In the words of Sohini Shoaib: “Women are building the economy, yet denied their basic economic rights”

Date: Monday, May 14, 2018

Sohini Shoaib Jan Jagran Shakti Sangathan, Bihar, India. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown
Sohini Shoaib. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown

Sohini Shoaib works with The Jan Jagran Shakti Sangathan, a non-party political union of landless rural workers, marginal farmers and youth, currently operating out of six districts of the state of Bihar, India. Shoaib’s work includes supporting the mobilization of labourers and farmers—especially those from oppressed castes, genders and communities, to fight for their rights and entitlements. She spoke to UN Women during the 62nd session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women about her work, and the issues that women from the communities she works with are facing.

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The biggest struggles that I have seen during my work with rural workers and farmers in India is the struggle for fair wages, for control over their own bodies as labourers and human beings, and for access to natural resources.

Let me start with a basic point: minimum wages. I have personally never liked the fact that even after all these years, we are still lobbying for minimum wages, minimum support, the minimum that the government can do for us. We should instead be asking for decent and dignified living wages. But we have to start from scratch, reinvent the wheel as it were, and ask for at least the bare minimum, and even that is not being given to us.

I work with women who are at the margins of the margins, who are building the economy, yet denied their basic economic rights. Most of the time, they do not even get counted as farmers. When they do get counted as farmers, the State doesn’t always respond to them in terms of developing the agricultural sector, although that’s the mainstay of the Indian economy. With the ongoing agrarian crisis, these women end up falling back on the informal labour sector, where there is wide-scale exploitation and expropriation of labour.

Bihar is one of the poorest states in the country and sees a lot of seasonal migration. Women who migrate or are left behind become much more vulnerable. In 2008, there was a huge movement in India that led to a rights-based law called the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. This law insured that women, or any rural household, could access 100 days of paid work for building the rural infrastructure. This encouraged women to stay in their own village and get 100 days of guaranteed paid work, which was a positive development.

But I can’t talk about women farmers in the context of India without drawing your focus to the issue of caste, which, much like race, is a systemic tool for oppression. Women get marginalized in multiple ways because of this structure. Caste tells you that some people are untouchable and are relegated to having to do menial jobs. You can till the fields as much as you want, but the land will always belong to the upper caste feudal lords. In addition, women from lower castes are also more vulnerable to sexual exploitation. That’s one specific thing that I feel doesn’t get talked about enough, because there’s also stigma around issues of sexuality.

I come from the Kosi flood basins in Bihar, where we are witnessing a huge amount of damage because of climate change. We have had devastating flooding in the last few years on a scale that hasn’t been seen before. In most cases, the floods are triggered by or escalated by manmade factors. This has made the communities even more vulnerable. Every year, they have to start from scratch.

Other than the impact of climate change, there are large-scale displacements because of land being taken over to build huge dams. Genetically modified organisms are being introduced, leading to a lot of changes in the environment, which has affected farming directly and indirectly in so many ways.

These issues have triggered mass uprisings. Recently, there were some 40-50,000 peasants who went on a long march to the state capital of Maharashtra to highlight the farmers’ plight and seek climate justice. Similar uprisings are happening in different states. Women are also rising up. People are speaking out, organizing, mobilizing. There was a time when many men and women were being driven to suicides. Now I am seeing less of despair and more of rage, so much so that governments are having to bend down.”