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India’s Newest Landowners Signal a Sprouting Revolution

Jessica Mack

One year ago, India’s first-ever Women’s Land Rights Facilitation Center opened in Odisha State. This month, 150 local women were approved to receive the titles to their land. There has been increased global momentum around women, land, and farming but for all the talk, will there be the walk? 

One year ago, India’s first-ever Women’s Land Rights Facilitation Center opened in Odisha State. Focusing on women in the coastal Ganjam District – where one in three are agricultural laborers – the Center worked to increase women’s knowledge of land rights and support them in flexing their legal muscles to get it. Twelve months of community outreach, collaboration with local government officials, and guiding women through the bureaucratic land title application process have yielded quite a harvest.

This month, 150 women – divorced, widowed, or single mothers, and all heads of their household – were approved to receive the titles (in their own names) to the land on which they already work and live. This is major. “Across India, as per government data, close to 35 percent of all households are headed by women, and they are vulnerable,” said Sanjoy Patnaik, who oversees the Center and directs the work of Landesa in Odisha. With the rights to their land, these women now have financial and agriculture security that allows them to invest and yield much more. They will benefit, as will their families, but so will their community and eventually their national economy.  

India’s economy is one of the fastest-growing in the world, and soon this country that has been “emerging” for so long will be “emerged.” Yet rapid progress in many sectors hasn’t translated as such for half the population. From sex-selective abortion to child marriages, street harassment and lack of land tenure, India’s gender gap has dug its heels in. This gap is perhaps most obvious – and problematic – in the agricultural sector, where women supply approximately 30 percent of the labor countrywide (though this is much higher in some regions). In almost every facet, women are at a disadvantage starting with the most foundational issue, land security, which compels greater investments and greater yields. That includes access to seeds or fertilizer, training on better farming techniques, and even entry into farming collectives.

It’s not just India, though, it’s a global trend. A new infographic called “The Female Face of Farming,” from the inspired collective Farming First, provides a critical primer on issues that rural and farming women face. The contrast between the inequities of those issues and the amount to which women farmers contribute to the nourishment of their (and our!) countries is stunning:

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  • About half of economically active women worldwide cite agriculture as their primary source of income, yet barely any own the land they farm.
  • When women do own land, it tends to be smaller, worse quality, and more insecure plots.
  • Women farmers produce a smaller crop yield than men solely because they have dramatically less access to training and technologies like seeds and fertilizer.
  • Only 10 percent of global aid for agriculture, forestry, and fishing goes to women.

“I find everywhere, even listening to the women farmers in America, that security is not there. We want both men and women to have the liberty to live the way they would like to,” said Dr. Sarala Gopalan, an Indian farmer, advocate, and educator who is part of Farming First. Gopalan was in New York recently for the 56th Commission on the Status of Women, which this year focused on rural women’s empowerment. She works to train and support women farmers across India (when she’s not checking up on her family’s coconut farm).

“My main mission is to see that [women farmers] get the technologies that have been developed. Women are very quick to learn, irrespective of their education level. They catch on to new ideas and then they come back to you and tell you how to do things better. It’s very exciting.”

Women’s access to training and education is a persistent theme. In most rural and hard-to-reach areas where women are farming, ‘agriculture extension workers’ are the lifeline that provide education about techniques and technologies, or deliver supplies. Yet most are men and they tend to reach out to other men. This isn’t a new problem, though, and suggested solutions (like hire women as agricultural extension workers themselves) have been around for decades.

Yet recently there has been an historic upswing in global attention to the intersections of women, farming, and land – intersections where millions of women reside. Growing food insecurity around the world is already adversely affecting developing and developed countries, and it also seems to be finally dawning on people that, around the world, women very often run the farm. There is no shortage of speeches, articles, or global gatherings on this issue in the past several months. But for all the talk, will there be the walk?

Global momentum is a good thing, as long as it can be grounded in concrete actions.

“Women in developing countries are only interested in concrete actions – whether more and better projects for women are actually implemented and whether more women are supported in their efforts to solve their problems on the road to self determination,” wrote D. Obermaier in Development + Cooperation Magazine more than 20 years ago. 

This couldn’t be any truer today. The 150 women approved for land titles this month in Ganjam District are proof that concrete actions and self determination are very possible. “Even just six months ago, there was local apprehension in Odisha that women might not be interested in gaining land titles and therefore there might not be many cases [for the Center]. But many women proved us wrong by trying to learn about the centre on their own and creating a demand,” said Patnaik.

Ensuring land rights for women is foundational. But improving access to farming supplies, training on better farming, and the ability for women to become those trainers themselves is paramount. This is a continuum of access that does not just depend on the right laws and policies, though this is critical. But rather it demands constant vigilance, advocacy, and always walking the walk to change anything for women farmers.  

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