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Women farmers listen to a speaker as they demonstrate against the central government's recent agricultural reforms on on the occasion of International Women's Day at Delhi-Haryana state border, in Singhu on March 8, 2021.-/AFP/Getty Images

Hundreds of miles from their farmlands, thousands of women have streamed into Delhi to take part in the months-long protest against India’s new agricultural laws.

The women have become a prominent feature of the historic uprising, arriving in packed buses and trains, camping in tents and trolleys, and shouting slogans such as, “Women will fight together, to build a new society.”

Farmer groups are demanding a repeal of three laws that will loosen state regulation and allow the private sector more control over production, pricing, storage and distribution of agricultural produce. The concern is farmers “won’t be able to cover even the cost of production,” said Sejal Dand, a founding member of Mahila Kisan Adhikaar Manch (MAKAAM), a group that advocates for recognition and rights for female farmers. “By opening up the market, they will lose negotiating power and will always be a distress seller.”

As the protests pass the 100-day mark and spread across a dozen states, women are vociferously claiming their space in the movement, demanding better rights, waving flags, making speeches, conducting discussions, and holding up photographs of husbands and sons they lost to suicide because of farm debt and agricultural distress.

Female farmers have a lot to protest. About 71 per cent of rural Indian women are engaged in agriculture, forming the bulk of small and marginal farmers, according to the 2018-19 Periodic Labour Force Survey. Yet they earn 22 per cent less than their male counterparts. Often women are not paid at all for farm labour, MAKAAM reports, and they are denied formal recognition as farmers, land rights, and access to support systems and services related to agricultural credit, subsidies and marketing.

“This is a moment with a huge impact on the visibility it has brought on women whose work has so far been invisible,” Ms. Dand said. “Even urban consumers and the international community are recognizing them as farmers now. Earlier, their protests were more local, but identifying with the larger movement has given women the strength to come out and publicly battle on a national level.”

Women from the neighboring states of Punjab and Haryana gather to join the farmers who are continuing to protest against the central government's recent agricultural reforms in New Delhi on International Women's Day, March 8, 2021.IDREES MOHAMMED/AFP/Getty Images

In November, 2020, when farmers from Punjab and Haryana first marched to Delhi, most women taking part were older or belonged to organized unions. Gradually, the younger generation, new to political participation, joined in too, said Navpreet Kaur, a professor of economics at Delhi University who has been studying gender relations in the movement.

So far, multiple rounds of talks between government representatives and leaders representing the farmers have failed. The Agriculture Minister, Narendra Singh Tomar, has offered to amend the laws, but the farmers want a complete rollback. In January, the Supreme Court advised elderly and female protesters to return home. This enraged many women, including farmer Harpreet Kaur Jethuke, president of the women’s wing of the Bharatiya Kisan Union.

“What do we gain by sitting at home? This is our fight too,” she said. “Women are suffering the most – the impact of farmer debt, of unemployment of our children, of food insecurity. So generations of women are coming out like never before, from nursing babies to protestors as old as 80. We have crowds of 30,000 to 40,000 women at a time. This is like our second home now. We cook, eat, go for rallies, chat, sing songs, raise slogans. It’s an electric atmosphere.”

For International Women’s Day, thousands of female farmers staged sit-ins across the capital to protest the agricultural laws; at least 17 held hunger strikes. Hundreds wore bright yellow scarves – to represent mustard fields – over their heads.

Pratibha Shinde, leader of the union Lok Sangharsh Morcha was one of them. Last month, she travelled to Delhi to join the protests along with more than 600 tribal female farmers from villages in Maharashtra.

“Many of them didn’t even have warm clothes or proper footwear. It was bitterly cold,” she said. “We lost two lives. Yet there was a lot of support, as the movement has brought together women from different states who couldn’t understand each other’s language, but felt deep unity because our struggles are the same.”

There have been many other hurdles to cross. “Every woman on the street has had to make arrangements back home for their children, elderly family members, farmland and cattle,” Ms. Dand said.

Echoed Ms. Jethuke: “My husband has been taking care of the home and our son while I am out organizing protests. Many women take turns with family members to come out.”

New platforms to document the women’s stories of protest are springing up. One of them is Karti Dharti, a female-led fortnightly newsletter. Founder and editor Sangeet Toor, who travels across Punjab and to the borders of Delhi to report stories as they are unfolding, said she started the publication so women could speak for themselves, rather than imposing an outsider gaze on them.

“People are not used to hearing women’s voices on hardcore political and economic issues. So we have published narratives from women from different backgrounds and how they perceive the laws, noting how the agitation has politicized women in a big way.”

Whether the campaign leads to political change remains to be seen, but “it has given a prominent role to women, helped them organize in larger numbers and raised the basic level of awareness,” Prof. Navpreet said.

“A new norm has been established as they have been able to resist being ignored or spoken over,” Ms. Dand agreed.

Ms. Jethuke dismissed critics who say women’s participation in the protests is little more than a gimmick paid for by opposition political parties. “Our battle is not fought with weapons, but with our suffering. We have built a powerful sisterhood and we’ll be at the forefront of this fight.”

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