Investing in women dairy farmers will reap rich dividend

Dr. Sarita Anand

As part of the PERIMILK Study, a team of qualitative researchers visited some of the project sites under the guidance and leadership of Dr. Sarita Anand, Associate Professor, Lady Irwin College, Delhi University. They found that nearly 85-90% of the tasks on the farm were carried out by women. In some cases, even the milking was done by them and yet they did not feel they were doing more than their rightful share. Societal conditioning and role play made this skewed arrangement normal and acceptable to most of them. It was only where women were educated, from an upper caste or from a financially stronger background, that they could insist on a more equal distribution of tasks. Also, where ever women were assigned responsibility they did exceedingly well. Excerpts from an interview with Dr Sarita Anand, post the team’s visit to Bangaluru in Karnataka and Ludhiana in Punjab.

Q: Are women aware that they are shouldering a larger burden of the dairy farm work?

This is an accepted reality that is ingrained in their psyche. They feel it is an extension of their housework and therefore do not resent it. The way they care for their own children, elders, physically challenged and infirm members of the household, so also they care for their animals. If a mother with an infant is in a hurry to return from an outdoor visit, knowing the baby would be waiting to be fed, in the same way, a female farm worker would hasten back home in time to milk the animal. Their protective and maternal instincts are evident in the relationship they share with their cattle. There seems to be a mutual understanding on what and how much must the women do and at what stage should men-folk step in. For instance in farms where the milk output is just 3-4kg, loading of the milk in the cans and then onto the bicycle/rickshaw/motorbike is done by the women. But where the milk output is, say 20-30kg, the task is handled by the son/brother-in-law/husband.

Similarly, in Karnataka we saw there were more cows in the peri urban dairy farm as opposed to buffalos in Punjab. Since the buffalo is a bigger animal, men on their own stepped in to give a helping hand in the cleaning and herding tasks. Depending on how sturdy and efficient women were at handling multiple tasks of housekeeping and farm management, they earned the respect of family elders, neighbours and communities. They were considered capable, strong and efficient, if they maintained all these fronts with equanimity.

Q: Do men acknowledge women’s extra hours of labour in the dairy farm? Do they involve them in decisions such as where to sell the milk, for how much, when to call the vet etc?
On the face of it, both men and women harmoniously split the tasks. They claimed to take all decisions jointly. If women allowed men to take certain decisions, it was because they felt uncomfortable taking them. For instance when men called a vet, they may make the call from the mobile, but after the initial conversation, they either passed the phone on to the wife or kept checking with her answers to the vet’s questions pertaining to symptoms of the animal’s condition. Since the woman spent more time with the animal, she was likely to have answers to those questions and therefore must step in to bring clarity. Similarly, if men were out in the field or at work, the women attended to the vet who came to see the animal. According to dairy farmers who were interviewed, there was no taboo on women interacting with male vets or not being privy to certain decisions. For purpose of convenience, demarcations were made and the farm managed smoothly with joint participation of men and women, even if women were shouldering a bulk of the physical work.

Q: Does education have a link with the value associated with a woman dairyist?
Absolutely. Where the woman is educated, she lends a much more methodical approach to tasks like book keeping, recording, budgeting and communication. She is more confident and other women spontaneously look up to her, acknowledging her as the leader. At home too, other members involve her with a kind of reverence that is associated with someone who is wise, knowledgeable and better informed.

Q: What is the role of training and capacity building?
One cannot sufficiently over emphasise the role of training with respect to women dairy farmers. They are quick to respond to inputs and put them into action. Wherever women have been placed in positions of authority they have done well, irrespective of their educational qualifications, financial status or caste and background. Once they overcome their hesitation and awkwardness, they blossom and take charge. As they grow in stature, they also inspire other women who want to be like them. Training and capacity building is the key to empowering them and bringing about a qualitative change in the way peri urban dairy farms are managed and run.

Q: Is caste a factor in the kind of treatment meted out to a woman in the dairy sector?
In certain settings it matters. Like in Bangaluru, women belonging to the Gowda community were more revered. This is a business community that also has a high stake in politics. Women dairy farmers hailing from this caste were found to be more vocal, confident and authoritative in their interactions with the Cooperatives. They were also assigned more senior positions of authority. Whether subtle or overt, caste has its place in the agrarian economy. In peri urban settings, however, most families are migrants or from poor and disadvantaged backgrounds. In a sense, that itself is unifying and binding.

Q: Does the respect accorded to a woman farmer vary from region to region?
This is a definite possibility. Women in Karnataka for instance, even if from poorer and marginalised families, were respected based on how much work they performed and what the quality of that work was. If, for instance, a woman managed her home front and also a dairy farm of say 4-5 animals well, she was considered a valuable member of the household. The same scenario in Punjab, however, would be different. A woman who came from a wealthy background and who brought in a sizable dowry was more likely to be respected. Also she would be made to shoulder lesser burden of work in the household as compared to a woman who came from a more disadvantaged background.

Q: What has been your experience of working with PHFI/RCZI?
The methodology adopted to undertake the study has exposed us to a transdisciplinary approach that brings a more unified understanding of the social and cultural determinants of health. At a personal level too, the experience has been interesting and insightful. I have been working in the field of women empowerment and health for nearly three decades but this is the first time that I had the chance to work on the gender dimension in the area of animal health. Visiting multiple sites provided ample opportunity to juxtapose ground realities to the socio-cultural dynamics that governed that particular setting. The findings have so far been nothing but enriching and insightful, encouraging us to probe deeper.

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