Empowering Women to Address Food Insecurity in India: An Interview with Veda Bharadwaja of THP

Is there any country in the world with a more complex relationship to food than India? It is the site of the original Green Revolution, yet has some of the worst levels of child malnutrition in the world. Its rising middle class is often blamed, along with their Chinese counterparts, for increasing global demand for meat and other food. Yet the majority of its population continues to depend on agriculture for their livelihoods, and difficult agricultural conditions and rural poverty have led to countless farmer suicides, with estimates numbering in the hundreds of thousands. While Indian businesses have sought land acquisitions in Asia, Latin America, and Africa in order to produce crops for export back to India, foreign governments and companies simultaneously have sought to acquire land in India for the same purpose.

India has also produced incredible activists using diverse approaches to address food, hunger, and agricultural issues. Lawyers bringing public interest cases have led the Supreme Court to determine that a right to food exists (linked to the constitutional right to life), requiring certain legal entitlements to food. Others, such as globally renowned activist Vandana Shiva, have campaigned on issues of seed sovereignty or farmers’ rights. Intriguingly, The Hunger Project India, part of the NY-based organization, has taken a different approach:  addressing hunger in the country through empowering women. I posed some questions to Veda Bharadwaja, Programme Officer for Advocacy and Research, about the work that they’re doing throughout India.

The Hunger Project India’s work focuses on empowering women rather than on distributing food. Why is women’s empowerment important for ending hunger in India?
The Hunger Project India believes in three critical elements that, when combined, empower people to make rapid progress in overcoming hunger and poverty. They are empowering women as key change agents; mobilising people at the grassroots level to build self –reliance; [and] forging partnerships with local governments.

Women’s political participation is a fundamental prerequisite for gender equality and genuine democracy. In South Asia, women form more than 50 percent of the population and yet research suggests that women’s participation in decision-making processes, especially in relation to representation at the different levels of governance, is significantly lower in countries such as Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. In placing our work within the rights framework and in empowering women with knowledge about rights and entitlement, by using the mandate that the Indian constitution has given, elected women are able to exercise their political leadership effectively by taking decisions for the development of their local communities.

One major component of THP India’s work is training women leaders. What do you train them on?
India has primarily relied upon the method of reservation to ensure women’s presence in decision-making bodies. This has increased de jure, but not necessarily de facto participation …. Women elected to Gram Panchayats [local governance bodies] face numerous challenges by traditional and repressive societal structures such as gender discrimination, caste dynamics, low literacy rates, poor health and undernourishment, amongst others.

Given this background and reality, The Hunger Project … focuses on building the leadership of elected women representatives … to empower them to exercise their leadership in public office and practice good governance in their constituencies.

[Specifically,] The Hunger Project India undertakes [three types of trainings]: (1) Women Leadership Workshops … [that] helps women develop an understanding of social and political citizenship and the status of women in politics …; (2) Follow up Workshops … to address issues and practical concerns women elected representatives face vis-à-vis their participation in the Panchayat; (3) Need Based Workshops … that address concerns which are context specific ….

[We also train] trainers of partner organizations that implement the programme in the field ….

In India, are there any laws that are either particularly important for promoting women’s empowerment or particularly problematic by harming women’s empowerment?
[For] promoting women’s empowerment, the 73rd Constitutional Amendment (1992), which gave formal constitutional recognition to rural local self-governance units called Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) and reserved 33.3% percent of seats for women in the three tiers of PRIs. Most recently, the Cabinet has approved to enhance this reservation to 50% in Panchayats, through the One Hundred and Tenth Amendment Bill.

[For] hampering women’s empowerment, [the] Two-Child normis prevalent as a policy [and] … at the Panchayat level in the following states: Rajasthan, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra. The Two-Child norm, as formulated for aspirants to elected posts in panchayats, [means that] a person having more than two children [or] more than two living children after a specified date is not eligible for entry or continuance in panchayats ….*

The norm is coercive in nature, impinging on basic human rights principles. It challenges the basis of democracy, where both men and women, through the prevalence of this discriminatory norm, are not able to exercise their political right to stand for elections. Rise in harmful medical practises, sex selective abortion and skewed sex ratio is further perpetuated with the prevalence of this norm. The problems have now deepened and worsened thereby severely affecting women’s health and wellbeing.

The Two-Child norm affects the poor and marginalized communities more. … the norm goes on to perpetuate the discrimination that women face every day, albeit in different forms. … The norm abets and strengthens traditional structures of patriarchy that has always restricted women’s entry into public space. The Two-Child norm is therefore anti-women as it drastically affects their physical, mental, and emotional health, and leaves them disempowered, helpless, and victims of [a] coercive policy.

What resources would you suggest to people who are interested in learning more about empowerment or hunger issues in India?

Periodicals and magazines: Economic & Political Weekly, Tehelka, Governance Now

* The law does not disqualify people who had more than two children at the time the law came into effect, so long as no additional children are born afterwards.

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