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Dalit women campaign for land rights

Apr 29, 2008

A campaign by landless women to put unused land into productive hands is gaining momentum.

In a ground-breaking bid to empower women and end hunger among oppressed communities in Andhra Pradesh, over 25,000 applications for land have been filed by dalit women.

Taking a recent government order as a starting point, the women are intent on making rights that are currently on paper, a reality for hundreds of thousands of desperately poor households in the state.

The order dated July 28, 2007 states that “…assignment of government land wherever available to landless poor for agricultural purpose shall be granted within 3 months from the date of receipt of application…”

The campaign, backed by ActionAid and people’s movement Dalit Samakhya, aims to file 1,00,000 land applications by the year end. To hasten the process of granting land titles, campaigners are also reviewing district records to identify surplus land.

Land gives social prestige

Aswathamma, 42, a widow and mother of two, explains how owning land would change her life:

“Land means social prestige. It is just not an individual struggle. If I get land it will mean respect for my community as a whole and a better future.”

“Access to land will help us cultivate crops to sell in the market and feed our families,” she adds.

Dalit women and men across rural India work as agricultural labourers but few have land they can call their own. In rural areas where caste discrimination is a living reality, land can be a critical asset in determining an individual’s social standing.

Nagalakshma, 34, once an agricultural labour and now the Kurnool district convener of Andhra Pradesh Dalit Mahila Samakhya is hopeful that she will get her due.

“Today I am able to question any Reddy (dominant caste), can talk to police and any government official. I am more aware of my rights can demand them with authority”, says Nagalakshma.

Subbarao, advisor to Andhra Pradesh Dalit Samakhya explains the significance of women land rights further. “Women labour as long as 18 hours in the fields – sowing, weeding, cutting the crops – much more than men”, he says.

“But ironically, they face triple burden of caste, class and gender. Land will give women what is long overdue to them.”

Both men and women in dalit communities are expected to be breadwinners. The importance of women’s contribution to the dalit society is also reflected in dalit religious traditions where deities are primarily manifest in the female form.

“Sixty years of freedom for India has not bought freedom in a real sense for dalits who are still staggering way behind. Campaigns like this, led by the community and supported by a larger alliance carry hope of real change,” says Anjaiah P who leads dalit rights work of ActionAid India.

“With women at the forefront, there is also a positive challenge to India’s patriarchal society that sees women and girls as second class citizens,” he adds.
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