This post originally appeared in Project Groundswell
“What was her village before she was married?” I asked. “kyu? [Why?]” I heard a voice from the kitchen question in return. I thought it was a straightforward question, but I soon learned that it didn’t matter where you were born. What defines a woman more is her husband’s place, or village. This was something my California-Feminist-raised mind couldn’t completely comprehend but was maybe the reason why people continued to ask me if I would marry in the US or in India. They were trying to understand who I would become.
After five days interviewing women in the Mandakini Valley in northern India, I was both inspired and confused. The women “grew everything” — if one crop failed, it wasn’t a problem, there were other crops that would survive. In most cases farming was their means of subsistence. While in many cases the harvest depended on luck, weather, and hard-work, there was a sense of pride at being able to feed the family from what was grown. They had no ‘bosses’ to speak of (husbands aside), they worked with their hands and if they worked hard enough they would be able to not only see, but to eat the results of their efforts. They had everything they needed, as one woman said: “phul, phal, subzi [flowers, fruits, vegetables].”
Despite the beauty of the valley with the Himalayas towering in the background, farming the hillside was hard work. The women carried compost up and down hills, cut grass and took care of the cattle. They planted, harvested and sowed. The men ploughed and re-built walls when they fell. It hardly seemed fair, but I had started to see fairness as a bubble that burst long ago alongside Santa Claus.
It was true, the women had pretty much everything they needed and sold their surplus for salt, sugar, and oil. Though many women cited their healthy children, when we asked about health and wealth, most women weren’t sure who would take over the fields and farms in the future. They seemed to want something more for their own daughters, despite the pride with which they showed us their crops.
Of the 1.3 billion people living in poverty, 70% are women, meaning that poverty more often than not has a women’s face, according to Jaya Mehta in “Women and Globalisation”. Though Mehta mainly focuses on women in industrialized countries, she also discusses women and agriculture. In some cases, men have moved out of areas, “in search for work as agricultural wage laborers… or into non-farm activities. Women are left to manage the non-viable farms with more constraints than the men. They don’t own the land they manage. Very often they are unable to take independent decisions. They have greater difficulty in getting credit and other inputs.” She sums up by saying that the changes in the third world agriculture system have resulted in an increased workload for women “without adequately increasing the income available, or their control over resources.”
If this was true, what did it look like? I don’t claim to speak for, or on behalf of the 1.3 billion living in poverty, but the intersection of women and subsistence farming has recently piqued my interest, and was one reason I was speaking to these women.
Despite these statistics, many of the women I spoke with seemed content. Though was this just an outsider’s superficial understanding of the situation? I believed these women should at least have the luxury of choice. I also wondered what were the thoughts, dreams, and hopes that kept them going, and were mine the same? What kept a 70 year old woman from going crazy after her husband passed away when she was only 13?
Is it fair that the culture of farming — at least in the Mandakini Valley — seems to be based on a marriage system where the daughter-in-law will take on the duties of the farm, along with cooking, cleaning, and taking care of her children? Though I wouldn’t want to be forced into a position of having to farm for life, I have a great amount of respect for these women and perhaps part of me would also like the ability to choose something beyond the choices that are before me.
I feel as though I have merely skimmed the surface of a wealth of wisdom about life and crops from the grandmothers of the valley.
The series that follows is a peek into some of the lives of these women.
Lakshmi is currently working on a project interviewing organic farmers with Navdanya. This trip was taken as part of the project (www.navdanya.org)