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The hand that cares and feeds: India’s unnatural ‘natural’ caretakers of livestock


Sanjiv's mother, who insisted in keeping the family cows in the family business

Indian women—unnatural ‘natural’ caretakers of livestock (photo credit: ILRI/Jules Mateo)

Note: This is the twelfth and final article in a twelve-part series on
‘Curds and goats, lives and livelihoods—
A dozen stories from northern and eastern India’.

PART 12: The hand that cares and feeds:
India’s unnatural ‘natural’ caretakers of livestock

By Jules Mateo
International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI)

To awaken the people,
it is the women who must be awakened.
Once she is on the move, the family moves,
the village moves, the nation moves.

—Jawaharlal Nehru, first Prime Minister of India

This quote above appears on signage above a doorway at the Central Institute for Women in Agriculture (CIWA), an organization operating under the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) and located in Bhubaneswar, the capital of India’s eastern state of Odisha. A delegation from the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), based in Africa, paid a visit to CIWA and took part in its celebration of International Women’s Day on 8 March 2016.

DSC_4472_Bhubaneswar_CIWA_GroupPhoto6_RaisedHands

The ILRI team and ICAR officials and staff at the 2016 International Women’s Day celebration at the Central Institute for Women in Agriculture, in Bhubaneswar, Odisha, India (photo credit: ILRI/Susan MacMillan).

After undertaking a multi-state, communications-related trip in India 3–14 Mar 2016, I could not help but wonder if Jawaharlal Nehru, as quoted above, had got it wrong. All the women farmers the ILRI team met in Delhi and the towns and villages and farms of Haryana and Odisha were on the move, tireless and persevering. Some may have appeared as unassuming as they were confident, but all appeared most definitely ‘awake’.

This opinion piece is based on my observations throughout this field trip. I cannot speak for Indian women (I’m a Filipino), but I found it admirable how many of the women farmers we met in the towns of Karnal, Mayurbhanj and Bhadrak take on the role of caretakers and nurturers of their animals and their families, how they have ‘a confident sense of [their] own purpose and usefulness’, as my communications colleague put it in an earlier article in this series.

I was impressed by how much India’s women food producers make the most out of their situations, how often they thrive in what they do despite constraints, how few view themselves as victims of their circumstances, how often, and with what assurance and purposefulness, they exercise agency.

Indian women farmers and the feminist concept of ‘ethic of care’
Women are often believed to be ‘natural’ caretakers and nurturers by nature. Expressions such as ‘maternal instincts’ and ‘mother hen’ are often associated with women who are demonstrably protective of the welfare of their families. Women are also commonly believed to be more empathic and responsive than men. While caring is often seen as a feminine rather than masculine trait, some feminist theorists claim that this is due largely to the feminization of labour, particularly of ‘care work’.

Carol Gilligan, for example, has found a way to reclaim caring as ‘ethic of care’—as a form of ‘resistance to injustices and inequality inherent in a patriarchal society’. Whether knowingly or not, the women livestock farmers we met in India appeared to me to be doing a fine job of putting such ethics into practice.

In a village in the outskirts of Karnal, in India’s northern Haryana state, we met Rita, mother of Sanjiv, owner of a dairy-based company, a mushroom farm and several other agricultural businesses. Years ago, Sanjiv told us, the dairy business was not doing well and he was ready to discontinue producing dairy products and concentrate on his more profitable ventures. But Rita convinced him to keep the buffaloes and promised she would take care of the animals herself.

Sanjiv's mother, who insisted in keeping the family cows in the family business

A woman in Haryana, India, tends to her family’s milk cows and buffaloes (ILRI/Jules Mateo).

True enough, when we went to their family home, we found Rita standing in a lot across from their house, watching over several large milk buffaloes, dutifully performing the task she promised to do to help the family business.

Some form of ‘ethic of care’ also appeared to be demonstrated by women goatkeepers of Mayurbhanj, in the eastern state of Odisha. Their caring attitude towards their goats while out herding the animals showed in the way they watched over them, never shouting at them but herding them gently, as though they were pets rather than livestock raised to be sold or slaughtered at a later date. Back home, the women fed and housed the goats right in their courtyards, enjoying their company, ensuring the animals’ comfort and seeing immediately to any animals that appeared to be ailing.

Goat lives and livelihoods in Mayurbhanj, Odisha, India

A woman in Odisha, India, herds goats near a forested area in Mayurbhanj (ILRI/Susan Macmillan).

Mayurbhanj goat farmers

The goat keepers of Mayurbhanj treat their farm animals like extended family (ILRI/Jules Mateo).

Agency as a feminist concept and the enterprising women farmers of Odisha
‘Agency’ refers to one’s ability to act for one’s self, a capacity for independent choice and action.

From a gender perspective, feminist writers Sonya Andermahr, Terry Lovell and Carol Wolkowitz define agency in their book A glossary of feminist theory (2000) as essentially involving self-determination, one’s ability to act in the world on one’s own terms—to be active, not passive. Female agency, they argue, often involves acting in accordance with one’s concerns, needs and wants despite restraints prevalent in a patriarchal and male-dominated society.

I saw what appeared to me to be this type of agency during our trip to Bhadrak, in northern Odisha, when we made several stops to visit dairy value chain actors in the town. First was a female paravet businesswoman running a milk collection and semen distribution centre. To become a paravet involves months of rigourous training, and for women like this one would mean juggling work and training needs with home and family duties. Whatever the hurdles she had to overcome, this paravet woman is today all business, appearing fully in command and running her centre like a ‘boss’.

Dairy producers and processors in Bhadrack, Odisha State, India

A woman paravet runs a milk collection and semen distribution centre on the outskirts of Bhadrak, Odisha (ILRI/Susan MacMillan).

Dairy producers and processors in Bhadrack, Odisha State, India

The Bhadrak businesswoman who trained to become a paravet (ILRI/Susan MacMillan).

Equally impressive was a woman running an integrated family farm just a block away from the milk collection centre. This matriarch businesswoman raises cattle and sells dairy products she makes every morning in her own house. She raises chickens and other poultry in her front yard. And she grows fish in a series of aquaculture ponds in her backyard.

Dairy producers and processors in Bhadrack, Odisha State, India

A woman who runs her family’s highly integrated crop-and-animal farm and associated successful small businesses on the outskirts of Bhadrak feeds her chickens (ILRI/Susan MacMillan).

We were invited into her home to watch her cheesemaking process, assisted by her sons. In a country where men typically take over such successful home businesses, it was impressive to see this older woman demonstrably still at the helm of her growing business, exercising agency on many levels, and disregarding conventional constraints imposed by her gender and age. As we left her home, we told her how impressive we found her finely integrated farm. Her response was along the lines of: ‘Yes, it is successful. But I don’t sleep much keeping it all going.’

Dairy producers and processors in Bhadrack, Odisha State, India

The Bhadrak businesswoman with her grandson before one of her several fish ponds (ILRI/Susan MacMillan).

The late journalist and cultural critic Christopher Hitchens once said:

The cure for poverty has a name, in fact.
It is called empowerment of women.

In India, this cure appears to be readily at hand—one that, with modest encouragement, is ready to spread widely, for the benefit of all.

Read previous parts in this blog series
‘Curds and goats, lives and livelihoods—A dozen stories from northern and eastern India’
Part 1: Colourful convocation: Jimmy Smith addresses graduates of India’s prestigious National Dairy Research Institute, 30 Mar 2016.
Part 2: Elite buffaloes and other exemplars of advanced Indian dairy science at the National Dairy Research Institute, 31 Mar 2016.
Part 3: Culture of the cow: Curds in the city—Better living through smallholder dairying in northern India, 5 Apr 2016.
Part 4: Building better brands and lives through peri-urban dairying and smart crop-dairy farming, 6 Apr 2016
Part 5: Wonder women of Bhubaneswar, 12 Apr 2016.
Part 6: Odisha Odyssey: The Arcadian landscapes and tribal goat keepers of Mayurbhanj, 9 May 2016.
Part 7: Odisha Odyssey: A look at the emerging commercial dairy value chains in eastern India, 12 May 2016
Part 8: Getting the (science) word out: ILRI and ICAR share livestock communications and knowledge management practices, 25 May 2016
Part 9: Reaching stakeholders, influencing policies: ICAR–ILRI communications workshop, 11 Jul 2016.
Part 10: Leveling livestock information: Knowledge management at an ICAR–ILRI communications workshop, 12 Jul 2016.
Part 11: India’s addiction to milk as a diabetes pandemic moves to the villages, 29 Jul 2016.

Read an ILRI opinion piece by Susan MacMillan on evidence-based advocacy communications.

Visit ILRI News for a series of articles on ‘Curds and goats, lives and livelihoods—
A dozen stories from northern and eastern India’.

View all photographs of the workshop in this ILRI Flickr photo album.

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