Category Archives: Empowerment

Empowerment, Food Security, Rights, Video


Sastri Sandha, a member of the milkmaid caste, lives in the rural Sundargarh district, Orissa. Now over 30 years of age, unmarried and landless, she counts among some of the most vulnerable of India’s 1.3 billion citizens. But in the dappled light under the mango tree where we chat, this strong, healthy and eloquent lady seems far from vulnerable. Her parents sit not far away. It’s as though they are monitoring the conversation: as well they might, as we’ve been told that Sastri has been exploited by them for many years, as labour on their agricultural land. Since she never married, she has never been in a position to leave the family home. They have never paid her for her work and she has always been entirely dependent upon them for the roof above her head. However, Sastri does not mention this. Instead she begins by explaining how she has turned this apparently impossible situation around: “My name is Sastri Sandha from Gidhpahadi Village,” she says. “I am a single woman and I am the President of an organisation made up of other similar single women. We now have 300 members!”

Women in India and much of the rest of South Asia are classed as ‘single’ if they are widowed, separated, divorced or over 30 but unmarried. At that age, there is very little hope of marrying and the stigma begins to set in. According to the 2001 census, there are over 40 million single women in India.[1] For educated urbanites, this status might be a lifestyle choice, made with the awareness of what social and family opprobrium this will bring. For the rural poor, the ‘single woman’ status brings with it a customary denial of any land rights, social rejection and reduced earning potential.

“The objective is to give single women some dignity,” says Baideh Kavdi, a member of the Orang tribe, who has also formed a women’s group. “In the past, parents might have taken care of their daughters,” she continues, “but nowadays single women cannot depend on their families to take care of them. We have to be able to live independently.” Sastri agrees: “The problem with our single women is that after separating from their husband, their in-laws don’t give them their land rights, but when they return to their parents’ house then neither the parents nor the brothers will give them land rights either. Another issue is that un-wedded mothers face more problems in getting any such rights. How can such mothers maintain their children?”

Nata Kishor Mishra is a founding member of CIRTD (the Centre for Integrated Rural and Tribal Development), an NGO that promotes the rights of some of the most marginalised people in this area: “We work in the tribal villages and have found that whenever schemes and government facilities arrive, the villagers who are poor and living below the poverty level, often still remain deprived. But among those, when we delve deeper into the problem, further into the analysis, we find a lot of single women are living in the villages and are actually even much more deprived but there is nobody there to speak out for them. In addition the community doesn’t accept them either. If they are living in a house with their brother or sister or parents, the community does not recognise them as part of the family. The community tends to think: ‘No, no, no. She must have done something wrong. That’s why she’s in that state.’”

Collectively giving voice to their claims to rights is a step in the right direction, but without land or work, single women who are reliant on the goodness of relatives or community not to abandon them, have little leverage. However, through the support of CIRTD both Sastri and Baideh have now learned the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) and also applied the climate smart method to other crops. “I might be a single woman, but I am also a farmer. I grow vegetables and rice. And I follow the SRI method,” says Sastri. “We now do the work in less time and with less expense. But we get more produce. So we like and prefer SRI.” By collectively leasing land and adopting this high yield, low cost method of farming, the women, together with their colleagues, are ensuring their own food security without having to rely on other community members or family. “We lease the land to grow vegetables, which we sell in the market, says Baideh. “Whatever money we earn is used to provide for our family needs. And we also have money left over. Now, we are able to live with dignity.”

Collectively standing up for themselves has reaped rewards politically as well as in the field. Following a government survey, Sastri’s members won the right to be considered householders, which means they now have the right to ration cards. Next, they intend to push for the all-important land rights that will give them greater security. It is an uphill struggle, but there are laws in India that protect the vulnerable and these single women are raising their voices now so their claims can be heard. “The government pays a Widow’s Pension and a Handicap Pension. In the same way, the government should make a policy for a single women’s pension,” says Baideh. “All single women should get the pension. The government runs different schemes such as Mokudia (Home for Women) and Indra Awas Yojna (for people living below the poverty line) so single women should also benefit from such schemes.”

“When we interact with these women, it’s clear they think: I have done some wrong, that’s why I am in this position,” says Nata Mishra. “But they have not done anything wrong. By bad luck and the process of this society, they have come to this. So, it is a very important thing and I think activists should work more on this to further influence the state government and the national government. There should be several different schemes for them: for land, for accessing other rights and for their livelihood.”

Baideh, Sastri and the women they campaign with have already overcome a great deal and are now, at least, starting to get their voices heard. Meanwhile, it seems, Sastri’s parents are not likely to argue with their daughter any time soon.


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The Centre for Intregrated Rural and Tribal Development (CIRTD) works in Sundargarh district of Orissa state, India

Empowerment, Food Security, Video

Ong Ol

It’s transplanting season here in Pursat province, Cambodia and across south and southeast Asia. The air is thick with the mists rising from flooded paddy fields as the extreme heat evaporates yesterday’s rain. Conditions are stifling, yet across vast swathes of countryside, women are bent double, transplanting the rice seedlings that will produce over 700 million tons[1] of the world’s most important food staple.

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It is estimated that over a billion people grow rice across the world, well over half of whom are women.[2] Most are poor and food insecure. And the majority of those doing the transplanting work right now are women. For them, this involves long days bent over under both a punishing heat that reaches around 35ºC, and heavy seasonal rain that will water the crop. Standing or squatting for long periods in water contaminated with chemical fertilisers and various disease vectors, the women are soaked from above and from below. As working conditions go, in the long-term, these have to be among the most hazardous, yet few women are paid for this work. Most are not even recognised by the authorities or outside world as farmers.

Ong Ol is transplanting on a plot in Sarieng Village. She has no health problems, has food all year round and receives fair payment for what she is doing. She is deputy team leader of her local Women-Led Agricultural Service team (WLAS) and has turned her previously difficult situation into a business:

“We sell our labour as a team to local landowners,” she explains. And then she adds: “And while I’m promoting the team’s services, I promote the practice of SRI.” SRI is the System of Rice Intensification and it is becoming increasingly widespread as farmers and rice growers acknowledge the profound benefits it brings. “We spend less on seeds but get higher yields with SRI,” says Ong Ol. “When we grow rice in the traditional way, it uses much more seed but we harvest so much less.”

SRI, which harnesses the growth potential of individual rice plants by transplanting young seedlings singly rather in the traditional clumps, requires up to 90% less seed and also favours non-flooded fields where the aerobic soil conditions encourage faster and stronger growth. It costs less but, counter-intuitively perhaps, it results in higher yields from those stronger plants. And it is knowledge-based, which means farmers can adopt the methodology at no expense. It also favours organic fertilisation. Fewer seedlings mean less time bent over; no flooding eradicates some of the soaking conditions; organic inputs reduce contamination. SRI results not only in cost savings and food security but also in improved health.

SRI was introduced to this area by a local NGO, Srer Khmer. It was also Srer Khmer that came up with the WLAS team idea, as the organisation’s coordinator, Chhun Sophorn explains: “We’ve been introducing SRI in Pursat province for some time but talking with the communities, it became very clear that the local labour shortage was becoming a serious obstacle in our efforts to intensify agriculture here,” he says. “More and more people are migrating away from rural areas and those landowners left behind tend to be older and are abandoning their land because they simply can no longer do the work.”

Migration away from rural areas is a growing problem for the agriculture sector. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), there were 244 million international migrants in 2015 and a staggering “763 million internal migrants according to 2013 estimates.“[3] In Cambodia, migration to the capital Phnom Penh has been rising dramatically over recent decades. A government survey shows that “according to the 2008 Cambodian census, only 30% of residents of Phnom Penh were born there.”[4] And the numbers have been steadily rising. Generally, migration is caused by conflict and natural disasters but the phenomenon is also driven by land degradation, desertification, climate change and inappropriate farming techniques according to FAO, “undermining farmers’ productivity and resilience.”[5]

Srer Khmer’s WLAS initiative is a way to adapt to the phenomenon of such large-scale migration and ensure that sufficient food is produced both for the security of the poor smallholders and the nation as a whole. Since it is primarily the young and the men who migrate to towns and cities, women are left to cope with feeding their families. SRI, being more efficient and physically less demanding than conventional rice growing, meets women’s needs and allows them also to benefit economically. “About 90% of the team members are women,” says Chhun, “and they have structured their groups into various committees and elected leaders, deputy leaders, promoters and so on.”

Ouk Norng is the team leader here in Sarieng village and once she finishes another business call to a local landowner, she confirms how beneficial the WLAS team and the adoption of SRI have been for her family: “Once I started with SRI, I had enough to eat and a surplus to sell. My family is now better off. Before, I could scarcely afford a bicycle. Now I have a motorbike.” But she also says that the women in the team are more confident and have gained knowledge. They “dare” to discuss various issues they would not have talked about before. “We communicate with people from outside the commune,” she says. “For example, when I promote our services, I dare to contact the commune chief and speak with him. There have been a lot of changes for our team members.”

It is certainly true that the women here in Pursat province have been “economically empowered”. But something more is evolving here thanks to these labour teams, something less tangible but just as important. “SRI really is a tool for empowerment,” says Kaneka Keo, Oxfam’s Regional Policy Advisor, “In Cambodia, rural women tend to have a low self-regard but they seem willing to adopt the new technique, give it a go. And when it works, it’s like ‘wow!! I can really do this!’. It really does add confidence.” And hopefully this improved economic situation and a firm sense of self-worth, will prove to be a springboard for these women to pursue greater decision-making and even political roles.

[1] Source: IRRI
[2] The system of rice intensification and its impacts on women: Reducing pain, discomfort, and labor in rice farming while enhancing households’ food security, Olivia Vent , Sabarmatee and Norman Uphoff, Women in Agriculture Worldwide: Key issues and practical approaches, Edited by Amber J. Fletcher, Wendee Kubik, 2017 – Routledge
[3] Migration, Agriculture and Rural Development, FAO, 2016 –
[4] Cambodia Rural Urban Migration Project 2011 (CRUMP), Ministry of Planning – Royal Government of Cambodia,
[5] Migration, Agriculture and Rural Development, FAO, 2016 –

More information
Srer Khmer is a Cambodian NGO working in Pursat Province in collaboration with Oxfam Cambodia
The project Ong Ol and Ouk Norng are involved with is funded through Oxfam in Cambodia