Female farmers in northern India battle tradition, self-doubt to own land

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Female farmers in India
A farmer stands on her paddy field before cutting the crops at Bamuni village in Nagaon district in the northeastern state of Assam, India, November 19, 2016. REUTERS/Anuwar Hazarika
A farmer walks through a paddy field on the outskirts of Jammu, November 19, 2016. REUTERS/Mukesh Gupta
A farmer plucks marigold flowers from a field in Manchar village in the western state of Maharashtra, India, November 16, 2016. Picture taken November 16, 2016. REUTERS/Shailesh Andrade
A farmer sprays herbicide in her vegetable field in Kolkata, India, July 22, 2016. REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri
Jaswinder Kaur, a farmer, removes whitefly pest from cotton pods after plucking them from her damaged Bt cotton field on the outskirts of Bhatinda in Punjab, India, October 28, 2015. Indian farmers are for the first time abandoning genetically modified cotton after a devastating pest attack ravaged their fields, sowing doubts about the crop technology that had been hailed as a panacea. The whitefly attack on the Bt cotton variety in the states of Punjab and Haryana has caused a rural crisis: at least three farmers have committed suicide around the city of Bhatinda and tens of thousands protested to demand state aid. Picture taken October 28, 2015. To match INDIA-COTTON/ REUTERS/Munish Sharma
ALLAHABAD, UTTAR PRADESH, INDIA - 2016/07/17: Women farmers planting rice saplings in a paddy field. (Photo by Prabhat Kumar Verma/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)
ASSAM, INDIA - MAY 22: A woman winnows rice paddy to separate husk and impurities on May 22, 2016 in Assam, India. PHOTOGRAPH BY Diganta Talukdar/Barcroft Images London-T:+44 207 033 1031 E:hello@barcroftmedia.com - New York-T:+1 212 796 2458 E:hello@barcroftusa.com - New Delhi-T:+91 11 4053 2429 E:hello@barcroftindia.com www.barcroftimages.com (Photo credit should read Diganta Talukdar/Barcroft Images / Barcroft Media via Getty Images)
A woman farmer drinks water from an earthen pot in a wheat field on the outskirts of Ajmer in the desert Indian state of Rajasthan, April 4, 2015. India is the world's biggest wheat producer after China. REUTERS/Himanshu Sharma
A farmer works in a cabbage field on the outskirts of Agartala, capital of India's northeastern state of Tripura November 25, 2012. REUTERS/Jayanta Dey (INDIA - Tags: FOOD AGRICULTURE SOCIETY)
Farmers and members of India's rural communities take a nap during the "Jan Satyagraha" march along the national highway at Morena district of the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh October 5, 2012. Thousands of farmers began their 350 km (217 miles) long march from Gwalior to Delhi on Wednesday, demanding the central government to announce a national land reforms policy and amend legislations for the benefit of the landless, local media reported. Picture taken October 5, 2012. REUTERS/Mansi Thapliyal (INDIA - Tags: CIVIL UNREST POLITICS TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)
Farmers carry harvested wheat through a field on the outskirts of the northern Indian city of Allahabad April 26, 2009. India is expected to produce 77.78 million tonnes of wheat in 2009, almost as much as last year's record, creating a shortage of storage space as exports have been banned for two years. REUTERS/Jitendra Prakash (INDIA EMPLOYMENT BUSINESS)
A farmer works in a Paan or betel leaf garden in Sonamura village, 60 km (37 miles) south of Agartala, capital of India's northeastern state of Tripura March 17, 2009. Paan, a mildly intoxicating preparation wrapped in a leaf, usually containing tobacco, betel nut and flavourings, is hugely popular across South Asia. It is chewed to a mouth-staining red pulp before being spat out. REUTERS/Jayanta Dey (INDIA AGRICULTURE ENVIRONMENT FOOD DRINK SOCIETY IMAGE OF THE DAY TOP PICTURE)
An Indian woman removes stalks from chilli at a farm in the village of Kalol on the outskirts of the western Indian city of Ahmedabad February 16, 2005. Chilli powder is commonly used in Indian kitchens and more than 2,900,000 kg (6,393,407 pounds) are exported to the U.S., United Kingdom and Gulf countries, farmers and dealers said. Picture taken February 16, 2005.
ALLAHABAD, INDIA - 2015/12/02: A woman farmer works in cauliflower field early in the morning in Allahabad. (Photo by Ravi Prakash/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)
ALLAHABAD, INDIA - 2015/12/02: A woman farmer works in cauliflower field early in the morning in Allahabad. (Photo by Ravi Prakash/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)
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TAARDEH, India (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Anjali has worked on the land nearly all her life, first with her tenant-farmer parents, and then alongside her husband in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.

But she has never owned land - a right she has been denied by inconsistent inheritance laws and her community's rigid custom that led her to believe only a man should own land.

Now, at 32, Anjali's name will finally be on a title as joint owner of land allocated by the state, after months of petitioning local officials, and addressing age-old traditions and superstitions that deny women land ownership.

"It has never been our custom for women to own land, and I never thought that I would one day be a land owner," said Anjali, who goes by one name, at a land-literacy meeting of advocacy group Landesa at a local school in Taardeh village.

"Having the title in my name means a lot to me: it means I have a say in what we do with the land, and my husband can't throw me out or sell the land without my permission."

LACK OF RECOGNITION

Women make up more than a third of India's agriculture workforce, yet only about 13 percent of farmland is owned by women, according to official data.

But as more men from villages migrate to urban areas in search of jobs, their wives and daughters are tending the land.

Despite their growing numbers, these women are not recognized as farmers because most do not own the land; the government labels them "cultivators".

In India, land titles are almost always in the man's name, and custom allows men to sell land without permission from their spouses, choose what crops to grow, and control any income.

Meanwhile, the woman farmer is denied loans, insurance and other government benefits because her name is not on the title.

"Culture and tradition impacts so much on land ownership," Shipra Deo, state director of Landesa, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"It's a very patriarchal system, and women encounter entrenched biases everywhere - from their own families, as well as officials, who all believe women shouldn't own land. Women themselves have come to believe they don't have this right."

UNDER PRESSURE

When women have secure rights over the land they cultivate, they gain status and greater bargaining and decision-making power at home and in their community, Landesa's research shows.

Such women are more likely than men to boost food security and to spend their income on the next generation.

Yet, even a decade ago in Uttar Pradesh, the country's most populous state and among its poorest, only 6 percent of women owned land, according to a study by Oxfam India.

By 2015, that percentage had increased to 18 percent, according to Oxfam, as campaigners educated women on their rights and the state began issuing joint titles to some of the landless poor.

But women still face numerous legal and social hurdles to ownership. Land is still transferred largely though inheritance, and it is almost always men who inherit the land.

A Hindu woman is entitled to a share of land owned by her father, according to the Hindu Succession Act.

Yet the law is used to deny women a share of their husband's land, said Nand Kishor Singh, a regional manager at Oxfam, which launched a campaign for joint titles in Uttar Pradesh in 2006.

"Men - and even officials - say she is already getting her father's land, so there is no need for a joint title with her husband as she would then get two properties," Singh said.

"The government is required to issue joint titles for land that they allocate to landless families, but women are locked out of existing titles in their husband's name," he said.

The state has an entrenched caste system, with one of India's lowest gender ratios of 912 women per 1,000 men and one of its highest gender crime rates, according to official data.

Arvind Kumar, an official in the Uttar Pradesh Revenue Department, said the granting of joint titles for land allocated by the state had been a big step, as this was not the custom.

"But we cannot intervene in existing titles or private purchases - it is up to the owner to decide if it should be a joint title," he said.

CUSTOMARY LAWS

Several states have amended their laws to make it easier and more beneficial for women to own land, with lower interest rates on loans and lower registration fees for women. But progress has been stymied by customary laws that typically favor men.

In Rajasthan, for example, women are asked to give up their right to ancestral property when they marry.

Women have also been held back by traditions such as not being allowed to handle the plow, seen as a potent symbol of the male farmer.

As part of Oxfam's decade-long Aaroh campaign - meaning "ascend" in Hindi - more than 100,000 women have attended land-literacy programs, Singh said.

Tens of thousands of women also joined rallies where they wielded the plow, and some have also begun driving tractors, a practice once reserved for men, he said.

"The women have fought many traditions and superstitions, and we have seen big changes in attitudes," he said.

"Sadly, there have been few changes at the policy level, and our goal of land in the name of women is yet to be achieved."

But for Anjali in Taardeh, getting a joint title to land allocated by the state is a very big deal.

"With the land, I will have some security, some rights. I will not be any less than my husband, but his equal," she said.

(Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran, Editing by Jo Griffin and Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories.)

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