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HIV-positive women get user rights to till land

Sep 09, 2009

In southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, 20 HIV positive women are toiling the land in the hope of promising dividends. Suzlon Foundation, a multinational company, under its corporate social responsibility initiative, has given the user rights to till 46 acres of land to these women.

Thirunelveli: Till four months back, 33-year-old Mugil hardly ventured out of her parent’s home, preferring to stay indoors and tend to the household chores.

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“I had no idea how to cross the road and if I saw a bus coming, I was terrified,” confesses the childless widow from Pambankulam village in Thirunelveli district of the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

Today, Mugil not only crosses the road from her house but boards the bus to a destination some 12 kilometres away and then walks a few more kilometres to the fields where she works all day, sowing groundnuts and tomatoes.

Along with 19 other women, all HIV-positive like herself, she toils in hopes of a rich harvest, hopefully in October, which will yield the first promising dividends of a unique venture she and other women have gone into.

In the first experiment of its kind in the country, these women have been given user rights to till 46 acres of land belonging to a multinational organisation in Radhapuram village of the district, bordering the state of Kerala.

How does this work?

Mugil says with a laugh: “Well, obviously we cannot till the entire land all at once as we are only 20 women!”

“Our plan is to systematically go about it. Currently, we are tilling five acres. When the crops are ready for harvest, we will venture forth to the next five acres and so on.”

In a first for the corporate sector, the “We-Farm, Radhapuram” project is being undertaken by Suzlon Foundation (SF), a multinational organisation based in the state of Maharashtra, under its Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiatives, in collaboration with the National Positive Women’s Network (PWN+), headquartered in the state capital, Chennai.

The PWN+ identified women in and around Radhapuram to facilitate the process of strengthening their organisation by building their capacities to function as a democratic organisation, undertake collective income-generating activities and share produce not only to earn their livelihood but also to boost their self-esteem and empower them to deal with life’s challenges.

Their efforts led to the setting up of the Thirunelveli District Positive Women’s Network (TPWN+), of which Mugil has been elected president.

The SF has made available 46 acres of land along with existing assets, including 152 grown coconut trees, a farm house with metered electric connection and a pump set to PWN+ to use for three years. The agreement was signed on April 26, 2009. One month later, the women began their work.

“Last month, we harvested 1,700 coconuts. Each of us got ten coconuts each and we sold the rest at Rs 3 (or 0.06 U.S. dollar) per coconut, using the earnings to build up our collective account at the bank,” says Mugil.

“Last month, we harvested 1,700 coconuts. Each of us got ten coconuts each and we sold the rest at Rs 3 per coconut, using the earnings to build up our collective account at the bank”

For women who have shunned and been shunned by society due to their HIV affliction, this group shows amazing grit and resilience.

First time farmers

“Most of us have never done farming before,” says Gayatri (not her real name), 38. “Most of us worked with our families rolling beedis (local cigarettes) as children. When we saw all this land, we were not confident, but as we started working and were given guidance throughout by SF people, we were inspired to give 100% of our effort. In fact, we feel that nothing is impossible for us.”

The women are encouraged to use organic fertilisers made out of five substances obtained from cows – dung, urine, milk, curd and ghee. This mixture is kept in a container and stirred twice a day for 22 days, after which it becomes organic manure free of chemicals, explains Ravikularaman Ramasamy, SF’s CSR manager.

“Because of their HIV status, we tell them to use this organic manure and not pesticides. We also stress that they should first consume whatever they grow themselves and then sell the produce, as good nutrition is essential for them to build their immunity,” he points out.

Each of the 20 women came to the project with a seed capital of 2,000 rupees (some 41 US dollars) while SF’s contribution for the first year is one Lakh rupees (about 2,058 US dollars), to be given in quarterly installments of 25,000 rupees (or 514 U.S. dollars).

Upon completion of the first year, SF and PWN+ will revisit the terms and conditions and revise the plan for years two and three, says Ramasamy. “Our objective is to identify and facilitate participation of deprived sections of society, including HIV-positive women and go beyond the commitment of SF by approaching government and non-governmental organisations to leverage support in different forms,” he adds.

Two male helpers have been assigned to guide the women farmers. “We discourage them from mono-cropping, but to grow different crops for different durations. This is better for the land too,” says project coordinator S. Lekshmaan.

At the same time, he cautions, as the project is in its early stages, the financial returns will take a while to fully benefit the women. In terms of self-worth and confidence, however, they are already winners.

“For the first time in our lives, we got an opportunity to mingle with other people,” says 39-year-old Prema (name changed on request). “Before this, we had a huge inferiority complex. But now, when we see men’s scepticism about our ability to till the land, it gives us more incentive to do well,” she says.

Building women’s resource rights

Acting as facilitator between the PWN+ and SF in this key initiative towards building women’s resource rights is a national women’s NGO, Sathi All for Partnerships (SAFP), based in Delhi.

“We approached Suzlon, state agencies and UNIFEM (United Nations Development Fund for Women) with the idea of increasing women’s resource base in three states of Delhi, Tamil Nadu and Kerala,” says SAFP director Shivani Bhardwaj. “The Radhapuram experiment is the first ever private and public agreement that forms a key step towards building a women’s resource zone.”

The deliberations led to the SF offering two plots, of which 46 acres were allotted for the project and 43 for a similar initiative involving tribal women in the same district.

“Suzlon was keen on helping the local communities’ livelihoods, and while identifying the neediest, excluded but ready to take the challenge, we chose to work with PWN+,” says Seemantinee Khot, SF’s CSR head.

“Suzlon was keen on helping the local communities’ livelihoods, and while identifying the neediest, excluded but ready to take the challenge, we chose to work with PWN+”

“Deprived sections of the society need special support and assistance from corporate, and Suzlon is willing to take this extra step through this conjunctive land use plan.”

“Working in the open air has done wonders for my health. I feel healthy ploughing the land,” says Gayatri. The upcoming harvest is yet another cause for optimism. “We hope to get a good yield of groundnuts.”

Source : IPS
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