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gender equality green is the new black

Feminism in Farming is Overdue: Gender Equality Gets on Cotton’s Agenda

It is not commonly understood that the climate crisis is as much about people as it is about the environment. For most of its existence, commercial fashion has run on women’s labour and cotton cultivation. The two are not mutually exclusive. From sowing seeds to harvesting, spinning yarn to garment making, women from rural geographies may as well be running the industry. Yet in India, agriculture is perceived as a male-dominated sector and women farmers remain under-represented. As voices rise in support of exploited garment workers, gender equality in India’s cotton farms is long overdue too.

Focus: rural Indian patriarchal systems

Cotton is one of India’s prime cash crops, contributing to 22% of the total global production. With a value chain that initiates at farms and ends as fabric and garments, it is highly labour-intensive. In just the cultivation phase, comprising of sowing, irrigation and harvesting, participative labour stands at 47% women farmers. This number is more than double, at 84%, when the sheer population of rural women dependant on agriculture for their livelihoods, is taken into account.

But here lies the crux of the matter: Indian agriculture has been steeped in patriarchy and deep-rooted gender-bias, which essentially prevents women from owning the land that they farm. Historically supported by inheritance laws, familial land rights are often passed onto male heirs, whereas women are legally branded as no more than ‘cultivators’ or labourers. Discrimination has been dished out through government agricultural policies that are highly beneficial for land-owning farmers rather than all agricultural workers. This cascades to exclusion from schemes and subsidies, including credit and crop insurance, among others. Despite the long battle for gender equality, less than 8% of Indian women farmers own land today.

Limited economic freedom, lack of rural infrastructure and public transport further pose a series of challenges to advancing women in farming. In some small villages, women are still escorted by men, even on their commute. Where mobility is limited, so is the exposure to knowledge and market-facing opportunities. The fear of losing out on biased daily wages also prevents women farmers from making long commutes to avail rural banking services or taking up training workshops by non-profits. Meanwhile, in the absence of science, superstition takes hold. According to interviews by non-profit Fashion Revolution, it is not an uncommon belief that a woman ploughing the field will result in drought in that village.

What does gender equality have to do with the future of cotton?

Hiding in plain sight and wreaking havoc on the environment, conventional cotton farms have degraded soil health and contaminated and over-consumed water resources. The Green Revolution of the 1960s might have led to improved yields and increased jobs, but it took a toll on the environment. As one of the largest producers of cotton in the world, India’s lands have borne the brunt and are on the mend. Now, the future of cotton is completely dependent on sustainable agriculture practices.

As cotton is one of the thirstiest crops out there, consuming 22,500 litres of water for 1 kg of produce, better irrigation, climate-friendly resource distribution, and the impact of negligent farming needs to be taught to the core labour force, i.e., women. For this reason, the lack of gender equality in farming is a climate crisis issue. Despite their key and abundant roles in the cotton value chain, women are under-equipped with resources to farm sustainably, under-trained on new sustainable agricultural practices and have little-to-no digital or financial literacy.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations estimates that with access to the same productive resources as men, women would increase the yields on their farms by 20-30%. Studies by organisations like Better Cotton and Cotton Connect have underlined gender equality and the role of women farmers in agriculture as a game-changer. And as fashion brands use regenerative farming and inclusive labour in their marketing agendas, it is evident that the importance of building climate resilience at the farm level is becoming widespread knowledge.

Making the business case for empowering women in cotton farming is Alison Ward, CEO, Cotton Connect: It has been proven time and again that gender equality is not simply a moral issue. When women are empowered to take care of themselves, make decisions, take charge of land and their finances, not only does their household income grow, the entire community economy benefits. It would be disadvantageous to all stakeholders if we failed to find a gateway for women to be included in these vital conversations.

Reaping benefits? Breaking down policies aiding women farmers in India

In unorganised sectors, control over the implementation of labour laws is deemed an uphill task. In India, gender-based wage differences are prevalent across the agriculture industry and the Women Farmers Entitlement Bill (2011) lapsed a decade ago due to political unwillingness. As land-ownership continues to be challenging, so do the financial benefits that come with it. However, there are both government and NGO-led initiatives to help even out the gender-bias.

The concept of women SHGs (Self Help Groups) has existed for decades now. These informal associations of women farmers and cultivators were created to share combined knowledge of government schemes. In India, the National Rural Livelihood Mission has almost 5 million WSHGs under its umbrella, and has helped women access loans, provided training and promoted use of technology. Yet, only 50% of women cotton farmers currently participate in SHGs. Though in recent years, the government’s support for FPOs (Farmer Producer Organisations) has addressed some fundamental challenges including gender inclusivity with regards to incomes and provision of better economies of scale. Through the Jeevika program, 200,000 farmers have been mobilised into FPOs in the state of Bihar and this emerging trend is here to take over farming intensive states across the country.

Other initiatives include the launch of nation-wide agricultural science centres, dubbed ‘Krishi Vigyan Kendra’ to introduce awareness campaigns aimed at removing social biases towards women’s role in farming.

women farmers - gender equality in cotton farming

IMAGE: via Cotton Connect  | IMAGE DESCRIPTION: Five women farmers carrying sacks of plucked cotton standing in a cotton field

But, who is really putting gender on the agenda?

Be it introducing regulatory framework, campaigning for certifications, or training women farmers – it’s non-profits like RESET, Fashion Revolution and Cotton Connect that are mainstreaming feminism in farming. They aim to dispute the difficulties in cultivation by linking them to gender-inclusive solutions that help economic, environmental, and social strengthening across the value chain.

RESET, ‘Regenerate the Environment, Society, and Economy through Textiles’, focuses on utilising indigenous and sustainable farming to uplift the livelihoods of tribal folk and women cultivators in India. Following principles of agro-ecology, they restrict GMOs, pesticides and synthetic fertilisers, instead creating cow manure for soil nutrition, intercropping with pulses, planting border crops to manage pests, etc. The results of their efforts make the case for providing proper training and education to the actual labour force: In 5 years, 62,000 acres of cotton farms have been converted from degenerative to regenerative production systems, with 20-30% increased water retention capacity. The income of 15,000 farmers (with an emphasis on the female population) has also doubled in five years.

COTTON CONNECT has partnered with names like Burberry, Primark, Stella McCartney among others since 2009 to transform their cotton sourcing practices. One of their most successful programmes is ‘Women in Cotton’ – comprising many training projects such as sustainable farming skills, which has increased 16% yield across global Cotton Connect regions, along with reductions in water, pesticide and fertiliser usage. Some of the other ‘Women in Cotton’ projects include Farmer Business Schools and bespoke traceability software, TraceBale, which can be fed data right from farm and gin level, upwards. 

As the United Nation’s SDG #5 gets rooted in the sustainable cotton conversation, the common perception of the stereotypical Indian farmer is set to change. There’s no doubt that women are vital to the cotton value chain; what remains is including them in the climate crisis agenda and equipping them with combative resources.

FEATURED IMAGE: via Better Cotton | IMAGE DESCRIPTION: Close-up of a woman farmer squatting down in a cotton field