When Invisible Lives Become Visible: Seeing the valuable work of India's rural women

Rucha Chitnis with Lys Anzia – WNN Photo Essay

Woman agricultural worker in rural India smiles as she shows how proud she is of her food crop.
Women are the backbone of agriculture in India, engaging in nearly 80 percent of all farm work. But due to the much-faceted discrimination that these women face they are generally only considered to be agricultural “farm laborers” and not  “farmers.” Instead men are the ones most often considered farmers with land rights and ownership. Today as discrimination against women farmers continues, less than five percent of all rural women place their own names on land titles in India. Image: Rucha Chitnis

(WNN) Berkeley, California, U.S., AMERICAS: How can we make global women around the world, who are too often invisible, visible? This important question is one that social change photojournalist Ms. Rucha Chitnis has been asking inside India in her quest to document women who are the ‘back-bone’ of social movements, activism and improvements inside India today.

As rural women who live too often at the very bottom of Indian society they often face invisibility as marginalization. Although invisibility might be something women in urban India want to have.

India today now faces a myriad of societal problems, including a specific and rising tide of violence against women. But the fear of public involvement is not stopping the ‘forward-moving’ work of women farmers, rural caregivers, human rights defenders, movement builders, environmental champions and climate-change leaders as they stay active in a myriad of India’s “grassroots” movements. Working for the rights of women, children and families, numerous women in rural regions of India today are now becoming active in the face of their own brand of social injustice.

Under the challenges of social injustice many of the children of rural women often live at the lowest edge of Indian society under a percentile of home budgets in India where the greatest struggle continues to exist. According to a 2012 report from the UN Women and global partners address inequality worldwide. Sixty percent of children in Indian households “in the lowest wealth quintile” are actually stunted in comparison to twenty-five percent of children belonging to the highest wealth quintile in the region says UN Women.

This means, although some conditions are improving, sixty percent of India’s children who currently live in poverty continue to face a shortage of adequate food and nutrition. Because of this numerous children in India’s rural areas are shorter in stature than children from families who live inside regions of India where children and their families have higher financial affluence and greater opportunity.

“Supporting women’s empowerment, notably through education, has been one of the most effective ways of reducing chronic child malnutrition,” outlines the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD).

“Given women’s important roles as managers and users of natural resources across the developing world, enhancing their capabilities and entitlements is also a precondition for progress on the environmental agenda,” adds IFAD.

In her work as a culture and society photojournalist Rucha Chitnis shows us the current challenges faced and triumphs experienced by women farmers inside India today.

The on-the-ground photographs of Chitnis reveal a ‘pro-active’ India as women farmers make progress in the face of climate change, as well as under conditions of gender discrimination and food insecurity. In spite of the challenges these women continue to move forward today to organize and educate themselves, their families and their communities. This movement forward is happening despite India’s current problems under what development experts feel will lead India society, Asian society and its women forward.

“…creating forums and opportunities and building capacity for marginalized rural groups…-particularly rural women and indigenous peoples-to voice their own concerns and priorities for the post-2015 agenda is of paramount importance,” continues IFAD.


Women farmers together during an empowerment training in the Sundarbans region of West Bengal, India.

In the Sundarbans region of West Bengal India best known for its mangrove forests women grassroots groups, such as the Development Research Communications Service Center, are working with women farmers to build their resilience in the face of continuing land floods under climate change. This image by Rucha Chitnis shows women in a self-help empowerment group learning how to work together to diversify their food production by planting organic home gardens, rearing chickens and ducks, and building community-based seed banks that are resistant to floods.

West Bengal, India women farmers show their flood resistant seeds.

Seed banks are an important way for women to save local varieties of vegetable and paddy seeds in West Bengal. Today regional rural women farmers are also observing which local varieties are thriving in the face of flash floods. Traditionally saving seeds has been the role of women in rural India. This guardianship has been increasingly eroded throughout India in the face of industrial agriculture and large market food production. This photo was taken in Eastern Uttar Pradesh, another state affected by floods, where Gorakhpur Environmental Action Group works to organize and unionize landless women farmers.

A rich soil showing earthworms

After a woman farmer in the Sunderbans region is trained to make vermi-compost for her home vegetable garden she holds up her rich soil that is teaming with earthworms, bringing better crops and nutrition to her food. Women farmers in the region are increasingly recognizing that pesticides are harmful for their soil and their personal health. Sustainable agriculture today is an important way forward, they say.

Ms. Kajol Das is a small local farmer.

‘We had to move because our last house was by the river where floods were a problem,’ outlines Ms. Kajol Das, a small local farmer in West Bengal. Kajol, who is also a part of a women’s self-help group, stands in front of her new organic “kitchen garden.”  ‘Vegetables are expensive,’ she says. ‘I am now growing my own produce, which is also safe and free from chemical pesticides. I have added chickens and goats to my homestead, and I am hoping to sell goat manure to supplement my income.’

Girls show their special sustainable seeds during a training in farming.

Working to mentor and build the leadership of the next generation of rural women farmers in the region is an important priority that is bringing educational programs like Swanirvar to West Bengal.  Their trainer is a ‘sustainable’ agriculture teacher and a grassroots woman who has been working with  local girls to teach them how to grow food organically. Here the girls proudly show their own work to develop individual ‘sustainable’ seed banks.

A dalit women in Tamil Nadu holds up her training certificate.

The West Bengal region is not the only place where rural women farmers have been moving forward quickly. The Tamil Nadu Women’s Collective, at the very southern tip of India, is also a powerful movement as nearly 60,00 mostly Dalit (untouchable) women farmers work today to improve their own sustainable solutions. This special Collective works to mentor these rural women as political leaders as well in their community and region, especially on the role of women in water management and sustainable development.

Women in Tamil Nadu (southern India) attend an empowerment seminar.

By strategically working with a ‘women’s-rights-based’ approach, the Collective in the Southern region of India in Tamil Nadu tackles multiple issues that also include special trainings and education women’s human rights to stop all violence against women. Their education also includes special training on food insecurity, which is impacting multiple regions throughout India today, as environmental destruction and climate change shortens food supplies. To date more than 1,000 women from the Collective have run for state and local office and over 500 have been elected. This shows progress that has not been acknowledged by much of the news media today outside of India.

All images in this WNN story are owned and copyrighted by photojournalist Rucha Chitnis.

Rucha Chitnis is a photographer, whose work highlights women’s counternaratives, leadership and agency in the face of economic, environmental and climate challenges. She consults with progressive philanthropic organizations that are mobilizing resources to grassroots women-led and Indigenous groups and networks that are creating sustainable alternatives in their communities by promoting human rights and gender equality. She is the former director of grantmaking at Women’s Earth Alliance, a non-profit based in Berkeley, California, that supports women-led groups that are seeding and strengthening environmental action in their communities. She has a Masters degree in Communications from the Scripps School of Journalism and a Masters in Sociology from the University of Mumbai. She is an adviser to One World Children’s Fund.

Human rights journalist and editor Lys Anzia is the founder of WNN – Women News Network. In December 2005 Lys started WNN reaching over 600 NGOs and United Nations affiliates along with a growing ‘human rights’ public. Through a partnership with Lois Herman at WUNRN – Women’s UN Report Network the publication has grown online to over 3.4 million Google search pages each month as it remains dedicated to bringing global women’s voices from the ground to the public.

In addition to educating the public-at-large WNN – Women News Network has won recognition by UNESCO as a news network with “Professional Journalistic Standards and Code of Ethics.” Awards by Every Human Has Rights Media Awards from human rights leaders The Elders has also won accolades for WNN for a story coming from Lusaka, Zambia by Sally Chiwama on girls’ rights and protection from sexual violence as well as a WNN award from The Lilly MDR-TB Partnership for Shuriah Niazi’s outstanding reporting on the impacts of tuberculosis on miner widows living inside rural India.


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