1 The summits
In many ways, the International Women's Decade precipitated the rediscovery of peasant women. They were the silent, invisible, secluded majority - steeped in superstition, ignorance, irrationality, untouched even by any desire for the change, freedom, self-expression or equality occasionally voiced by educated urban women during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Fleeting glimpses of these faceless millions were obtained during people's struggles against colonialism, oppressive land relations, changing production patterns in the rural economy; such glimpses, however, were soon 'forgotten' by lapses of memory both on the part of official agencies and the chroniclers of such movements.1 The acknowledged heroines of the women's movement, in South Asia at least, did not include any peasant women.
Though the Constitutions of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal recognised some rights for women, these rights did not extend to control over basic productive resources for agriculture-land,, water or forests, or equal remuneration. Even their labour lacked acknowledgement.2 The needs of agricultural development led to much scientific, technological and other research, training and extension activity in the region. But just as their training and extension programmes. did not address peasant women, so too, their scholarship did not extend to examining peasant women's actual roles in agriculture. Even less did it uncover the history of their discovery of the reproduction of food crops, especially paddy, through cultivation, the manufacture of textiles from natural fibres, and the art of pre-wheel pottery.3
This blindness cannot be blamed entirely on lack of data. Decennial censuses for undivided India, with all their shortcomings, recorded women as outnumbering men in agricultural labour until 1931, and in high proportions in most rural occupations -livestock, fisheries, forestry, sericulture, plantations, handloom, handicrafts, agro-processing, retail distribution, etc.4 Ester Boserup, the Danish scholar, found the same data sufficiently illuminating to write her pathbreaking book, querying administrative and academic perceptions of women's role in farming systems.5 Four years later, the Report of the Committee on the Status of Women in India was able to interpret the same data with insights provided by the Committee's dialogues with peasant women.6 Within the next few years, a series of studies from Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka brought in substantive evidence of peasant women's roles in agriculture and allied activities.7 Over the last decade, an explosion of studies on women's role in various sectors of agriculture, especially food production, forced the FAO and ILO to revise their assessment of the relative roles of men and women in the agricultural labour force. FAO's estimates (1983) for Asia as a whole placed women at 45% of the total agricultural labour force;8 ILO's revised estimates, published the same year, provided the following percentages: Nepal - 49%, India - 47%, Bangladesh - 34%, Pakistan - 31%.
According to the World Labour Report (1985), until 1980 agriculture continued to absorb more than two-thirds of the female workforce in developing countries, compared to less than 25% in centrally planned industrialised economies, and less than 10% in the 'industrialised marketing' or 'developed' economies. Surely this data needs to be examined today as an indication of the shape of things to come, in the context of accelerated globalisation and the extension of the economic growth model to the developing countries.
Prior to the International Women's Decade, development theorists regarded the involvement of women in agriculture as an indication of 'backwardness', which provided a rationale for pushing them out or ignoring and downgrading their contribution. The very few Indian scholars who examined the data until the Seventies explained the marked regional variations in women's involvement in agriculture as the result of 'cultural' or 'religious' beliefs and practices, thus locating it outside the purview of economists, planners and scientists.9
The FAO-ILO data from 82, 91 and 124 (ILO-85) countries respectively demolish both these myths, and substantially challenge the first. Some of the fastest growing economies of Southeast and East Asia, irrespective of their religious or cultural moorings, continue to have a high involvement of women in agriculture. Most of the Islamic countries of Asia and Africa, and the Christian Caribbean also follow the same pattern. A study commissioned by the Nonaligned Summit in 1983 reviewed a large number of studies from Asia, Africa and Latin America, and concluded:
The socio-economic formations in the rural sector are the primary organisations of production in which womens's role has a pivotal importance in most parts of the developing world. In the rural areas of these countries, women work in all capacities, in growing food, post-harvest operations, marketing, animal husbandry and related activities. In several cases, they also work as wage labour on farms. The FAO has estimated that sometimes women's work could be longer than men's work by as much as 43%.10
The scholar also argued convincingly that 'live human labour is and will continue to be the principal productive force in the rural societies of many of these countries'.11 The Second Non-aligned Conference on the Role of Women in Development (New Delhi, 1985) concluded:
The most important obstacles in implementing strategies identified in the past to improve women's role in agricultural and rural development have been at the conceptual level, at the infrastructural and operational level and at the implementation level... The conceptual obstacle lies deep rooted in the persistent lack of understanding and knowledge about women's role as producers and providers of family subsistence.12
The negative consequence of ignoring or neglecting women's role in food production - increased hunger and malnutrition-is gradually gaining serious notice.13 But agriculture cannot be detached from the condition or management of the natural environment. The connection between peasant women's skills, knowledge, needs and problems and the state of the natural environment still remains unclear as far as the decision makers of the global power system are concerned.14
The single largest group of South Asian rural women who share their livelihood and familial role characteristics-and their attitudes to the natural environment - are peasant women, i.e., women from marginal farmer or landless agricultural households, who engage directly in field agriculture and the collection of minor forest produce. Despite some broad differences in their participation rate by ecological, cultural or crop regions, they do share certain functional specialisations. They participate in agricultural production-for the family as unpaid labour, or for employers as hired labour. They also engage in the free collection of water, fuel, fodder and other minor forest produce, essential for family consumption and/or income earning activities. Many time-disposition and other micro studies have revealed the enormous value of this free collection for the survival and health of poor peasant households.15
A few social action groups engaged in grassroot level interventions also noted certain marked differences in attitude among men and women of peasant households to issues related to water, forests and land.16 Yet neither the reality of this gender difference, nor its reasons have been apparent to those responsible for the conservation, protection and regeneration of the environment. The environmental movement in South Asia today is led by educated 'experts', only some of whom recognise the initiatives of peasant women.
In poor peasant households women have a closer relationship with their natural environment as they depend on the ecosystem for food, fodder, fuel, water and livelihood. The environmental crisis-deforestation, depletion and siltation of water resources, land degradation and environmental pollution - have provoked many peasant women's groups to protest against existing policies of resource management. Some protests like Chipko are better known, but there are many others active in the protection and regeneration of the environment in a variety of ways.17 Such struggles have, however, been carried out in isolation, with little knowledge of the efforts of other groups elsewhere in the country or region, and there has been little opportunity for these women to come together and share their experiences and insights.18
Linguistic diversity, household and agricultural labour, the hazards of travelling long distances to unknown places, and apprehensions about their ability to participate meaningfully in any national or international discussions, are frequently offered as reasons by national agencies, official and non-official, for discouraging the involvement of women's groups in conferences on problems in rural development, agriculture or forestry.19 In early 1991, however, ILO organised a successful national consultation in Delhi on Rural Women and Wasteland Development, with a mixed group of participants. Some were experts, some represented concerned departments of the Government of India, some came from non-governmental social action groups involved in wasteland development, among whom were a few peasant women themselves.20 In December 1990, UNIFEM collaborated with the Asian Development Bank to organise an Asian Regional Workshop of official and non-official experts in Manila, on Gender Issues in Agriculture, to which they invited six successful women farmers. The Indian participant was an illiterate peasant woman who now leads a small network of village level peasant women's groups engaged in converting wasteland to productive plantations.21
These scattered experiments convinced the UNIFEM, ILO and FAO representatives in India and South Asia to respond positively to a suggestion made by the Centre for Women's Development Studies to organise national summits of peasant women in a few South Asian countries, with specific objectives. First, the Summits would provide the peasant women's groups, which would constitute the majority among the participants, an opportunity to share their experiences and, in the process, understand the environmental realities and changes taking place elsewhere; they would also be made aware of the struggles of other groups seeking to reclaim their local resource base. Second, the meetings might encourage the women to work together in their search for solutions. Third, a face-to-face dialogue would help to present, without any mediation, peasant women's perspectives on issues of natural resource management and the factors responsible for the present environmental crisis. It was hoped that this direct impact by peasant women would help policymakers, planners and technical experts (in agriculture, forestry, sericulture, soil conservation, irrigation etc.) in the country or region to view peasant women as a potential resource and as allies in achieving policy objectives.
In each country, UNIFEM identified a leading NGO concerned with WID issues, through research and/or grassroot action, to organise the National Summit. In Nepal and Bangladesh, the Summits were preceded by a series of smaller regional meetings which helped to identify the specific problems of those areas, and to select a group to participate in the National Summit. The women who came to the Summit were therefore representing their groups or regions, and felt both empowered and obliged to put across the views expressed by their colleagues. The umbrella nature of the two national NGOs in these countries - (WID, Women in Development in Nepal and ADAB, Association of Development Agencies in Bangladesh) - facilitated this procedure; both combine several NGOs working in different parts of the country on a variety of development issues, requiring grassroot people's action. In Nepal, preliminary workshops were held in 13 districts in cooperation with several women's development projects initiated by NGOs or by the government. Peasant women attending these workshops, as well as the representatives of the NGOs or government agencies working with them inevitably tended to focus their discussions on the problems they experienced in the particular projects they were involved with.
ADAB in Bangladesh conducted thirteen workshops through its local chapters, which include 65 NGOs working in 52 districts of the country. Most of these are involved in development activities at the grassroots, with a special focus on women's programmes. Each workshop had, on an average, twenty women 'beneficiaries' of the NGOs from whom eight were selected for the National Summit. Environmental issues were broadly defined beforehand, then discussed to identify the local nature of the problems in each workshop.
In India and Pakistan on the other hand, the organising was entrusted to two academic institutions, the Centre for Women's Development Studies in India and the Aurat Foundation for Information and Publication Services in Pakistan, known primarily for their research, advocacy and communication efforts on WID-related issues.
The Centre for Women's Development Studies, however, had also been involved in
action research for over a decade, organising peasant women for empowerment through employment generating activities. This experiment had forced the Centre, under pressure from the peasant women, to become increasingly more involved in some environmental policy research and had brought it into contact with several other environmental groups. It was therefore able to identify NGOs who had organised peasant women to participate in specific environment related protests or development action, and it now sought their assistance in sending at least two members of the peasant women's groups, accompanied by one person who could act as interpreter, to the National Summit. A brief questionnaire was sent out in advance to obtain a profile of the organisation and its activities, but apart from a note explaining the objectives of the Summit, no other documents or guidelines were sent.
Twenty-nine of the 40 NGOs contacted, responded, and except for two, all brought actual peasant women to the Summit. It seemed that even among NGOs working explicitly on environmental problems, the belief in peasant women's capacity to participate directly in a national dialogue was not widely shared.
In Pakistan's case, as the Summit Report mentions, the tradition of grassroots rural women organising, was absent; nor did the Aurat Foundation have any direct contact with groups recently formed, primarily through the efforts of international development agencies like UNICEF, the Aga Khan Foundation and so on. But it succeeded in obtaining the latter's help to identify village women's groups. Being the first Summit of its kind in Pakistan, news about it created great excitement among women in the villages and since then the Foundation has been receiving several queries from different areas regarding follow-up action. As various members of the Foundation reported afterwards, 'The results of the Summit were far beyond our expectations. The women surprised all of us!'22
Variations in the categories of participants, and in the duration and format of the Summits reflected country - specific differences as well as the organisers' priorities.
The Bangladesh Summit had 121 peasant women, and 35 others; the latter included facilitators from different NGOs, media personnel, and representatives of some UN agencies. There was no one from the government although they had been invited and some had promised to come. The meeting took place on the premises of the Bangladesh Academy of Rural Development (BARD), the premier research and training institution in the country for rural development; it had won international renown for a highly successful community development project in the district of Comilla in the 1960s. This project was also significant because it included the promotion of a large number of rural women's cooperatives.
The three days of the Summit began with a formal inauguration by the Director of BARD, the staff of ADAB and regional representatives of UN agencies, with each participant being introduced individually. The issues identified in the preparatory workshops were used to formulate guidelines for the ten working groups into which participants were divided, according to geo-ecological regions. Three groups were asked to focus on general problems, the other seven were to focus on problems of (a) dry areas; (b) ponds, tanks, lake areas; (c) river embankment destruction; (d) coastal belt; (e) urban slums; (f) pert-urban industrial areas; and (g) tribal areas, while some problems were common to all. Each group had a facilitator to guide and focus the discussions.
Each of the 10 group reports was presented by a peasant woman from the group in the plenary sessions; after a general discussion in the plenary the recommendations were consolidated by the organisers.
Though each working group was provided with guidelines to focus its discussions, the participants sometimes brought up issues beyond the guidelines and voiced their concern about other or general matters as well. This made for some local tension among facilitators regarding differences in approach. Those who were professional trainers with various NGOs thought the discussions should be confined to the issues identified in the guidelines; those who were grassroot workers, on the other hand, wanted the guidelines to be broadened to accommodate women's concerns and local issues. The pressure to include issues not set out in the guidelines came mostly from the hilly and forest areas, perhaps because discussions during the local workshops had not adequately covered everything; or the women might have been cautious with the NGOs; or again it could be that some organisers of the preparatory workshops did not have clear ideas on women's empowerment, peasant women's concerns or environmental management. In any event, the move to widen the scope of the guidelines to include these additional concerns was supported by the UNIFEM representative.
In the Nepal Summit, peasant women numbered 106, others, whose numbers kept fluctuating day by day, were roughly 25. Senior government personnel and donor agency representatives were present at the inaugural and concluding sessions; several government officers involved in government-initiated rural women's programmes, and younger staff of NGOs and donor agencies participated through all the stages of the Summit. The interaction between some of these young professionals and the peasant women indicated both a refreshing familiarity and an absence of status consciousness, a not very common occurence in the region where relationships between the urban educated and the illiterate are concerned.
The Summit was held on the premises of the National Academy of Administration and lasted four days. The women arrived one day earlier and had an opportunity to interact with each other, introducing themselves and discussing their previous experiences at the preparatory meetings. They were then divided into nine groups according to the projects they were involved in - by and large this meant according to the particular NGO working with them.
The Summit was formally inaugurated by the Minister for Agriculture, Forests and Environment and was attended by several dignitaries. Project reports were presented, mainly by NGO representatives, and an overview of government policies and programmes, and NGO efforts at promoting women's development and involvement in environment protection was given by the Chairperson of WID, Nepal-the main organiser of the Summit. The Regional Resource Officer of UNIFEM stated the objectives of the Summit. Despite the formal nature of the inaugural session, some of the participating peasant women seized the opportunity to thank the organisers for inviting them to the Summit.
Thereafter participants were divided into three working groups to discuss environment and agriculture, environment and animal husbandry, and environment and health and hygiene. Some guidelines were provided to each of the three groups to facilitate the discussion. Group leaders were drawn either from the government functionaries or from NGO personnel. In some groups discussions tended to be somewhat stilted and hesitant in the beginning, but in most cases the women warmed up by the middle of the second day and participated far more actively. All participants were present when group leaders made short presentations of their group's findings in the late afternoon.
On the last day, however, after watching video clips of the preparatory meetings, and inspired by three days of interaction and by the presence of a Planning Commission Member in the Chair, the women transformed the final round of discussions into a spirited dialogue with the government. Many of them challenged established preconceived notions regarding women's role in the rural economy:
How do you expect to increase productivity in agriculture when you provide all new knowledge, ideas and opportunities only to men? How much work do they do in agriculture? Most of the time they come home and smoke. It is we who do most of the work. The only access we have had to new ideas and knowledge has been provided by this handful of people who have come to work with us in the last few years. When we go home and suggest that we should try out some of these new ideas, our men again light their cheroots and either walk out of the house or lie in bed smoking.
We are all Nepalis, but we never knew anything about how our sisters live in different parts of the country, not even how they dress. This is the first time that we have come together to learn more about each other, and the problems facing the country.
Such statements indicated the critical importance that peasant women attach to the chance to step out of their particular environment and interact with other people, and the empowering experience of meeting other women in similar circumstances, in large numbers.
The statements made by both NGOs and by women working in government programmes for women, however, suggested that they had still to clearly understand the connection between environmental problems and peasant women's life experiences. Their development work with women, so far, had focussed mainly on income-generating activities and providing needed services or to ensuring some access to development assistance and visibility. Most of them had assumed that it was their duty to create awareness among peasant women on environmental problems. But in fact, most of the actual connections between the women's livelihood and other experiences and the state of the environment were articulated by peasant women during the group discussions. Their underlying message was clear - the women wanted access to whatever expertise and knowledge was available so that they could decide what would be useful or viable in their own situations.
As in the case of Bangladesh and other Summits, the peasant women of Nepal linked their low socio-economic status to a lack of recognition of their labour in agriculture and other sectors of the rural economy. Nepali women also related this problem to their exclusion from knowledge systems and extension services.
The Pakistan Summit lasted for three days; the participants included 99 peasant women and 40 others. The second group (again a fluctuating number) consisted of representatives and extension workers from NGOs working with peasant women, some government personnel, scientists, Members of Parliament, and representatives of UNICEF and UNIFEM who had assisted the Aurat Foundation in identifying groups from the villages.
The Pakistan Summit did not begin with a formal inauguration. After opening statements by the organisers the plenary session went straight into identifying the problems. In the process many peasant women talked about difficulties in their areas and their efforts to bring about some change in their immediate environment.
Thereafter working groups were formed on the basis of language. Moderators recorded the daily activities of the women and the problems they experienced in their work. Both social and physical aspects of environmental deterioration were discussed in these sessions.
The results of these discussions were presented in a plenary on the second day, mainly by peasant women. This was followed by the recounting of some success stories by a few women from each Province. The participants then returned to their groups to reach some solutions collectively, which they presented to the full conference later in the day. Subsequently, the women heard a presentation on the environment by the Pakistan Agricultural Research Council.
On the last day the women had a face-to-face dialogue with women politicians officials from the Ministry of Local Government, the Agricultural Research Council, the Department of Fisheries and an NGO involved in community development. A key component of the Conference was the dissemination of information to the women, as well as to NGOs, on environment issues and appropriate technologies.
The India Summit had the longest duration, five days. The participants included 80 peasant women from 27 groups, and 29 NGO representatives. The third category, whose numbers fluctuated through the five days, included government representatives, scientists, other experts, representatives of donor agencies, the faculty of the two organising institutions - Centre for Women's Development Studies (CWDS) and the National Institute of Rural Development (NIRD) - and the Directors of the last two who were present through all the plenary sessions. Some of them also attended group discussions, occasionally putting questions to the peasant women; the Director, NIRD, generously assisted with translations from three south Indian languages, or from Hindi whenever necessary. Translations from English into Hindi or Bengali were done by the faculty of the CWDS or the national representative of UNIFEM.
There was no formal inaugural session. The two Directors informed participants that there was no set agenda, since the main objective of the Summit was to obtain peasant women's perspectives based on their experience and understanding of environmental problems. While introducing themselves during the plenary, peasant women also talked about their problems, struggles and experiences. At the end of the day a list of issues identified by the various women was read out.
Three regional working groups were formed: (i) north and west; (ii) south; and (iii) east, to discuss, elaborate or add to this list of issues through the second, third and fourth days, to work out collective solutions or strategies, and formulate recommendations. Each group had a moderator and one or two rapporteurs.
On the third day the working groups paused in their discussions to have a dialogue in plenary with the well-known agricultural scientist, Dr. M.S. Swaminathan. The peasant women put forward the major problems that they had identified on the first day, as well as further elaborations arrived at during group discussions. Dr. Swaminathan took detailed notes; in his response he commended their struggles to protect their natural resource base as well as their detailed knowledge of their problems, and offered them some basic information on the national dimensions of the problems of land degradation, water pollution and scarcity, and deforestation. He also spoke of the efforts under way by scientists to deal with these problems. He agreed with the women that such problems could only be resolved if the government, scientific agencies and people's groups, 'especially women's groups like yours' worked together in close partnership. He made a few suggestions for the women's consideration which were taken note of by the working groups in their continued discussions.
The recommendations of the three groups were presented at an evening plenary on the fourth day for general discussion. The rapporteurs then finalised them for presentation at the final session on the fifth day to representatives of the Government of India.
Though the recommendations were presented in English, the peasant women were aware of what they contained because of the previous evening's discussion, as well as the translations made by their own interpreters. It was therefore possible for them to put forward the reasons behind their specific recommendations as well as their own determination to follow up on collective decisions.
The main difference in the format between the India Summit and the others was the absence of any set agenda or guidelines for the peasant women. The issues were identified by them in the working groups; and moderators and rapporteurs did not attempt to control the discussions.
Despite the variations in format and preparatory approach, all the Summits had marked similarities in the way participants articulated their problems, analysed their causes and effects, and eventually offered solutions, strategies or recommendations. Such similarities demonstrate the commonalities in their experiences and their distinct attitude to issues relating to the natural environment. Apart from some specific problems that had to do with diverse ecological situations, national, cultural or religious diversities appeared to have little significance. Thus even before they met each other across national boundaries at the regional conference held in Lahore (February 10-12 1992), peasant women from all four countries demonstrated their close affinity through the Summits.
How did they perceive the environment? Women at the Bangladesh Summit said that the environment was
... the things that surround us. God-given things are those given to us in nature-air, water, soil, trees, mountain, sky, etc. - and man - made things are constructed by people - like factories, roads, bridges, cars, trains, etc. Social environment, the social conditions under which we live, is a large part of the man-made environment.
In order to emphasise their dependence on nature for their livelihood and survival, peasant women use terms like life, mother, source of happiness and so on, in referring to soil, water, air and trees. For Bibi Sultana from Gilgit, one of the northern-most regions of Pakistan, life centred around snow (or the lack of it) on the mountains:
If there is snow, we are happy, for it means we will have water in summer for irrigation, otherwise not. Our happiness depends on the snow.
Non-availability of potable water, and sometimes just any kind of water affected almost every peasant woman's life.
In our daily life we need water for all types of work, both domestic and outside.
The negative consequences of water scarcity for agriculture, livestock and domestic use was highlighted by all four Summits. The Indian Summit went on to give specific examples of such shortage being caused by man-made destruction, e.g., the filling up of tanks/ponds by the local or urban rich. Some of the groups in the Indian Summit had successfully mobilised village women to resist this cornering of community water resources by the well-to-do.
The rich people in our village were going to fill up the village pond. We called many women to stop this. If the pond went, where would we all get water?
Dayamma, Dharwar District,
When clean water is not available, we have to use dirty water. Why are the borewells and tanks neglected? They are not maintained properly. The Manjra river canal is silting up, no trees have been planted along it. In a few years, the people of Hyderabad will get no water because the canal will go dry.
Medak District, Andhra Pradesh, India
Deforestation as a major cause, and lack of irrigation as an effect, of water scarcity were mentioned by all the four Summits. The Indian Summit offered some specific examples of mismanagement. Major irrigation projects like the Indira Gandhi Canal in Rajasthan were a glaring example.
The Nahar (Indira Gandhi Canal) was supposed to solve all our water problems. But in many farms along the canal the crops are failing because there is too much water being released from the canal. Other farms, which are on a higher level, get no water. But the Canal Command Authority charges the same rate from everyone. What kind of justice is this?
Daphubai, Bikaner District,
North Rajasthan India
The Summits proved that peasant women do not need anyone to inform them of the causal connection between deforestation, soil erosion and the reduction or drying up of water resources.
Peasant women from Bangladesh, Pakistan and eastern India also brought up the devastating issues of floods, water-logging and salination.
Our problem is too much water. And too much salt.
Soudamini Mandal, 24 Parganas,
West Bengal, India
The India, Pakistan and Bangladesh Summits identified intensive agriculture with excessive irrigation and use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides as major contributory factors for environmental degradation and their misery.
We used to pick snails and paddy roots from the fields but now thanks to the pollution in the water we cannot get them. The pollution has destroyed many sources of food for the poor. These pesticides are killing our birds and us.
Now that we are restoring some of these lands through planting trees, we want to tell the government that chemical fertilizers and pesticides do a lot of harm to the land, the cattle and human beings. We can suggest methods to produce more of green manure, which our ancestors used. They will also prevent the pollution of water.
Sarala Sardar, President, Nari Bikash
Sangha, Bankura, West Bengal
All the Summits identified deforestation as a major cause of land degradation, soil erosion and shortages - of fuel, fodder and food for the poor.
The disappearance of big trees has increased the destructive power of storms and cyclones.
Even when we plant trees we cannot stop our men from cutting them because we have no land of our own. If we had land, we could have planted many trees and got more nutrition for our children.
Participants in the
It is not only forests that have succumbed to human greed, the demands of industry, and of the wealthy in urban and rural areas:
Our gomal (pasture) lands, even our village tanks are not safe from the greed of the well-to-do. They have conspired with the panchayat and the government officials, and converted these to private farms, or houses.
Our Mahila Sanghas (women's groups) do not have access to these common lands, or we would develop them for the use of everyone in the village. Women need fuel and fodder - common lands should be under the management of our Sanghas, and not used for private profit by industry or farmers.
Gangamma, peasant woman from
Dharwad District, Karnataka, India
We rear trees as we rear our goats and poultry. When we eat, we think of our livestock and our trees.
The tendency of peasant women to link various environmental, social and behavioural problems through causal connections demonstrates a holistic approach to the problems of natural and social environment, as well as an awareness of systemic connections and changes over time. Undoubtedly, this tendency created problems for rapporteurs who wanted to separate the problems, isolating their causes and effects. Even when talking about specific area problems like those resulting from shrimp cultivation for export purposes in Bangladesh, peasant women complained:
The country is being destroyed to earn foreign exchange. The saline water is entering our paddy fields, is being drunk by our children and our cattle, and ruining their health.
Every one of the Summits emphasised women's low socio-economic status as a major cause of their miseries, and the denial of any opportunity to participate in managing their own and the community's welfare. In this too, their understanding was holistic, linking their non-participatory status with lack of recognition for their labour, poverty, wage discrimination, unemployment or irregular work (India, Pakistan); neglect by the government (Nepal, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh); and agricultural research, training, and extension agencies (India, Nepal). The overall effect of this depressed status is lack of control over their productive and reproductive lives (Bangladesh).
However much work we do we get no recognition. Men have only one work, we have more than a dozen and the men add to it by deliberately breaking our ovens, pots and dirtying floors that we have just cleaned.
You people in the cities do not know how village women like us have to slog. As the farmer forces his bullocks to labour, poverty forces us to labour all the time.
One side is getting inflated while the other is shrinking. The section that is shrinking is getting destroyed.*
*The peasant women were not aware that this phenomenon is also a demographic reality. The sex-ratio in the populations of Bangladesh, India and Pakistan has recorded a declining proportion of females over several decades.
The Nepal and Pakistan Summits noted the high prices of fertilizers and inflation while the Bangladesh and India Summits criticised the ill-effects of chemicals and pesticides. Corruption in the public services was mentioned at some stage by all the Summits but there was some difference in its analysis. The Nepal and Pakistan Summits emphasised the inadequacy of infrastructural services to assist the rural economy, and women's need for education and health as burning problems. The India Summit, however, went into a detailed discussion on poor land records and worse communication as factors promoting corruption. In the peasant women's view, the poor's, especially poor women's ignorance about their rights contributes to corruption and collusion between local officials, the rich people, contractors and other middle men. They identified these as major reasons for alienation of common lands, tribal land, land allotted to the landless and to women.
We are the indigenous people of this land, we cleared the land and made it habitable. Later you people came with your knowledge, learning, technology and civilization. We welcomed you and made it possible for you to stay here. But now you are destroying our forests, polluting our soil, water and air, destroying our livelihood. You are driving us from our own home. Why are you doing this? A country becomes beautiful and rich if it has various types of people and culture. Just one language and culture in one country is not good. We are enriching our country by different languages, dialects, dresses and cultures. Our learning is less than yours, but do not leave us behind. Educate us so that we all can walk and live happily together.
A tribal peasant woman at the
Inequality-in wealth, assets, power, knowledge and status-according to all four Summits compounds and aggravates gender inequality.
How did the women respond to the Summits? For the overwhelming majority this was the first time that anyone had ever called them for such a discussion.
We have come from so far, from near the borders of China, not for tourism. We are representing the women of our valley. We should carry back some solution when we return. People will ask what we said in the Summit and what solutions we brought back.
We have come from east, west, north and south. The women are the same, the lessons are the same, our house work is the same, our field work is the same.
Now that we have come here, we want to take some of your happiness, knowledge and security back with us, while placing some of the burden of our unhappiness and misery on your shoulders.
We shall fill our minds like cassettes with all that we have learnt here, so that when we go back we can explain to others.
I like the way the women have taken possession of these meeting rooms as if the rooms are their own. My faculty was so afraid that they would feel intimidated by this large campus, the video recording, the microphones, so many strange people. I find no such signs.
Though the last plenary had been scheduled to take place in the auditorium, the Director, NIRD, changed the plan when he discovered the women had already settled down in the room they had come to regard as "their conference room". They sang on their way to join the sessions, at the end of the day's work, or during the lunch break. Perhaps they were celebrating their few days of freedom from their daily grind of work. Or was the stimulus provided by a feeling of empowerment, from solidarity and the birth of new hopes?
The most significant feature of the Summits' collective exercise in seeking solutions to the problems that they identified was that the suggestions and recommendations were directed towards women themselves as well as other authorities.
I have just realised that had the participants in this Conference been men from the same households, some of these recommendations (especially those relating to mutual cooperation between the women's groups across state boundaries to protect their forests from marauders) would never have come. These women are offering to take up very difficult responsibilities!
Samar Singh, Additional
Secretary, Ministry of Environment and
Forests, Government of India at the
As pointed out in the report of the Indian Summit, the sense of solidarity with others that resulted from the sharing of experiences and discovering commonalities, coupled with the opportunity to interact with persons in authority proved to be empowering experiences for the women.
Unlike many other conferences on similar themes, the groups did not confine themselves to making recommendations to the governments or other agencies. They proceeded to identify their own responsibilities and the specific types of support that they needed to discharge them effectively.
From this perspective, the peasant women's conference went far beyond the politics of protest or the politics of recommendations. It indicated the beginning of what might be termed as the politics of constructive participation within the framework of a partnership.
Report of the India Summit
A similar process marked the other Summits as well.
The Bangladesh Summit suggested measures to minimise soil erosion: "Plant five to ten trees if you cut one. Rear them like your children, and resist deforestation." For the government the Summit recommended programmes of afforestation, distribution of plants, either free or at cheap rates, and prohibiting the use of firewood in brick kilns.
The Pakistan Summit called on all women to organise, aquire land from the government for afforestation and ask all households to plant at least two trees, but "the government must supply water, cow-dung, grow forests - and let the community look after them - and set up biogas plants".
The Nepal Summit called upon its government to establish nurseries, distribute saplings, supply fencing material and allow only the lopping of branches rather than the felling of trees. It should also plant fodder, encourage tree-planting and introduce smokeless chulhas (cooking stoves). Women should take the responsibility to stop animals from straying, and also pressurise their men to divert family resources from alcohol and gambling to farming. The women's efforts were likely to be more effective if the government improved the supply of biogas at concessional rates and of agricultural credit and marketing services.
The India Summit first called on the women's groups to network with others, both within and outside their states, to widen the mass base of voluntary action. It proposed a collaboration between women's groups and scientific institutions to ensure access to information, education and training in various alternative methods of solving their problems for the former. The government, on the other hand, was asked to incorporate support for income-generating activities by women within programmes for wasteland development, recovery of water resources, agro-processing etc., "to help strengthen peasant women's concern for natural resources and empower them collectively". The government was also asked to promote the active and effective involvement of peasant women's groups in the management, preservation and regeneration of forests, the recovery of common property resources, and so on, with due authority and support. Before all this, however, it recommended that the government improve, update and publicise its land records, prevent the privatisation of common lands and water, and the misuse of local resources by officials.
Both the Bangladesh and India Summits laid great emphasis on limiting the use of chemicals in agriculture. At an individual level the women from Bangladesh pledged to propagate the use of organic manure, to reduce the cultivation of high yielding varieties (HYV) of paddy (which require heavy inputs of fertilizers and pesticides), and halt the killing of birds, frogs and bees. The government was asked to promote the production of indigenous foodgrains, stop building fertilizer factories and airspraying fertilizers.
The Pakistan Summit was equally forthright. It recommended that the government construct wells to ensure regular water supply, but stop the construction of the Kalabag dam. Village organisations, on the other hand, were urged to collect funds for channelising river water to villages and installing water-pumping machines.
On the issue of health and sanitation the Bangladesh Summit advocated that individuals and villagers should use closed toilets, bury dead animals and refrain from throwing trash and sewage into open areas and rivers. For its part government was asked to provide free or cheap toilets and tubewells.
The Pakistan Summit wanted their government to provide health centres, trained birth attendants and lady health visitors, as well as regular visits by doctors to villages, but placed the responsibility for improving the health and educational facilities and tackling the problem of official corruption on the local community, especially its chairman. Village level committees were asked to organise garbage removal, and raise public awareness. It recommended that there be more schools with trained teachers to teach hygiene, nutrition and health, but here too responsibilities should be divided. Girls with primary education should teach others, the community should provide buildings, and the government start the school. The provision of electricity, roads, vocational training centres and interest-free loans should be the responsibility of the government.
Despite the commonality in most of the solutions or recommendations, there were differences in presentation and emphasis. The importance of women's organisations and collective action was highlighted by all the Summits, but only the India and the Pakistan Summits identified actual roles for such grassroot organisations in managing, conserving or improving the environment.
The harsh impact of economic and social inequality within the social system on peasant women was again a common finding of all the Summits. But the need to ensure women's rights over land, trees and water resources was highlighted by the India, Pakistan and Bangladesh Summits. The India Summit also went on to speak about the need to recover, expand and redefine women's traditional rights in these matters.
While all the Summits acknowledged the positive role played by various NGOs in helping peasant women to obtain needed services and to organise themselves, the India Summit discussed this issue at some length. As the Report says:
In many cases the intermediary organisations are required to withdraw once the project reaches a certain level of success of the immediate objective e.g., income generation, afforestation, etc. But such success, important as it is for releasing women's confidence and faith in collective action and their own ability, needs to be sustained with new ideas, support, knowledge, guidance and resources if the women's groups are to overcome the powerful oppositions that are ranged against them. It is important for the intermediary organisations to continue to play a watchdog role and network with similar organisations on important issues to enable the women at the grassroot to learn from others' experiences... The intermediary organisations should not therefore confine their role to obtaining schemes and funds but think of long-term strategies for bringing about the needed changes in the natural and social environments.
For peasant women to play an effective role in solving the crisis of environment and development, the vital instrument is their overall empowerment. Empowerment, participation, partnership are relational terms. The continued use of conventional terms like 'beneficiaries' by many intermediaries and donor agencies demonstrates some degree of ideological confusion. Unless these are eliminated through careful analysis, discussion and collective effort, they could affect the quality of the intermediaries' relationship to the women at the grassroots. Everyone has a role to play in bringing about this change-the women themselves, their NGO supporters, the government and the scientific, educational and research establishments.
1 Sunil Sen, Working Women and Popular Movements in Bangladesh: From the Gandhi Era to the Present Day, Calcutta, K.P. Bagchi, 1985.
Madhuri Bose, Martha Loutfi and Shimwaayi Muntemba, Rural Development with Women-Elements of Success, Geneva, ILO, 1984, Paper for African and Asian International ILO.
K. Lalita, V. Kannabiran et al: We Were Making History: Life Stories of Women in the Telengana People's Struggle, Delhi, Kali; Samya Shakti, Vol. I & 2 II, CWDS, 1984.
2 Lotika Sarkar, What Price Constitutional Equality? Peasant Women and Land Reform in India (forthcoming). See also Bina Agarwal, Who Sows? Who Reaps? Gender and Land Rights in South Asia, Cambridge University Press (forthcoming); Kumud Sharma, Women in Social Forestry Programmes: two case studies of Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh (mimeo), CWDS, 1987; Narayan Banerjee, "Women's Work and Family Strategies: A Case Study from Bankura, West Bengal, CWDS; Bina Pradhan, et al, "Women's Work and Family Strategies: Case Studies from Nepal" (mimeo), Centre for Women and Development, Kathmandu; Sudhin Mukhopadhya, and Banisikha Ghose, "Women's Work, Technology and Family Strategies Case Studies from Nadia and Burdwan, West Bengal" (mimeo), Centre for Human Development, Kalyani University, West Bengal; Report of the National Colloquium on Role of Women in Water Resource Management, A CWDS/UNICEF/National Drinking Water Mission joint publication, 1990; Report of National Workshop on Women and Wasteland Development, ILO, Delhi, 1991.
3 D.D Kosambi, Culture and Civilisation of Ancient India in Historical Outline, Delhi, Vikas, 1982.
M.S Swaminathan, The Role of Education and Research in Enhancing Rural Women's Income and Household Happiness, Delhi, CWDS, 1985.
Vina Mazumdar, "Education and Rural Women: Towards an Alternative Perspective" in Arunashree Rao (ed.) "Women's Studies-Nairobi and Beyond," New York, Feminist Press, 1991.
Vina Mazumdar and Kumud Sharma, "Sexual Division of Labour: A Reappraisal from India," in Irene Tinker (ed.) Persistent Inequalities: Women and World Development, New York, Oxford University Press, 1990
4 Asok Mitra, India's Population. Aspects of Quality and Control, Vol. 1, Delhi, Abhinav, 1978.
Asok Mitra, The Status of Women: Shifts in Occupational Participation, 1961-71. Delhi, Abhinav, 1980.
International Rice Research Institute: Women in Rice Farming - Proceedings of Workshop on Women in Rice Farming Systems, England, Gower, 1985.
5 Ester Boserup, Women's Role in Economic Development, New York, St. Martin's, 1970.
6 India, Ministry of Education and Social Welfare, Towards Equality: Report of the Committee on the Status of Women in India, New Delhi, 1974.
7 Status of Women in Nepal. Centre for Economic Development and Administration, Kathmandu, 1979.
R. Chowdhury, Huda and Ahmed Rajhan Female Status in Bangladesh, Dhaka, Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies, 1980.
Joan P. Mencher, "Landless Women Agricultural Labourers in India: Some Observations from Tamil Nadu, Kerala and West Bengal". In Women in Rice Farming, op cit. See also Acharya Sarathi and Praveen Patkar, K. Saradamoni, Tarunnessa Abdulla and Bina Pradhan in the same volume.
9 Kumud Sharma and Vina Mazumdar, "Women's Studies in India: New Perceptions and Challenges" Economic and Political Weekly, January 1979.
10 Sarthi Acharya, "Women and Rural Development in the Third World," Bombay, TISS, 1987.
12 "Women and Development: Report of the Nonaligned Minister's Conference," Government of India, Ministry of Human Resource Development, 1985.
14 UNICEF/UNFPA/UNCED Symposium on Women and Children First, Geneva 1991.
Declaration of the Tribunal of Miami World Congress for a Healthy Planet, Miami, Florida, November 12 1991.
15 N.C. Saxena, "Women and Wasteland Development in India: Policy Issues" Technical Workshop on Women and Wasteland Development, organised by ILO, January 9-11, 1991.
Robert Chambers, N.C. Saxena and Tushar Shah, To the Hands of the Poor: Water and Trees, Delhi, Oxford, 1989.
Vandana Shiva, Staying Alive: Women, Ecology and Survival in India, Delhi, Kali for Women, 1988.
Report of the National Committee on Role and Participation of Women in Agriculture and Rural Development, Government of India, Ministry of Agriculture, 1980.
Gamel Rao Parthasarathy, G. Dasaradharma, "Women in Labour Foce in India," in Women in the Indian Labour Force, Bangkok, ARTEP, 1981.
Devaki Jain, and Malini Chand Sheth, "Domestic Work-Its Implication for Enumeration of Workers." Conference on the Role of Women in the Caribbean & Barbados, September 12-16, 1982.
Centre for Women's Development Studies, "Who Will Save the Earth?" Report of a Workshop at Bankura, West Bengal, August 27-30, 1987.
"National Colloquium on Role of Women in Water Resource Management," A CWDS/UNICEF/National Drinking Water Mission joint publication, 1990.
Anil Agarwal, Try Asking Women First, Centre for Science and Environment, Delhi, Mimeo.
Kumud Sharma, "Women in Struggle: A Case Study of the Chipko Movement," Samya Shakti, Vol. 1, 1984.
16 International Labour Organisation, "Technical Workshop on Women and Wasteland Development," January 9-11, 1991, Delhi.
17 Centre for Science and Environment, State of India's Environment, Delhi, 1983 & 1985.
18 "Management and Regeneration of the Natural Environment: A Wider Role for Peasant Women," Report of the National Conference, Hyderabad, August 26-30, 1991.
ILO, The Bankura Story, Delhi, 1990.
19 The author's suggestion to this effect for the International Conference on Women in Agriculture organised by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, 1989 was rejected by the latter as "impossible".
20 ILO, "Rural Women and Wasteland Development," op. cit.
21 See ILO, The Bankura Story, op. cit.
Vina Mazumdar, "Peasant Women Organise for Empowerment: The Bankura Experiment," paper presented at a Symposium on Progress for Women in Developing Countries, Brussels, September 27-29, 1988.
Vina Mazumdar, Martyn Webb & Audrey and Narayan Banerjee, Women of the Forest, CWDS & Orient Longman (forthcoming).
22 In personal conversation with the author during the AWID Conference at Washington, November 23, 1991.
Source Documents for the rest of this chapter are a) the reports of the four Summits, and b) observation notes of the Nepal and Bangladesh Summits made by the author and her colleague, N.K. Banerjee.