Stronger Together: Single Women revive Sustainable Farming

A collective in rural India is boosting the status of single women and fighting hunger by returning to traditional techniques.

Eka Nari Sanghathan members hard at work.

Female farmers in India are widely expected to work as free labour on family farms. They rarely own the land and, in some cases, have no role in deciding how it is managed. Single women in rural communities must fend for themselves and will often work even when unwell just to make ends meet. A women’s collective in India, supported by research from Western Sydney University, is trying to change this.

In 2013, Bhavya Chitranshi, a PhD student at the Institute for Culture and Society at Western, moved to Emaliguda in eastern India to immerse herself in the community of a Kondh adivasi (Indigenous) tribe. The aim was to spend a year researching and designing a project to support sustainable development within the community. “As a young, single woman in an unfamiliar place, I felt most comfortable among women,” she says. “We worked in the fields, spent time together cooking, bathing and completing chores, and as we shared our life stories, it became clear that being single here was a unique and challenging experience.” Nearly a third of women in Emaliguda are unmarried, separated, or widowed, while others have husbands who do not provide much support. Chitranshi decided to explore what it was like to be a single adivasi woman and began holding open discussions with her new friends. “At first, everyone felt extremely vulnerable talking about the challenges of singleness,” she says. “But slowly they began opening up as they saw value in and derived strength from sharing their lives with each other.” 

The group soon evolved into the Eka Nari Sanghathan, which means “single women’s collective”. Together, the women rented some land and adopted a collaborative approach to agriculture, dividing labour by ability and sharing the produce equally. For Sanghathan member Mami Pedenti, it is a long-awaited opportunity for single women to be recognised and valued as farmers who are economically independent and self-sufficient. “We should not have to depend upon anyone for our basic needs,” she says. “We deserve year-round food security and to live a healthy life. This is possible through eating healthily and farming sustainably. If we kill the planet today, what will our future generations live off?” she adds.

Need to know

  • Western’s Bhavya Chitranshi, helped establish Eka Nari Sanghathan, a single women’s collective in India.
  • The collective practises sustainable farming, using traditional techniques.
  • They produce enough food for themselves and are able to sell the remainder.

Chitranshi organised a trip to a demonstration farm so the women could see that sustainable farming was viable.  “We now cultivate our own seeds and make our own organic fertilisers, so we can grow healthy food while protecting the land, forests, soils and insects that keep the whole ecosystem alive,” says Chitranshi. By adopting traditional, ecologically sensitive techniques, the Sanghathan is rejecting the industrialised, technology and profit-based systems introduced by the Green Revolution, where farmers were encouraged to use chemical fertilisers and to plant high-yielding and hybrid seed varieties and cash crops. “The adivasi farmland had been transformed from growing Indigenous pulses, millet and oilseeds, to growing major cash crops, like cotton and eucalyptus,” explains Ashutosh Kumar from Ambedkar University in Delhi, who works with Chitranshi on the project. “But Eka Nari Sanghathan is taking back the art of cultivation to produce food for self-consumption. They have already revived several Indigenous crops by selecting seeds that work harmoniously with nature.” And this harmony defines the politics of the Sanghathan. “Many people doubted our approach, but now they are coming to us for advice,” adds Chitranshi. 

The collective now produces enough food for its own sustenance and sells the surplus, keeping the profits in a communal bank account to be shared collectively. “Before, people didn’t even know who the single women in our community were, but now they are starting to recognise our struggle,” says Mami Penenti. “Whatever type of struggle people face, gender, class, or identity, we need different kinds of Sanghathans to transform these oppressions. Because together, people can work on any issue that’s important to them.” 

Next, Chitranshi, who has been living and working with the collective during the COVID-19 pandemic would like to help Emaliguda establish a decent healthcare system, though she also appreciates what they have already achieved, both spiritually and politically (including securing single women a pension as well as securing government financial aid for building houses). “It has been so inspiring to see how strong single women are when they come together,” she says. “Working in a collective, you experience the beauty of relationships, female friendships and the value of sharing joy and love even when life gets difficult.”


© Eka Nari Sanghathan © Amol Sonar/unsplash © Ashwini Chaudhary/unsplash
Future-Makers is published for Western Sydney University by Nature Research Custom Media, part of Springer Nature.