Young rural women in India are increasingly working in agriculture, but new research from the University of East Anglia (UEA) and RV University Bengaluru shows they’re the least likely to gain training to upgrade their skills or work in a different sector.
Given the absence of decent jobs, more young people – particularly women – are staying in or returning to farming and agricultural livelihoods, at least part-time, to secure their futures.
Despite 54.6 per cent of Indian workers engaged in agriculture, of which 20.26% are women, skill trainings are targeted primarily at those leaving agriculture and seeking to engage with industry or services.
Most skilling opportunities in agriculture are either informal learning by doing, or non-formal skill acquisition, learning in a semi-structured environment such as a training programme run by an NGO or a government department, without certification.
Prof Nitya Rao, Professor of Gender and Development in UEA’s School of Global Development, co-led the study with Dr Soundarya Iyer of R.V University Bengaluru, which is published today in the journal Third World Quarterly. The study was funded by a small grant from the Azim Premji University research funding programme.
The research was conducted in 2020-21 through interviews with 66 men and women between the ages of 18-65 in a village in southern Karnataka.
Prof Rao said: “Education and training for employment transitions are mediated strongly by social expectations of gender, caste and class.
“While informal modes of skilling dominate within agriculture, newer skills and technologies are increasingly gained via non-formal learning. These skills are filtered through gendered mechanisms that further invisibilise women’s work.”
One example of this is use of the internet, including YouTube and Google, to investigate newer ventures such as apiculture, and get information on crop prices. Women have less access to smartphones and the internet.
Many young men also use migration as a stepping-stone to earn capital, which can be invested in ‘modernizing’ their farming work through acquisition of new skills and technologies.
While both men and women acquire agricultural skills intergenerationally, men expand their social networks and learn new skills through other channels as well, including via peer learning, while skill acquisition by dominant caste women and girls is confined to the domestic sphere.
Dairy farming in particular is strongly gendered and seen as an extension of women’s household work. Milking is a feminised process where mothers teach young girls how to milk the buffaloes, a physically demanding task that causes intense pain in the thumbs. The research revealed that families gave up dairying during phases when the household lacked a female member.
Dr Iyer said: “Despite the crucial role that women play in agriculture and allied activities, their work is seen as help and habitual practice, and is invisibilised in society.”
Skill development is considered to be critically important for the eradication of poverty and social inclusion in the Global South. The Indian government launched broad reforms under the Skill India Mission in 2015 to train 400 million Indians by 2022.
Prof Rao said: “Formal skilling opportunities are geared towards leaving agriculture, and the next generation of agriculturists depend on informal and non-formal mechanisms that are filtered through the intersecting identities of gender, generation, caste, and class.
"Understanding how agricultural skills are acquired is critical to understand the future sustainability of our agriculture and food systems.”
‘Skills to stay: Social processes in agricultural skill acquisition in rural Karnataka’, is published on 16 November 2022 in the journal Third World Quarterly.