By Divya Ramesh
Savita Dharne wakes up at 4 a.m., prepares lunch for her daughters, gets them ready for school, and goes in search of work. Life has always been challenging for her, but tragedy struck, and now she must take on more than ever. About three years ago, she discovered her husband hanging from the roof of their home in the Vidarbha region in the Indian state of Maharashtra.
Dharne has had little time to mourn, according to Deepti Asthana, a photographer who has documented the hardships of agricultural households, and spoke to me about this family’s story. Dharne has to feed her three daughters, the youngest of whom was about 3 at the time of the suicide. Dharne’s 93-year-old bedridden father moved in with them to provide moral support for his daughter who lives in a society that often vilifies widows and blames them for their husbands’ deaths.
Dharne is not alone in her plight. Farmer suicides have widowed tens of thousands of Indians since the mid-1990s. A report by the U.N. says that one Indian farmer committed suicide every 32 minutes between 1997 and 2005. The deaths have continued into the 2010s, with more than 12,000 suicides a year since 2013.
Once the backbone of the Indian economy, India’s small-plot farmers have struggled to support their families. Liberalized trade policies have cut into profits, and floods, droughts, and the high-cost of GMO seeds have driven many into debt. In 2013, the average outstanding debt per agricultural household was $735 according to the National Sample Survey Office. Vandana Shiva, a noted environmental activist, said farmer suicides are “directly related to indebtedness, and indebtedness is created by factors linked to globalization.”
Men overwhelmingly make up the farmer suicides, pushing women into the primary breadwinner role. Women then struggle to make a living in an occupation characterized by discrimination. While women manage various ancillary activities in agriculture including winnowing, harvesting, and grazing, men usually select crops and manage income. A 2017 Oxfam report states that while more than 40 percent of Indian women work in agriculture, “as women are not recognized as farmers and do not own land, they have limited access to government schemes and credit, restricting their agricultural productivity.” Patriarchal traditions and superstitions discourage women from owning land—less than 13 percent of land is owned by women.
Women with little or no experience in managing farms are suddenly forced to take up this duty when their husbands commit suicide. The Indian government provides about $1,550 to families affected by a farmer suicide, but it is rarely enough. Dharne received only 30 percent of this amount herself; the rest has been deposited in a bank for her children and will be paid only when her eldest daughter turns 18. Left alone to manage the farm, raise children, and repay debts, Dharne has her late husband’s land at her disposal, but she lacks the training and financial support to farm productively. She fears another crop failure and does not have the money to invest in the land.
How can these issues be addressed? Maithreyi Krishnaraj, a sociologist and author of the book Women Farmers of India, argues that the first step is to recognize that women can run a farm, and not merely do support work, and one important way to make this happen is by improving women’s access to land. Offering lower interest rates on loans and lower land-registration fees to women or joint titles would also help. Access to land, credit, crop insurance, and modern equipment would empower women and improve lives.
Krishnaraj also stresses the importance of letting women participate in policy- and decision-making. A conscious attempt should be made to include women in discussions in the media, government, public institutions, or villages. This would ensure gender equality in decision-making and recognize that women are much more capable of understanding their own problems and proposing solutions than are disconnected officials.
There also needs to be improved skills training for women. Kuntala Lahiri Dutt, who has done extensive research on the problems that South Asian women in agriculture face and is the founder of the organization Women Farmers of India, says, “We need specific, targeted training for women in rearing small animals, raising cash crops that have a local market, and so on.” In a detailed report, she argues that agricultural demonstrations, exposure to modern farming techniques, and helping women secure finances and equipment are essential to helping women-headed farming households.
Besides training, Dutt argues that companies need to develop women-friendly technology. She says, “Pesticide sprayers are usually 20 liters. Many women complain that 20 liters is too heavy. Why can’t a 5- or 10-liter sprayer or a small, lightweight hand-held tractor be made?”
In addition to these steps, we must keep in mind that female farmers whose husbands have killed themselves may need psychiatric support. And often, along with paucity of money, these women face severe shortage of time given the difficulty of managing domestic duties and farm work single-handedly. Community-based, free psychiatric support and child day-care centers could help.
As she works hard in others’ farms and takes up all kinds of jobs to support her family, Dharne strives to ensure that her daughters receive a good education. She hopes that their futures are free from the hardship she’s faced—their happiness is her only comfort.
Divya Ramesh is a World Policy Journal editorial assistant.
[Photo courtesy of McKay Savage]