollary of the spreading rural distress and the inability of women to benefit from economic activities and healthcare advances is the widening of gender gap in welfare, which is captured in the sixth chapter.

    The sixth chapter is on Gender Gap Index (GGI). In a way this chapter gives the core message of the book that gender gap in welfare is widening. This chapter computes the GGI for all India and across the states for rural population at two points of time to examine where the gap is widening. This chapter is the testimony to the thesis that women are bearing the brunt of the situation through a weakening of welfare.

    The general perception is that the gender gap is declining, especially due to the increase in literacy rates, school enrolments of girls, and the increasing longevity of women. The aim of the book is to disprove this general perception by choosing relevant indicators. In the era of economic growth, health improvements, and scientific advances in the area of health, women benefitted less from economic advancement as well as health and nutrition advancements.

    The final GGI for India is based on sub-indices. The chosen indicators are averaged to get the sub indices and sub-indices are averaged to get the final index. The sub-indices and final index are calculated separately for urban and rural areas of the country. Effort has been made to get the data for mid-nineties such as 1993–94 and the mid-two thousand tens such as 2004–05. All except three indicators referred to 1993–94 and 2004–05. The three health outcome indicators belong to the census years of 1991 and 2001.

    The focus is no doubt on rural areas. Since distress-related migration shifts the poor from rural to urban areas, the welfare of the urban poor also deteriorates. Here again, women bear the brunt. Hence, the urban situation has also been analyzed. The urban women's welfare also deteriorated over the same period. The gender gap widened in respect of wages, employment opportunities reflected in unemployed women, and type of employment available, which is mostly marginal work and self-employment. Healthcare available and survival chances also deteriorated. The work participation gap narrowed but most of the work done is unpaid and women are helpers in family enterprises. Work participation of women in family enterprises is devoid of remuneration, asset ownership, or control of business. Such participation is not of much use for the upward economic mobility of women. Child labour declined, but more girls are at work compared to boys. Deteriorating juvenile sex ratio and higher infant mortality of females added to the widening gender gap in welfare.

    All the indicators included in GGI are discussed in the chapters four and five in greater detail. Chapter four is about the economic welfare of women and the girl child. Chapter five elaborates the welfare of women and the girl child in health and survival chances. Since most of the indicators are already discussed in detail, the sixth chapter is fairly brief and concentrates only on GGI. Hence, looking at chapter six alone does not convey the intended impact, though it sort of delivers the punchline that gender gap is indeed widening. The quantitative and qualitative information of the chapters two and three strengthens the thesis of deteriorating welfare of women.

    In the second chapter, ‘Women in Agricultural Production’, the major concern is the feminization of agriculture. Feminization of agricultural workforce is taking place without any special attention to gender equity in access to resources such as land, assets, and technology. The situation has broader implications to gender justice, rural development and agricultural production in the end. Unfortunately, quantitative data was not available on women's access to technology and women's access to, and control over land and water. Hence, the major part of the chapters on these topics is based on the case studies and work of other authors, which again, is mostly descriptive. Ideally, land could have been shifted to the next chapter on natural resources. Yet it was felt that as the main factor of production in agriculture, land and irrigation, and issues related to them, belong to this chapter.

    Chapter three is ‘Women in Natural Resource Conservation and Management’. Rural women are extensively involved in the activities related to natural resources such as land, water, forests, and biodiversity. Yet the extent of conservation and the benefits of conservation are limited due to inadequate investment, lack of appropriate technology, and lack of integrated approach. Natural resource conservation is not a one-time activity. It needs sustained and continuous efforts. Agriculture, rural livelihoods, and commercial interests are not divorced from natural resource conservation. Unless all the forces are in tandem, conservation does not take place.

    Due to the descriptive nature of the work and the disjointed nature of the case studies whose experience cannot be generalized, it was difficult to establish a definitive advantage or disadvantage derived by women who participated in activities related to natural resources. Chapter three is probably the weakest chapter in the book, lacking in quantitative evidence. Many other authors who wrote books on the topic of natural resource management probably did a better job than this chapter. However, chapter three is meant to give a point of view that is important to the core idea of the book that women probably did not benefit much from natural resource management activities economically. This chapter also points to the untapped potential of millions of women in self-help groups as a pressure group. The vast literature on the topic, though mostly devoid of quantitative evidence, cannot be ignored altogether.

    The fourth chapter is ‘Women's Access to Livelihoods’. The issue of rural livelihood opportunities dealt with in chapter one is again taken up in the fourth chapter to show how the processes of spreading distress affect women more adversely than men on certain fronts. This leads to a widening of the gender gap in welfare. For a casual reader it may appear as if there is a repetition. Yet the fourth chapter is vital to the book as it illustrates how among the indicators of rural distress, some are more harsh on women than on men. It justifies the perception that gender gap is widening as rural distress is spreading.

    In livelihood access, there are three major concerns. One of them is women's increasing burden of unpaid work and low paid work. The second important concern is wage discrimination and the third is in literacy and education. Not all women who contribute to the National Income are counted as workers. Some of them are own-account workers, some are wage earners, some are marginal workers, and some are voluntary workers. The concern is that they will not be able to reach the full potential unless all the facilities are extended to them. To enable women workers to benefit from the unorganized sector workers’ social security bill, as well as the support services due to them, national accounts statistics will have to recognize all the women workers. While female literacy improved and enrolment of girls improved, gender gap in literacy is still very high. Functional literacy that reduces the gender gap in earnings, at least among young women and men, is yet to be achieved.

    Chapter five is ‘Women's Survival, Nutrition, and Healthcare’. This chapter provides a rather indirect but a definite link to the status of women that makes them bear the brunt of distress. Gender gaps in survival and healthcare are a reflection of their lack of access to assets, income, and opportunities. Since it is an outcome of gender discrimination in all the other economic indicators, it assumes added importance. Gender differentials exist in survival at all ages, including that of unborn foetuses. While the gap in life expectancy has improved for women, infant mortality has a large gender gap. Survival of females is suspect until the age that goes beyond maternity. Other nutritional outcomes, such as underweightedness in children and low Body Mass Index in adults, show adverse gender gaps. Gender discrimination in healthcare is another disturbing factor.


    1. The Planning Commission's Human Development Report 2001 concludes that gender gap is declining in India.

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    About the Author

    Swarna S. Vepa is currently Visiting Professor, Madras School of Economics. Earlier, she has been the Programme Director and Ford Foundation Chair of Women and Sustainable Food Security at the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) in Chennai. She is a former researcher and faculty member at Delhi University, the Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi University Enclave, and researcher at Bombay University. Dr Vepa also held the position of Senior Executive at the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry in New Delhi. Her fields of specialization include gender issues in agriculture, agricultural stability and sustainability, and reforms related to poverty, inequality, and employment. Dr Vepa is involved with policy reports, publications, and advocacy in India and Asia. She has contributed to a number of publications such as Gender, Food, Security and Rural Livelihoods, edited by Maithreyi Krishnaraj (2007) Stree, Kolkata and Halving Hunger: It Can be Done (UN Millennium Project) edited by Pedro Sanchez, M.S. Swaminathan, Philip Dobie, Nalan Yuksel (2005). She was responsible for bringing out the three Food Security Atlases published by MSSRF and WFP in 2001, 2002, and 2004.

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