These Four Grassroots Women Leaders Travelled Across the Country for Land Rights

Posted by Jill Carr-Harris

Women, like men, face violence within society, especially if they are poor and marginalized. But women, according to the National Crime Record Bureau data, have been enduring steadily increasing violence in India: one dowry death happens every 78 hours; one act of sexual harassment every hour; one rape every 34 minutes; and one act of torture every 12 minutes. Harrowing statistics, we agree. Fortunately, people of all sectors of society agree that something needs to change, that there needs to be urgent action taken in protecting mothers, daughters, daughters-in-law and girl children, and women in general, as this is fundamental to any society’s human development.

One of the ways to ensure that women’s needs are addressed, is having more women in power to address them. At Ekta Parishad, one of the noteworthy responses towards reducing gender violence has been a caravan of four grassroots women leaders carrying out the 45-day long Mahila Bhu Samwad Yatra (Women’s Land Dialogue Tour). Four grassroots women leaders travelling for 11,000 kms in 45 days across 10 states in one vehicle. Imagine that.

This caravan was led by Shradha Kashiyap hailing from Malwa near Indore, along with Kasturi Patel, from MP’s Bundelkhand region; Shobha Tiwari from Mahakaushal in M.P., and Manju Dungdung from Bihar. Each of these women have worked for 20-30 years building local leadership in their communities and found the space within the women’s wing of Ekta Parishad known as the Ekta Mahila Manch.

The purpose of them taking on this tour was to identify and create widespread leadership of women across India among rural and marginalized populations. Their focus on the issues of land access and ownership meant that they met thousands of rural farming families and tried to understand how women in these families are countering high levels of violence through improving women’s status in the family, in the community and in the society.

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Challenges along the route of the yatra were not uncommon – they began their journey in Kerala, which was flooded and saw many road blocks. Being Hindi speakers, language was a huge obstacle in communication in south India. Conducting meetings, travelling extensively, dealing with local media on a daily basis and trying to get rest- this was not a walk in the park.

The women, moved by the speeches of the grassroots women leaders, often came up to them to hug them and express solidarity.
The women, moved by the speeches of the grassroots women leaders, often came up to them to hug them and express solidarity.

Experiences and stories varied according to region. They learned that Kerala, in spite of its high levels of education, sees women suffering from the same structural violence as any other part of the country. In Tamilnadu, they witnessed high levels of malnutrition in some pockets and the women agricultural laborers could not think of themselves as farmers, contributing to the surplus food production in the country. The lack of awareness among the women farmers regarding the valuable contribution they are making to the country was alarming.

Women they met throughout their tour did not realize that on average, women’s labour amounts to 3,300 hours in the field in a crop season whereas menfolk spend about 1,860 hours. They did not realize that by engaging in other on-farm activities that were not solely cultivation-oriented including animal husbandry, vegetable gardening, collection of fodder and backyard poultry, they were also farming. Women did not realize that their agricultural work on other people’s lands meant that they were farmers, according to the 2007 National Farmer’s Policy.

Shradha remarks, “Women don’t see themselves as farmers because they don’t own land.” Throughout the tour, she emphasized on the point that it was necessary for women to gain land ownership by having their name on the land titles for them to appreciate their status. They also needed identity cards showing that women were farmers, which would show legitimacy while interacting with institutions serving farmers.

Kasturi adds, “The women aren’t able to negotiate bank loans or go to the mandi panchayats or gain membership in producer organizations because the signature of the husband, as the male and head of household, is still required and he is not always available.” Kasturi, who was herself a child bride and has faced divorce at a young age, repeated stories that she heard other women tell of how they faced discrimination in their local communities, even while trying to sell produce in the marketplace.

Women were welcomed with love wherever they went during the Mahila Bhumi Samvad Yatra
Women were welcomed with love wherever they went during the Mahila Bhumi Samvad Yatra

However, the issue of land rights is not limited to the farming and the marketplace.

According to the Hindu Succession Act of 2005, women have inheritance rights to parental property and sons and daughters are coparceners of the property. But this act is rarely implemented”, says Shradha. “The name of the newlywed daughter-in-law should be added to the title deed for the sake of her sense of security and status within the family.”, she adds.

Manju, speaking about the importance of women’s leadership, tells us, “Land rights give women the position which enables them to stand up against violence that occurs at home. This was the reason women’s leadership is so important in addressing these problems at the family level.” In the Devdasi, transgender and Dalit communities, this need for leadership is strong, because through land rights, asset creation helps them to establish themselves in society. In the context of Adivasis, without community lands, collecting minor forest produce (fodder, fuelwood and food) for the household as well as catching fish is difficult.

Also read: We Talked To Rukmini Rao About The National Convention Of Women Farmers

Shradha, Kasturi, Manju and Shobha will be marching in the Jan Andolan, a march from Gwalior towards Delhi, starting on the 4th of October to further the cause of women farmers rights and their right over land. 25,000 landless and homeless poor from across 17 states of India, almost half of them being women, will march non violently to place their demands of land reforms to the Government. The expectations include several progressive provisions for gender specific needs of women farmers, protection of their entitlements, rights over agricultural land and water resources and access to credit, among other things. Expectations pertaining to land reforms include execution of the National Land Reforms Policy, the setting up of fast track courts and land tribunals for expediting the redressal of land of disputes and introduction of the National Right to Homestead Bill.

Support the Jan Andolan 2018 march by donating here.

Jill Carr-Harris is the National Advisor to the Ekta Mahila Manch. This women’s wing of Ekta Parishad mobilizes women at the grassroots by strengthening community leaders and it advocates for women and land and women as farmers at the state and national level. She has been associated with women’s movement building, women’s training and empowerment, gender policy research in India, Bangladesh, Philippines for the past two decades. Subsequently, she has been working on a doctoral program at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute of Studies in Education on social movements, feminism, and learning. She has also had the experience of creating solidarity networks through the UN, South-South Solidarity and International Initiatives. She has a deep understanding of the issue of food security in the global south.

All images courtesy Ekta Parishad

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