women of india, rural india, rural women, land ownership, land rights, gender disparity, gender inequality, feminism, women at work

Vulnerabilities in Women’s Work and Land Rights

By: Sucharita Sen
Alienation from land and distress-driven shift towards agricultural wage work leave women particularly vulnerable. Although amended inheritance laws have increased the probability of daughters inheriting fathers’ land, women’s effective control over agricultural land, though relatively higher in the southern states, continues to remain abysmally low on an average in rural India.
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Land and its control are of fundamental importance in sustaining livelihoods in rural India. The relationship between land ownership and poverty has been well established in the past (January, 2001). There are at least four major ways in which owning land has a more direct bearing on rural livelihoods than in urban areas:

  •  land quality is of crucial significance to agricultural production, while it is of no or little consequence to production in secondary and tertiary sectors that urban India specialises in;
  •  land ownership is intrinsically linked to the social status and local identity of an individual in rural India;
  •  it is a resource that is frequently mortgaged out in times of distress to avail credit in rural India;
  •  agricultural land is an indestructible resource that is passed on through generations; hence its perceived value is typically much more than its market price.

Agricultural livelihood dependent on land range from working on it as a labourer, as a tenant farmer, as an unpaid family worker on family-owned land, without or with some involvement in the process of decision making, and as an owner of the land with full managerial control.

Women’s rights over agricultural land is poor across the globe, and even among countries that have a substantial proportion of people dependent on agriculture, India fares abysmally on this count (Agarwal 1995, Deere et al., 2013).

Despite women workers’ share being higher in agriculture which is 65 per cent women vis-à-vis 49 per cent  men as per India’s  2011 Census (GoI, 2011), their dependence on agriculture takes more vulnerable forms as compared to that of men. For example, a far greater share of women work as unpaid family workers on their own farms with little say in decision making. In addition, women’s participation in rural work has been declining sharply for the past two and half decades (Fig. 1).

Explanations for this decline range from withdrawal due to participation higher education and higher incomes earned by households and consequent withdrawal of women from the labour force due to patriarchal norms, on the one hand, and agricultural distress accompanied by inadequate labour demand in non-agricultural sectors, in both rural and urban areas, on the other (Abraham, 2013, Ghosh & Chandrashekhar, 2013).

Article 1a
Fig. 1: Declining work participation of women in rural India

Further, at the national level, it may be observed that in the last two decades, the category of cultivators, who are mostly workers that work on their own land, has declined both for men (only in the main category) and women (Fig. 1). This indicates distress among marginal and small land-holders who may have lost their land, either through sale or leasing out, or land acquisition by the state, while some may have voluntarily left agriculture for better prospects. Very often, however, such losses are driven by distress, and Figure 2 reveals that it has impacted women cultivators more than men, as decline for the former is observed both in the main and marginal categories. This is contrary to expectations and past experience, which was accompanied by male-selective out migration with women being left behind for agricultural work, unless the entire family had migrated.

Fig. 2: Growth rate of agricultural workers (15-59 age group), 2011 over 2001
Fig. 2: Growth rate of agricultural workers (15-59 age group), 2011 over 2001

The current change is indicative of a starkly different reality. Since non-agricultural wages are far higher than agricultural wages (Jatav & Sen, 2013), it appears counter-intuitive that the male workers have registered such a high rate of growth in agricultural work in all categories other than that of main cultivators; notably, these growth rates far exceed the rate of increase of rural male population in the working age group. Figure 2 reveals that men are forced to depend on agriculture as a part-time activity with high increases in marginal cultivators and agricultural labourers, presumably because of lack of regular work in the non-agricultural sector.

But what is relevant for our analysis here is that women seem to have been dispossessed of their engagement with their own land, both in main and marginal categories, and have taken to paid agricultural wage work. It could be argued by some that the wages received by women may increase their choices in relation to doing unpaid work on family farms, but given the general patriarchal environment prevailing in most of rural India, the most reasonable interpretation for this trend of moving to wage work on others’ land is distress and not choice. In such a scenario, the advantages of having access to income may largely be offset by the distress of being double burdened by both domestic activities and low paid, strenuous work.

Fig. 3: Distribution of operational holdings among female cultivators (in percentage)
Fig. 3: Distribution of operational holdings among female cultivators (in percentage)

The vulnerability of women in the work arena could be eased significantly by giving legal access to ownership of agricultural land in rural India. The amendment to the Hindu Succession Act in 2005 (Viswanathan, 2005) made compulsory legal provisions for a married daughter to be a coparcener along with her brother/s and widowed mother to her father’s land after his death, which is a distinctly empowering status compared to what prevailed in most of the country till then as per the Mitakshara provisions (male inheritance). Though the amended inheritance laws have increased the probability of daughters inheriting fathers’ land, scholars find that significant biases remain that prevent legal provisions getting translated into effective control of land by women (Deininger et al., 2012).

The published data that is closest to representing women’s access to agricultural land is brought out by the Agricultural Census, and it enables us to understand whether the land is operated primarily by a male or a female within a household.

Figure 3 shows that there has actually been an increase in both the share of women operating land and the amount of land being cultivated by them in almost all categories over the 15 years in question. Even though this information appears to be contradictory with the decline of women cultivators reported above from Census of India, a close look may reveal otherwise. While the Census data captures status of all individual workers, which could be recording more than one cultivator per household, the Agricultural Census does a survey of cultivating households, having one member reporting for the same. Also, the former records an individual status of work, and a worker working on own farm would be identified as a cultivator. Agricultural census, on the other hand, is broadly reflective of the person (male or female) that primarily oversees the cultivation of the household.

Fig. 4: Women’s access to operational agricultural land 2010-2011
Fig. 4: Women’s access to operational agricultural land 2010-2011

It is notable that as one moves from smaller to larger holdings, the share of women, both in numbers and the land they operate, decline. This could be due to a number of reasons; there is a class-caste convergence in India, in the sense that most small and marginal holders are from lower order caste groups and marginalised ethnic groups. Systematic research has shown that, as one moves up in the class order, the patriarchal structures becomes more rigid (Chakravarty, 1983). Besides, men from poorer households are more likely to migrate out looking for better options outside villages, leaving behind women to tend to family holdings.

Irrespective of the enabling provision of the 2005 Act that is uniform across the country, women’s access to agricultural land is shaped by patriarchal norms that are cultural, and hence regionally rooted.

Figure 4 clearly indicates a north-south division in women’s share of agricultural land as a ratio of their share in the population, barring a few exceptions like Haryana and Bihar that have higher ratios than the national average. In other words, in the southern and western states, the share of women as primary farmers in households is significantly higher than compared to states in the Indo-Gangetic plains. The southern and the western states, and particularly the former, are widely known to have more favourable gender relations, due to a wide range of cultural and historical reasons. The difference in marriage norms, one of expansion of marriage ties and property accumulation through dowries in the north Indian Hindi heartland and that of consolidation within the kinship networks in southern India, among others, have known to empower married daughters with better status and effective rights over property, including land, in the southern region (Agarwal, 1994).

Unfortunately there is still a sharp division in the nature of work done by men and women. Much of the work related to tending of livestock and grading of seeds and finished horticultural and floricultural crops are done within the household premises, interspersed with domestic work. Time-use surveys are recently being used to exactly assess their contribution and overcome problems of underestimation (Hirway & Jose, 2011). The source of official data that publishes information about ownership of agricultural land, like the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO), provides it at the household level that blinds us to the intra-household disparities in distribution of agricultural land.



The way in which agrarian distress impacts women is still severely under-represented by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) in its data on farmers’ suicides, which discounts the possibility of suicide within such category unless the person has title to agricultural land. Women’s vulnerability with respect to their position as workers, particularly in rural India and lack of effective control over agricultural land does not get the emphasis that it should, partly due to the ways in which official statistics under represent such problems in our country. Women’s work in agriculture is also underestimated indirectly due to the lack of clear differentiation between the time and space in which domestic work and agricultural (and allied jobs) are done.



Agarwal, B. (1995). A field of one’s own: Gender and land rights in South Asia (Vol. 58). Cambridge University Press.

Chakravarti, U. (1993). Conceptualising Brahmanical patriarchy in early India: Gender, caste, class and state. Economic and Political Weekly, 28(14), 579-585.

Chandrasekhar, C.P., & Ghosh, J. (2013). November 11). Where have all the women workers gone? The Hindu Business Line. Retrieved from http://www.thehindubusinessline.com/opinion/columns/c-p-chandrasekhar/where-have-all-the-women-workers-gone/article5339737.ece.

Deere, C. D., Oduro, A. D., Swaminathan, H., & Doss, C. (2013). Property rights and the gender distribution of wealth in Ecuador, Ghana and India. The Journal of Economic Inequality11(2), 249-265.

Deininger, K., Goyal, A., & Nagarajan, H. K. (2012). Do changes in inheritance legislation improve women’s access to physical and human capital: Evidence from India’s Hindu Succession Act. NCAER–IDRC, p2.

Hirway, I., & Jose, S. (2011). Understanding women’s work using time-use statistics: The case of India. Feminist Economics17(4), 67-92. doi: 10.1080/13545701.2011.622289.

Janvry, A. D., Gordillo, G., Platteau, J. P., & Sadoulet, E. (2001). Access to land, rural poverty, and public action. Oxford University Press.

Jatav, M., & Sen, S. (2013). Drivers of non-farm employment in rural India, Economic and Political Weekly, Review of Rural Affairs, 48(26-27),14-21.

Department of Agriculture & Coorporation, National Informatics Centre. (2010-11) Agricultural Census Database. All India Tables (Number and Areas of Holdings). Retrieved from http://agcensus.dacnet.nic.in/nationalholdingtype.aspx.

Government of India, Ministry of Home Affairs, Census of India. (2001). B – 4: Main Workers classified by age, industrial category and sex. Retrieved from http://www.censusindia.gov.in/Tables_Published/B-Series/B-Series_Link/B04-0000.pdf

Government of India, Ministry of Home Affairs, Census of India. (2011). Workers seeking/available for work classified by age and sex. Retrieved from http://www.censusindia.gov.in/2011census/B-series/B-Series-01.html.

Viswanathan, T.K. (2005). The Hindu Succession (Amendment) Act, 2005. Retrieved from http://www.hrln.org/admin/issue/subpdf/HSA_Amendment_2005.pdf.



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