Strengthening Women’s Collectives: Qualitative Research Informs Pathways’ Programming in India

Pathways is dedicated to empowering poor and marginalized women farmers, but which types of local grassroots organizations are best to focus on, in order to achieve that goal? A qualitative evaluation conducted by a Yale graduate student illustrates how field research is playing a role in the design of Pathways interventions.

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All-women Farmers’ Club, Radha Kant Krushaka Sangathana, Norisa, Khordha, June 2013

This summer, researcher Jennifer S. Rosenberg visited 12 villages in Western India to assess the potential of “Farmers’ Clubs” as a vehicle for women’s empowerment. A Farmers’ Club is a village-level agricultural organization sponsored by India’s National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD). In addition to receiving INR 10,000 in financial support from NABARD, Farmers’ Club members are entitled to participate in various government programs, including skills training. They are also eligible to receive special subsidies and increased access to credit. Clubs can become certified to open agri-kiosks and sell inputs, like seeds and fertilizer, to other farmers.

Jennifer used semi-structured interviews designed in part by Pathways Global and country-level teams to engage women and men farmers in rural villages in Orissa and Chattisgarh. Although the bulk of agricultural labour is borne by women, Farmers’ Clubs are dominated by men. Only a handful of clubs in the assessment had even one woman member.  Lack of female participation is explained by unequal distribution of household labour. As the participants stated, women simply have “too much work to do at home” to participate in these clubs and are unable to meet during evening meeting times, when they must prepare dinner. There was also a common misperception that Farmers’ Clubs are, by definition, for men only.  Women, by contrast, are seen more as “secondary” farmers whose duty in the fields is to provide support to men.

The qualitative assessment sought to analyze how more women might be integrated into existing Farmers’ Clubs, and how they might benefit from membership. Interviewed women were universally interested in belonging to a Farmers’ Club. Evidence suggested that women would benefit from participation by improving their abilities and gaining access to financial resources. An added benefit is the social status that comes with membership.

Yet the report also found that trying to integrate women into existing Farmers’ Clubs was likely to be ineffective. Significant social, attitudinal, and behavioural changes around gender roles would have to happen before women could be integrated into clubs meaningfully, where a woman’s voice would carry the same weight as a man’s. It could be disadvantageous because they would have already missed out on most of the trainings and subsidy dispersals that are the heart of the Farmers’ Club program. Woman would also be denied the valuable opportunity to participate in decision-making about the club’s agenda and priorities, activities that encourage self confidence and empowerment.

Ms. Rosenberg found that initiating new clubs whose core membership and leadership would consist of women from the start would be more beneficial. In fact, they could use existing Self Help Groups—informal women’s savings groups that are ubiquitous in much of India—as seeding grounds. Starting new clubs would ensure that women take full advantage of the benefits of the program: the opportunity to enjoy trainings of their own choosing; and to decide how to spend their stipend from NABARD. Inaugurating women’s Farmers’ Clubs would also send the bold message that women farmers are entitled to the same agricultural schemes and programs as men farmers and help to shift gender norms.

The report also identified some weaknesses with the Farmers’ Club model, proposed ways to address them, and recommended that Pathways consider the model carefully before moving forward in this area. The report serves as an illustrative example of how qualitative evidence can provide insight on particular Pathways’ interventions, helping us refine interventions and evaluate the potential of certain actions over others.  Evidence will continue to inform the evolution of Pathways.

View the full report here.

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Field visit to Kakmaha/Damengi Villages, Kandhamal, 25 June 2013

Contributor: Jennifer S. Rosenberg, Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, Yale University