By Neha Sharma
Not many gender studies are available with respect to women’s roles in peri urban farms. Given the nature of these farms, most families here are poverty ridden, isolated and ignorant. Women usually accept their lot uncomplainingly when plied with additional tasks related to upkeep of the farm. It therefore came as a pleasant surprise, to see women dairy farmers in Bangaluru in a more empowered position.
Cooperatives nurture the egalitarian spirit
They were involved in all dairy activities and not just those that required physical effort. Some of them were in leadership roles within the domestic farm enterprise and the Collective one at the village level and were also connected with the health system. The organised method followed in Bangaluru was a model worth replicating. Collecting milk from households and bringing it to a village Cooperative was the first step. Once this pooling was done, milk was tested and sold to the Karnataka Milk Federation. This systematic process ensured dairy farmers got a good rate, there were no middlemen and milk quality was assured. The village Cooperative was a strong body that was well managed with a fair and equitable distribution of men and women in leadership roles. Here, women were enrolled not just as Members but also elected President, Director and/or Tester. Each Member benefited with the training received from the Federation. This helped them understand the science of rearing animals and gave them confidence to manage a farm, enhancing their decision making skills.
“Partnership” mode more prevalent with roles complementing one another
In households where animal rearing was done with a commercial motive, both man and woman worked out their duties jointly. A conscious effort was made not to over burden either the male or female. A typical day started around 3am with men cleaning the farm and women bathing the animals and doing the milking. Affluent homes had the milking machine which costs approximately Rs70-80,000, while others did it manually. If the house was away from the village dairy, the man of the house usually took the milk in a container to deposit the milk. In some cases women did it too, especially if the collected milk was less and the container, therefore, not too heavy. Other tasks, like feeding and taking care of the animal, were undertaken by both. Only in places where men were working elsewhere, the responsibility of running the farm fell squarely on the woman’s shoulders. In either case, given the man’s mobility it was usually left to him to arrange for medicines in the event of the animal being sick, buying fodder from the merchant or the important task of buying and selling of animals.
“Zoonoses” still an alien and complex subject
As far as health of the animal was concerned, farmers were responsive to the slightest change in the animal’s behaviour. First level of treatment was given at home and only if the problem persisted did they call the doctor through the village Cooperative by submitting a Rs 5 token in case of a normal visit and Rs 40 in an emergency in which case the doctor came through the KMF. If this option did not work out, a Veterinary Inspector or Veterinary Officer was called. In both scenarios, it was usually seen that the women were called upon to explain symptoms and answer the questions posed by the Vet, since they spent more time with the animal.
Overall, farmers had no knowledge of what ‘zoonoses’ was and when told about it, denied outright about their being at any kind of risk from getting infected by the animal. They never received any training or material by the veterinary or extension department on the subject. The only training they had was by observing the vet or local animal doctor who visited them when their animal was sick. However, those who were Members of the Cooperative, had received basic training on “healthy practices for animal rearing”. Women were mostly silent observers but swift in picking up little bits of information.
Peeling the layers to understand “women’s empowerment”
What was interesting to note in these preliminary interactions was that even if women were over burdened physically and not always taken into confidence in critical financial decisions, they did not perceive it as discriminating behaviour. They were quick to jump to their husband’s defence, justifying how they were treated fairly.
Were dairy farmers in Bangaluru different from their counterparts across the country? According to sociologists, the answer may lie in the socio-cultural drivers that prevail in Karnataka. In what is a largely matriarchal society where concept of dowry is not so prevalent, women’s position is stronger and they are less commodified. Moreover, there is higher level of literacy. Education clearly is a major weapon, ensuring greater equality in work distribution. Add to this the caste system. Many upper caste women were seen in dominant roles in the Cooperative. They were more vocal and commanded more respect from men and women alike. The complex interplay of commonly accepted gender roles and how they play out in real life, in this case, in peri urban settings, needs more focused and in-depth study. There can be no shades of black and white here.
Neha Sharma is a PhD scholar from Delhi University, pursuing research in the area of health communication.