Traditionally, providing agricultural services has been viewed as a male-dominated enterprise in India. Hence, the fruits of steadily growing farm mechanization practices were expected to be reaped predominantly by male farmers. A group of women farmers from Bihar challenged this traditional concept by becoming the very first agricultural service providers in India this year.
In association with Jyoti Mahila Samakhya Federation and Sharda Samooh Federation, our Bihar-based IRRI Gender Specialist Sugandha Munshi acted as a catalyst for this transformational change. Combining the hard-earned savings of members of a self-help group with a generous government subsidy, 24 women farmers from Bandra Village in Muzaffarpur district are now the proud owners of a mechanical rice transplanter. They shall soon provide mechanized transplanting services to rice farmers in their villages and build a better future for themselves with this machine.
This successful initiative was undertaken through a pilot project under the Cereal Systems Initiative for South Asia (CSISA) hub in Bihar. Bihar is one of the least-developed states in India, having the lowest agricultural productivity and highest incidence of poverty. Male outmigration in pursuit of better economic opportunities is high in Bihar, leaving the responsibility of farming, child-rearing, and household work on women.
Rural women are subject to cultural discrimination, isolation, and disempowerment. They are also illiterate and lack access to and control over productive resources. In this context, women empowerment and farm mechanization are considered the most important pathways for poverty alleviation in the rural areas of Bihar and the CSISA project team are tirelessly working along these. The mechanized rice transplanter, a technology promoted by the CSISA project, has the potential to simultaneously accomplish the goals of both pathways. In addition to increasing agricultural productivity, the transplanter can empower women more by offering them an opportunity to earn higher income. It also significantly improves the wellbeing of the women by reducing drudgery and health hazards associated with 9 to 10 hours of doing backbreaking manual transplanting.
Although motivating women farmers was a challenge at the outset, they eventually recognized the benefits of mechanized farming. Access to information appeared crucial to initiate the process. Consistent support from the CSISA project team in providing logistics, training, and technical assistance was also crucial to accelerating this shift. The women reported significant changes in their social and economic status after they became part of the pilot initiative. They not only gained respect from the men in the family, but also recognition as an important part of the farming community.
Women empowerment is a long-term process and can only be achieved through transformational changes. The women empowerment model piloted in Bihar needs to be tested widely, though, for us to better understand its potential to generate and sustain a profound shift in women’s status and empowerment in the long run.