From workers on their own fields to landowners

Augmenting the livelihoods of women farmers in Gujarat


The 2011 census tells us that 74 per cent of the rural female workforce is engaged in agriculture, and increasing. Men move in large numbers to non-farm activities or migrate in search of work. More women-days go into every acre of land cultivated than man-days, across crops and regions. Despite the fact that about 98 million women in India are engaged in agriculture and allied activities and are primarily responsible for producing almost two-thirds of all agricultural produce and about three-fourths of dairy products, their share of the most important natural capital, that is, land, continues to be extremely small. Eighty-six per cent of India’s arable land is privately owned, and yet the overwhelmingly patriarchal nature of this ownership pattern is not questioned.

Although women-headed families account for over 32 per cent of all rural households, women hold less than 13 per cent of cultivated land. All this despite the fact that the Hindu Succession Act of 1956 mandates equal distribution of property among all inheritors irrespective of gender.

Women, despite their hard work, are not recognised as farmers”. They cannot gain access to any entitlements as farmers because they are not allowed to own agricultural land in our patriarchal society. The enormous contribution of women farmers remains unrecognised. When women farmers apply for credit or seek other productive resources to expand their holdings or improve their yield, this lack of title to landed property is an obstacle. Women are often bypassed in land reform or land redistribution processes. When people are relocated after being displaced because of government projects, women’s land rights are rarely acknowledged. Even when such rights are recognised and women are granted land, powerful vested local interests usually ensure that they cannot till it, particularly if the women belong to groups that have been traditionally discriminated against. These discriminatory practices are so deeply embedded in our social and cultural system that even those who are responsible for ensuring that daughters are not denied their rightful claims believe in patriarchal values and participate in systemic processes to dispossess women of their rightful claims.

National policies and plans have made attempts to address and correct the gender imbalance in agricultural land rights. The National Policy for the Empowerment of Women (2001) adopted the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (1995) and aimed at advancing women’s rights. It underlined the existing gap between the goals enunciated and the related mechanisms, on the one hand, and the reality of women’s status, on the other hand. The Tenth Plan (20022007) included a section on increasing women’s access to land by regularising the leasing and sharecropping of uncultivated agricultural land by women’s groups. The Eleventh Plan (2007 – 2012) emphasised the necessity of having a stronger focus on women in agriculture. Provisions were made for the direct transfer of land to women through land reforms, anti-poverty programmes, and resettlement schemes. The Twelfth Plan (2012 – 2017) went ahead with the objective of making this goal a reality.

Women in agriculture

  • 74% Rural workforce of women
  • 98 million women farmers

In 2003, the Working Group for Women and Land Ownership (WGWLO) was formed to meet the need for a focused, multi level, collective platform for sustained action and policy advocacy on the issue. Starting with an initial membership of 13 Gujarat-based non governmental organisations (NGOs), the WGWLO network has grown to include 41 NGOs, CBOs and individuals. The WGWLO tried to create an identity for women as farmers”, both at the family level and in the government system, and the strategies adopted by the organisation for this purpose.

Gujarat adopted a Gender Equity Policy (Nari Gaurav Niti) in 2006 and emphasises the fact that women’s lack of opportunity, access, and entitlement to economic resources acts as a barrier to equitable and sustainable development. 

The policy provides impetus to efforts aimed at increasing women’s control and ownership of land, property, and other common property resources. 

But the fact remains that land ownership is minuscule — hardly 13 per cent— and women are not recognised as farmers”.

Swa Bhoomi Kendra as an approach

The WGWLO began to build a cadre of community based para legal workers (PLWs) in 2007-08 to create awareness about women’s land rights, guide women about matters of revenue. While it is assumed that village and Block level revenue officials can guide women into asserting their rights, the procedures are too complex and women face resistance from their own family members when they assert rights. 

In addition, WGWLO realised that while there are several resource centres for women promoted by the government, there is still a dearth of centres that guide women in matters related to land revenue, that take up cases with the women’s relatives if needed, and that enable women to access land based livelihood enhancement entitlement.

In 2013, an institutional mechanism, Swa Bhoomi Kendra’, Centre for Land, Legal Literacy, and Access to Productive Resources by Women, was set up at the block level, and run by women sangathans, with a view to expanding the scope and reach of the issue of women’s land ownership taken up by members of WGWLO, by building stronger linkages with block-level revenue and agriculture officers. The Swa Bhoomi Kendra is thus a space” (located in the office of a local community-based organisation (CBO) or a space allocated to PLWs in the Block revenue official’s complex) where women come to seek help in dealing with their problems related to:

  • Women’s right to land ownership
  • Access to productive resources as women farmers

For more than five years now, 15 member NGOs or grassroots women’s sangathans have been running such Swa Bhoomi Kendras. These are all located at the block level, are run by PLWs who have been trained centrally by the WGWLO network, and are associatedwith the local women’s sangathans.

From agricultural labourers to women land owners: Sarthi, Santrampur

Sarthi has been at Santrampur since 1988, consistently working with women and tribals for their economic and social empowerment. Sarthi began with the creation of savings and credit groups. These groups later were merged with government programmes and are now running independently of the agency. In 2007-08, Sarthi received support under an externally supported programme to establish a platform for single women called the Ekal Nari Manch. Around the same time, Sarthi set up, with government support, a centre to provide women with information and legal aid support. This centre is located in the marketplace of Santrampur and is frequented by women having problems with their in-laws and husbands. In 2013, the Swa Bhoomi Kendra was also housed at this centre and women frequenting the centre got the opportunity to also get their land rights issues addressed.

Manjulaben gets her land back

I know the land that I have in my name is not that productive, but why does not such land come to me without a struggle?” asked Manjulaben, a widow with six children. Her husband died four years ago and she manages the household and farming with considerable difficulty. Her two grown-up daughters have migrated to Ahmedabad and work as casual daily wage labourers at construction sites. It is their income that is helping the family deal with the current crisis. The piece of land that she finally got registered in her name produced nothing because of the drought tha year.

Manjulaben had to fight hard for this land. She faced a double bind: first, she was an illiterate woman; and second, social convention prevented her from leaving her home immediately after the passing away of her husband. The family cultivated a piece of land that was registered in her husband’s name in the land records, but her name was not in the land records. During the Campaign on land inheritance Varsai Jumbesh (jumbesh means campaign), the Sarthi PLWs met Manjulaben and helped her with her struggle.

Manjulaben did not have the documents needed to get her name entered into the land records. The death certificate for her husband was missing. Her brothers-in-law were not forthcoming about getting the affidavit done. Both the PLWs worked hard to get the needed paperwork readied. After almost three months of running around, the village land revenue officer finally got her name entered into the inheritance deed along with the names of her daughters.

Most of the land in Santrampur located in ravines and in undulating terrain, and agriculture has always been a difficult proposition. Most farmers in the villages of Santrampur do not have access to irrigation and lack agricultural implements. They get the land ready for sowing through their own hard work. In the case of Manjulaben, she had the support of her two adult daughters. The family also works on the land of others in exchange for the tilling of their land for which they seek support from other farmers. This year, the rains were poor and so the family’s hard work and investments yielded no returns. Most farmers face a similar situation, although some are slightly better off because they have some access to water points and also have the machinery needed to irrigate their land. 

In accordance with the design of the Swa Bhoomi Kendra, Sarthi appointed two rural women members from its own rural women’s collective who received regular training from WGWLO to spearhead the efforts. The women PLWs, armed with knowledge about procedures pertaining to land records and being well versed with legal terminology, were confident and capable enough to challenge their male counterparts from the villages. Sarthi’s campaign in five villages, its invitation to women to visit their centre, and the holding of interactions at the village level all helped women seek their rights to inherit land. Campaigns were organised on this issue as well as on partition of land, access to productive resources, and sustainable agriculture and farming.

The Working Group for Women and Land Ownership (WGWLO), initiated in 2002 is a network of organisations committed to sustained grassroot action and policy advocacy around the issue of women’s land rights, to enable women’s access and ownership of land and other productive resources. WGWLO is based in Gujarat and has a diverse membership of more than 40 NGOs and CBO (community-based organisation) and individuals with varied expertise, across 17 out of total 33 districts of Gujarat. WGWLO has successfully been able to address the issue of women’s land ownership from the perspectives of women’s rights and empowerment as well as livelihood enhancement. Since 2009 onwards, expansion of land rights agenda has come into practice – from women’s ownership of private land, the network has expanded land rights of women to public land including forest land, common land and government land from a gender perspective. The agenda of land rights and right to productive resource was gradually elaborated and consolidated by working with women farmers for sustainable agriculture. The network uses its collective strength to lobby for change at various levels through forging strategic alliances with existing other networks, influencing Government and non-Government agencies, and mass media

The challenges

All this has not been an easy task for Sarthi and its two PLWs. They faced difficulties at every juncture.

Given the patriarchal nature of social systems, they were asked questions about their intentions by local leaders, and male leaders asked them not to meddle in such matters. There was a social practice in which members of extended family would brand widows as witches to claim the land as their own, in addition to the poor economic condition of widowed women who did not have ways of securing a livelihood. Additionally, processes were not simple and death certificates were hard to procure, people refused to serve as witnesses to affidavits, land record officials were not supportive and the women could often not cover the cost of filing necessary paperwork. Finally, PLWs had to make several visits to the homes of women farmers, which were not easy to reach because of the terrain. 

Despite these difficulties, the centre has an impressive record. In just one campaign in 2015 with the government, the two PLWs of Sarthi succeeded in entering the cases of 98 widowed women with 170 married daughters and 14 unmarried daughters into the land records. In addition, the holding of camps and the presence of the Swa Bhoomi Kendra in the villages helped in recording the names of 86 families, including 155 women, as landowners. In the last year and a half, Sarthi has ensured land ownership to 59 women: 23 widows, 30 daughters, and six women with their husbands in their joint names. So far, it has ensured land ownership to more than 500 women.

From facilitating land ownership to enhancing land productivity for women farmers

Helping women to get land and then to have it registered in their name is one side of the livelihood challenge. The livelihood of women landowners is bolstered when other capital resources are added to their resources. The PLWs of the Swa Bhoomi Kendras, trained by the collective network WGWLO, have done commendable work in addressing this side of the livelihood challenge as well.

The challenges are many, especially when the Swa Bhoomi Kendra works with women farmers: applications made under government schemes are no guarantee of access to the schemes or to their benefits or entitlements. The final list of applicants brought out by the government departments requires each applicant to submit the details of purchase of the item concerned. They have to purchase the item by paying the entire amount, after which the government reimburses the subsidy amount. A woman farmer who had applied to purchase a 3 hp (horsepower) motor could not organise the entire amount of the payment and had to forfeit the benefit. There are many cases of farmers, particularly women farmers, who could not organise the entire amount of money required and hence failed to complete the transaction before the official deadline, resulting in their being debarred from obtaining benefits.

Finally, the most important challenge is dealing with the delay in getting the amount credited to the accounts of beneficiaries. The delay means that women farmers have to pay interest on the borrowed sum to avail benefits. Given the fact that these women have very limited access to formal credit sources, this delay and its consequences only worsens their situation.

Access to institutions and networks

A major problem faced by farmers is the absence of appropriate institutions, and the lack of linkages between these institutions and other institutions, that can further their livelihoods. For women in general, and for women farmers in particular, this situation is far more serious. Because of their restricted mobility and tremendous workload, they are not able to connect with the external world. To a great extent, the interventions of the Swa Bhoomi Kendras and the efforts of women’s collectives have helped in addressing this issue

WGWLO itself is a network, and hence all the PLWs of the Swa Bhoomi Kendras are linked with each other. They meet every quarter. The meetings are forums not just for an exchange of inputs but also for learning and sharing from one another. This has created linkages between women farmers and their leaders who were not even known earlier. Now the leaders are linked with women farmers in at least 12 districts. When they face any issues or problems, they call one another directly to seek advice and guidance. Establishing these linkages has increased the overall confidence of the members of Swa Bhoomi Kendras.

Women farmers of the block meet at least twice a year during campaigns and district conventions held by the Swa Bhoomi Kendra. This networking has helped them to connect with many good women farmers, and to learn from, and exchange knowledge with, one another. The linkages with agricultural departments, KVKs, banks, and revenue departments at the block, district, and state levels have furthered the interests of women and members of village-level institutions.


WGWLO has been working intensively in 12 districts and has supported the establishment of 15 Swa Bhoomi Kendras. The kendras have been run by the member NGOs and women’s sangathans of WGWLO for more than five years now. The kendras collectively have facilitated more than 7,000 women to obtain ownership of land; supported more than 13,000 women farmers to register themselves under the I‑Khedut portal; and enabled more than 7,500 women farmers to gain access to productive resources in the last five years.

They have successfully demonstrated the impact of an exclusive institutional mechanism like that of Swa Bhoomi Kendra to ensure women’s ownership of land and access to productive resources, which are critical for the livelihood of an agrarian household as well as for the Indian economy, which is still a predominantly agrarian economy. The case also shows that an agency needs to work on multiple fronts to augment the livelihood of vulnerable groups. This multidimensional approach has led to the success of Swa Bhoomi Kendras. In the context of the feminisation of agriculture and the increasing number of women farmers, such mechanisms are truly the need of the hour; they augment the livelihoods of agriculture based households. With the country facing an on-going agrarian crisis, the scope of centres like Swa Bhoomi Kendras could also expand to reach out to farmers, especially in suicide-prone areas, where women farmers are the worst hit.

The amount of capital generated is vast because the Swa Bhoomi Kendras are interconnected through a network, WGWLO. Similar centres and networks should be established to provide regular inputs and to facilitate sharing and learning among the members. This would ensure women the right to claim inheritance over land, a right that has been denied to them. The Swa Bhoomi Kendras also facilitate women farmers in claiming other productive resources. Both these processes require long- term financial and human investment. Government departments and development agencies need to make investments and far-reaching efforts to enhance livelihood security for women farmers for the long term.

Stories of Change Compendium