Farmers' widows join protest

Hundreds of Indian women, including many widows of farmers who reportedly killed themselves over debt, joined a protest outside New Delhi on Wednesday against government reforms that farmers say threaten their livelihood.

Farmers have been protesting for nearly a month over the reforms, enacted in September, to deregulate the agriculture sector, allowing them to sell to buyers beyond government-regulated wholesale markets.

Small farmers fear the changes will mean the end of guaranteed minimum prices for their crops and leave them at the mercy of big retailers.

"If these black laws come, more farmers will go deeper into debt," said 40-year-old Harshdeep Kaur, a widow from Punjab, at one protest site on the outskirts of New Delhi. "More mothers and sisters will become widows like me."

Suicide by struggling farmers has been a problem in India for years. Nearly 10,350 farmers and agricultural labourers committed suicide in 2018 - making up almost eight per cent of all suicides in India, according to the National Crime Records Bureau.

Ms Kaur said her husband committed suicide three years ago after running up debts of Rs5 lakh ($9,030). As she spoke, she held a passport-sized photo of him.

About 75 per cent of rural women in India are full-time farmers, with numbers rising as men migrate to work in factories and construction sites.

Yet, farming is still widely seen as men's work and only 13 per cent of women own the land they till.

"Women are never counted as farmers. We are always counted as housewives, but not workers," said Ms Sunita Rani, 39, who owns a farm of less than an acre in Haryana and joined the protests on New Delhi's border a fortnight ago. "More women work as farmers than men, but their work is not seen as equal."

Like Sunita, Ms Kavita Kumari, 27, is among hundreds of women farmers and farm workers who travelled for 15 hours in trucks from Madhya Pradesh to the national highways bordering New Delhi where thousands are camping as entry to the city is barred. "I have been a farmer since I was a child. I can ride a bike, and a tractor," she said.

Ms Kavitha Kuruganti, convener of the Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture, a coalition of farmer groups taking part in the protests, said: "It matters to the women to voice their thoughts and perspective on these laws." She added: "Yet, tens of thousands remain invisible even now. It was not possible for men to participate (in the protests) if women were not doubling up back home and taking on the role of men who are here."

Late on Wednesday, a 65-year-old Sikh priest committed suicide at one of the protest sites, said Mr Ramandeep Singh Mann, a farmer from Punjab. In his suicide note, Sant Baba Ram Singh said he was "hurt to see the condition" of the protesting farmers, said Mr Mann.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has tried to assure farmers the changes will bring them new opportunities, but few have been convinced.

Several rounds of talks between farm union leaders and the government have failed.

"We'll keep protesting," said Mr Gurbax Singh, a farmers' union leader at a north Delhi protest site.

He said dozens of buses, tractors and cars are being arranged to bring more women from Punjab - the epicentre of the agitation - to the outskirts of New Delhi.



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