The invisible women in India’s farmer producer organisations

Women in UP's farmer producer organisations
Without women's participation, farmer producer organisations often struggle to achieve the desired socioeconomic impact.

In a remote Uttar Pradesh village, Roshni anxiously awaits the monthly meetings of the Dharavats – a farmer producer organisation (FPO) working in Prayagraj district. The farm worker joined the FPO about six months ago and is already spreading her wings. “It not only provides me an opportunity to meet my fellow farmers, but also to learn about new farming techniques, markets and government schemes,” she says.

Mostly a men-only space, FPOs in Uttar Pradesh are witnessing increased participation of women. Data from SFAC, NABARD and other agencies suggest that only 15% of the total members of FPOs in the state are women, another testimony to the invisibilisation of women in agriculture.

Grameen Foundation India is working on strengthening women’s participation across 40 farmer producer organisations through its MANDI project in eastern Uttar Pradesh. A recently completed baseline study of MANDI highlighted the low level of women’s participation with only 20% of the total members were women. This is in contrast with the increasing feminisation of Indian agriculture which calls for rapid increase in women’s participation in FPOs as well. The 1991 Census recorded that for every 10 men in the agricultural workforce, there were four women which increased to six in the 2011 Census.

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Women in farmer producer organisations

The MANDI baseline study also found that despite the gender focus of the mission, vision and bylaws of most (~90%) of these FPOs, women’s participation continued to be dismal. Furthermore, only 22% of these FPOs ever had training on gender-related topics for their leadership team or members. Capacities of the board members on gender issues remained weak with only 6% of them reported receiving training on the topic.

Women’s participation FPOs at the leadership level was limited. Only one out of three FPOs had at least one woman at the leadership level, one out of nine FPOs had two or more women at leadership level and two out of three had none. To sum up, the vision and mission statements of these FPOs weren’t realised to the full and these FPOs remained largely inaccessible for women despite their stated intents.
Deterrents to women’s participation

Despite the empirical evidence of the economic benefits of aggregation of women producers, women’s membership in FPOs continues to be abysmal. The baseline study delved deeper to understand the underlying reasons and identify the key deterrents to women’s participation.

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Gender and social norms restricting women’s mobility and financial empowerment: as three out of four women farmers had to seek permission to move outside the community and only a half of them could go outside unescorted. Furthermore, only 17% of women reported making an independent financial decision in the past one year. These two in conjunction marred the women’s ability to participate in the farmer’s collectives as they are largely confined to the four walls, with poor access to market and limited financial autonomy.

Poor knowledge of agricultural practices and crop production: The gender gap in knowledge of agricultural practices such as soil preparation, crop rotation, climate smart agriculture, irrigation, and storage was quite high and it furthered women’s subjugation at FPOs. They continue to be farm labourers rather than being a shareholder or board member in these FPOs.

Policy measures and the FPO ecosystem needs strengthening to increase women’s participation: The recently announced 10,000 FPOs scheme isn’t gender transformative in nature and ignores women farmers. There are no gender specific targets for promoting women FPOs and participation of women farmers in mixed FPOs except for the mandate to have at least one female board member. The baseline study for MANDI project also found that only 3% of the FPOs had reserved board membership for women. When it comes to the broader ecosystem for encouraging women’s participation, measures such as promotion of women-friendly agricultural practices were found to be limited at 22%.

Four steps towards gender equality

The concerted efforts for increasing women’s participation in farmer producer organisations have started to yield results. Like Roshni, more than 1,500 women farmers have joined nine FPOs in the state and the numbers continue to increase. Some have also been able to climb up to the leadership position. Four steps that helped Grameen drive the needle on increasing women’s participation in the FPOs are:

  1. Affirmative action to increase women’s participation at the leadership and membership levels: Grameen has been leading advocacy efforts at these FPOs to make necessary changes in their Article of Association (AoA) to increase women’s participation at the leadership level and mandate having at least 30% women members. As a result, nine FPOs have effected or are considering changes in their articles of association and are now making concerted efforts to increase their women membership. Another 11 FPOs have agreed to make suitable amendments in their AoA in the next financial year.
  2. Unpacking gender for FPO leaders, promoting women-friendly agricultural practices and linking self-help groups to FPOs: Grameen has been making a series of linked interventions for increased participation of women at FPOs s through gender and power dynamics training of FPO leadership, promoting women-friendly agricultural practices through gender mainstreaming workshops for FPO members and mapping and identification of women led SHGs to develop linkages with these FPOs for strengthening economic activities. These linkages have started yielding results and benefited three FPOs with about 100 women SHG members joining these FPOs.
  3. Gender dialogues to enhance women’s role at farmer households: Grameen has a rich history of using gender dialogues for improving women’s role within households and is using it as a tool here as well. This activity serves as a medium of recognition of women’s contribution, choices and voices in agricultural activities. Subsequently, it is expected to trigger women’s integration in agricultural decision making and empowerment.
  4. What gets measured, gets done: Grameen is using project level WEAI (Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index) tool to track the impact of its interventions for improving women’s empowerment in the agricultural households and measure the impact of the intervention. There is a strong causal linkage between women’s empowerment within the households and their participation in community-based institutions such as FPOs. Hence it becomes crucial to measure and track women’s empowerment within their own households.

Ms. Rita Pandey, who has recently been appointed to the Board of Directors at Siddarth Farmer Producer Organisation in Basti, Uttar Pradesh, says: “Women in the community have greater aspirations and they want to not only match but outdo men in every walk of life.” The business case for including women farmers in FPOs is well-documented as they remain committed to the business, stay invested and are prudent savers and borrowers. Without women’s participation, farmer producer organisations often struggle to achieve the desired socioeconomic impact. Women are the pillars of agriculture – they can enhance social acceptance of the FPOs and drive business outcomes.

(Rahul Ranjan Sinha is Associate Director, Client Insights for Impact; Rupali Awade, Gender Expert; and Rajnikant Prasad, Project Director at Grameen Foundation India.)