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India’s female farmers battle tradition

Anjali has worked on the land nearly all her life, first with her tenant-farmer parents, and then alongside her husband in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.

Still, she has never owned land — a right she has been denied by inconsistent inheritance laws and her community’s rigid custom that led her to believe only a man should own land. Now, at 32, Anjali’s name will finally be on a title as joint owner of land allocated by the state, after months of petitioning local officials and addressing age-old traditions and superstitions that deny women land ownership.

“It has never been our custom for women to own land, and I never thought that I would one day be a land owner,” said Anjali, who goes by one name, at a land-literacy meeting of advocacy group Landesa at a school in Taardeh village.

“Having the title in my name means a lot to me: It means I have a say in what we do with the land, and my husband can’t throw me out or sell the land without my permission.”


Women make up more than a third of India’s agriculture workforce, yet only about 13 percent of farmland is owned by women, according to official data. As more men from villages migrate to urban areas in search of jobs, their wives and daughters are tending the land. Despite their growing numbers, these women are not recognized as farmers because most do not own the land; the government labels them “cultivators.”

In India, land titles are almost always in the man’s name, and custom allows men to sell land without permission from their spouses, choose what crops to grow and control any income. Meanwhile, the female farmer is denied loans, insurance and other government benefits because her name is not on the title.

“Culture and tradition impacts so much on land ownership,” said Shipra Deo, state director of Landesa. “It’s a very patriarchal system, and women encounter entrenched biases everywhere — from their own families, as well as officials, who all believe women shouldn’t own land. Women themselves have come to believe they don’t have this right.”

A farmer drinks water in a wheat field in Rajasthan, India. After China, India is the world’s second biggest wheat producer. [Reuters]

When women have secure rights over the land they cultivate, they gain status and greater bargaining and decision-making power at home and in their community, Landesa’s research shows. Such women are more likely than men to boost food security and to spend their income on the next generation.

Yet, even a decade ago in Uttar Pradesh, the country’s most populous state and among its poorest, only 6 percent of women owned land, according to a study by Oxfam India. By 2015, that percentage had increased to 18 percent, according to Oxfam, as campaigners educated women on their rights, and the state began issuing joint titles to some of the landless poor.

Still, women face numerous legal and social hurdles to ownership. Land is still transferred largely though inheritance, and it is almost always men who inherit the land.

A Hindu woman is entitled to a share of land owned by her father, according to the Hindu Succession Act. Yet, the law is used to deny women a share of their husband’s land, said Nand Kishor Singh, a regional manager at Oxfam, which launched a campaign for joint titles in Uttar Pradesh in 2006.

“Men — and even officials — say she is already getting her father’s land, so there is no need for a joint title with her husband as she would then get two properties,” Singh said. “The government is required to issue joint titles for land that they allocate to landless families, but women are locked out of existing titles in their husband’s name.”

The state has an entrenched caste system, with one of India’s lowest gender ratios of 912 women per 1,000 men and one of its highest gender crime rates, according to official data.

Arvind Kumar, an official in the Uttar Pradesh Revenue Department, said the granting of joint titles for land allocated by the state had been a big step, because it was not the custom. “But we cannot intervene in existing titles or private purchases — it is up to the owner to decide if it should be a joint title,” he said.


Several states have amended their laws to make it easier and more beneficial for women to own land, with lower interest rates on loans and lower registration fees for women. Progress has been stymied, however, by customary laws that typically favor men.

In Rajasthan, for example, women are asked to give up their right to ancestral property when they marry. Women have also been held back by traditions such as not being allowed to handle the plow, seen as a potent symbol of the male farmer.

As part of Oxfam’s decadelong Aaroh campaign — meaning “ascend” in Hindi — more than 100,000 women have attended land-literacy programs,
Singh said.

Tens of thousands of women also joined rallies where they wielded the plow, and some have also begun driving tractors, a practice once reserved for men, he said. “The women have fought many traditions and superstitions, and we have seen big changes in attitudes,” he said. “Sadly, there have been few changes at the policy level, and our goal of land in the name of women is yet to be achieved.”

For Anjali in Taardeh, getting a joint title to land allocated by the state is a very big deal. “With the land, I will have some security, some rights,” she said. “I will not be any less than my husband, but his equal.”

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