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Rural women play a very important role in agriculture. They are mostly employed in India as labourers, as farmers and co-farmers in crop production or are involved in smallholder livestock farming, backyard poultry and collection of non-timber forest produce. Today, 53% of all male workers, 75% of all female workers and 85% of all rural female workers are involved in the agricultural sector.

Though they participate in all activities related to agriculture, they often lack capital, information, access to markets and technologies, knowledge and/or skills to transform or transcend subsistence level activities to earn enough to overcome poverty. They are usually the first to be marginalised, as agriculture gets mechanized and modernised. They have little or no advantage or power in rural areas for a number of reasons such as social and economic.

Rural women's voices are usually not heard and they are less educated and empowered. Therefore, they cannot articulate their needs, requirements and aspirations for better livelihoods.

Box 1 Rural Women in India - Key Facts

Forty-eight percent of India's population is female. As per Census 2001, the female population is 496.5 million, of which 360.95 million are rural.

More than 110 million women are engaged as workers in rural India, where agricultural based opportunities form their major livelihoods. While 36.5% of them are cultivators, 43% work as agricultural labourers (Census, 2001, Government of India).

At the national level, it is estimated that 20% of rural livelihoods are female headed due to widowhood, desertion, or male out-migration and are working for family sustenance (Planning Commission, 2006).

Today 53% of all male workers, 75% of all female workers, and 85% of all rural female workers, are in agriculture. An estimated 20% of rural households are de facto female headed, due to widowhood, desertion, or male out-migration (Planning Commission, 2007)

Efforts have been initiated in the recent past by both governments and non-governmental organizations to incorporate gender issues into the development agenda to ensure women's full and equitable participation in agricultural development programmes.

However, several studies and reports indicate that the style and type of many of these projects and programmes implemented is micro-level and input driven and follows a general pattern: formation of SHGs; initiating thrift and credit and linking to credit from banks; organising training programmes mainly on production and post-harvest technologies; demonstrations; exposure visits; and distribution of implements or subsidies.

It is also becoming increasingly clear that, programmes and projects are not formulated based on the diversity of women groups or women's interest or based on consultations with other agencies that are also interested or are working for rural women.

Research also indicates that there is a clear lack of vision about the institutional support required to turn activities into real livelihood opportunities. Even if the opportunity exists, there is lack of innovation within organisations to realise the potentials. Thus, opportunities remain unchallenged and unexplored.

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