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036: Hysterectomy laden sugar with Dr. Kurush Dalal (Day 6)

Updated: Aug 25, 2022

Through grass root examples of farming practices across the countries of India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, and Sri Lanka, Dr. Kurush Dalal, bust open the myth of female farmers following the role of ‘Hestia’ - providing nourishment and care to the eldery and the young, while being crouched around the hearth. Dr. Dalal, who is an archaeologist, historian and food anthropologist, argued how these women need to be recast as warriors and ‘survivors’ (in the vein of Hermes and Zeus), despite the institutionalisation of misogyny (sexual abuse by farm contractors is only one instance) that they face on a daily basis.

The most chilling example of the disparity that female farmers face was the case of sugarcane workers from the poverty ridden Beed district of Maharashtra. Women as young as 28, are forced to have hysterectomies in order to be assured of employment. The removal of their uterus and the onset of an artificial, early ‘certified’ menopause assures them of an employment preference by sugar contractors. Without their wombs, they become more ‘efficient workers’ who cannot get pregnant, will not take child-care leave, and will not skip work due to menstruation. However these haphazard surgeries quicken the onset of osteoporosis, hormonal imbalances, and numerous health complications in the women, to say the least.

Dalal illustrated the numerous complicated and interconnected reasons for the “gender yield gap” (how much female farmers can produce on the same piece of land as male farmers) across the south-asian subcontinent. These reasons include land ownership acts (the brothers of a deceased farmer become custodians of the land for male children, leaving the widow in the lurch), lack of micro-lending and loans by banks, no admittance to APMC yards, smaller land parcels for women (at times 50% in size), unequal daily wages (again 50% of what men are paid), no access to better seed varieties, more effective fertilizers, training in farm techniques, tools, and technology.

Across the subcontinent, women farmers are simultaneously expected to perform both “paid productive” labour in the farms and “unpaid reproductive” labour at home. Women undertake the most tedious aspects of farming - such as weeding, replanting of rice (while standing in chillingly cold, clay paddy fields), and drearily plucking the top few leaves in tea plantations. Concurrently at home, they cook, serve food, clean, fetch water, tend the cattle, home gardens, and are “care-givers” to the family members.

They often pass up on nutritious food, and instead give it to the ‘male earners’ in the family, which leads to nutritional deficiencies and weakened health. Girls do not attend primary school and have no basic literacy. Dalal illustrated this through the case of a 15 year old girl who was paid in 100 rupee notes instead of the 50 rupee notes given to her co-workers. She burst out crying as she could not differentiate between the denominations, and thought she had been paid less. She was petrified of getting beaten up by her father because she would have brought in a lesser daily wage. Ensuring the primary education of girls (through mid-day meal schemes, and clean toilets) will help them read numbers and alphabets, through which they can gain access to price forecasts, weather data, and grain rates via their mobile phones.

Not all is bleak. Dalal urged us to learn from female farmers in Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka. For instance the Agriculture, Nutrition and Gender Linkages (ANGeL) pilot project, implemented by the Ministry of Agriculture in Bangladesh could provide us with concrete clues on how to better empower women farmers. Secondly, Nepali female farmers epitomize the trend in the “feminization of agriculture” as they choose to plant foreign-exchange producing citronella and lemongrass for oil exports, and grow high-value vegetables such as brinjal, ginger and lettuce. Moreover cooperatives such as the Ceylon Ruby Harvest collective through the Whight and Co. coffee company are empowering previously forlorn female coffee workers.

Although it was an extremely dismal and depressing lecture last night by Dr. Kurush Dalal, we can look to these examples in the subcontinent, and move towards bettering the working conditions of women farmers.


Food and Gender in South Asia by Kurush Dalal conducted online on November 27, 2021 as part of the Food and Politics "Studying Foods Workshop"

Further Resources & Reading:

Photo Credit: Victoria Priessnitz on Unsplash

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