Scholar’s Spotlight – Pulack Ghatack

Pulack Ghatack, President of the Bangladesh Agricultural Journalists and Activists Federation (BAJAF)

Pulack Ghatack from Bangladesh was one of three 2018 IFAJ Scholars who was awarded an IFAJ-Caterpillar Development Bursary for a special communications project. Following is his report.

Impact of customary laws in agriculture and feminization

Pulack Ghatack

Introduction

Jatin Kastogir, a farmer in Southern Chittagong District in Bangladesh was passing busy days to arrange the marriage ceremony for his youngest daughter Sujata. It’s a huge arrangement. Jatin was preparing to sell three hectares of land to pay the dowry and to cover the costs of the function. However, he did not get the chance to finalize it, as he died of cardiac arrest on September 3, 2016. Sujata, now 27, is still unmarried and to remain unmarried at such an age is a curse for a woman in rural Bangladesh. Sujata’s brother Mohon Khastogir, who now inherits the total property from his father, is not ready to sell such a huge amount of land for arranging a good marriage for his sister. Sujata Khastogir now feels herself a burden on her brother’s family, as she has made known.

 

Daughters inherit nothing if someone has a son, according to Hindu religious law in Bangladesh. Sujata’s elder sister was relatively fortunate for she got married before the death of their father. However, she is also a dependant of her husband’s family.

 

The scenario was found almost the same while visiting the Indian states of West Bengal and Tripura as part of the IFAJ-Caterpillar Development Bursary Fund. The Indian government has amended its law in 2005. But in practice, the situation remains same. “Few cases are coming now-a-days, where sisters are claiming the shares from their paternal properties,” said Purusottom Roy Barman, an eminent lawyer in Tripura’s capital city Agartala.

 

“Males inherit everything. This is a thousand years’ practice. You cannot change overnight,” he added.

 

The law allows discrimination

India and Bangladesh were ruled by the British for 200 years until 1947 and the criminal jurisprudence of these countries is guided by British common law. However, the countries maintain customary family laws based on respective faiths. Constitutionally, the countries grant women equal rights with men “in all spheres of the State and of public life,” but allows discrimination in personal property laws based on religion and customs that regulate people’s lives in relation to inheritance.

 

In general, among most Hindus, women inherit only in the absence of a male heir, typically in the absence of four generations of men in the male line of descent. Widows have the first claim and daughters follow. However, women do not receive full ownership rights; rather they enjoy usufruct (the right to enjoy the use and advantages of another’s property short of the destruction or waste of its substance) during their lifetime after which, the property reverts to the original source. Furthermore, women traditionally cannot dispose of property and cannot mortgage, give, or sell the land, except in exceptional circumstances.

 

According to Muslim law, a daughter will receive half of the share of a son following the death of a man. India did not touch Muslim law, though the country codified its family laws for other faiths to ensure equal rights for men and women. Muslims comprise 90 percent of the population in Bangladesh and they follow Sharia-based land tenure.

 

Despite the fact that women represent about half of the global population, produce the majority of the global food supply, and perform 60 percent to 80 percent of the agricultural work in developing countries, women own less than 20 percent of farmland worldwide, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations.

 

Distribution of Agricultural Holders by Sex

Source: FAO [http://www.fao.org/gender-landrights-database/data-map/statistics/en/?sta_id=982]

 

Country Agricultural Census Total farmland Female % female
Bangladesh 2008 28,695,763 1,322,937 4.6 %
India 2010-2011 137,516,000 17,618,000 12.8 %
Thailand 2003 5,787,774 1,585,850 27.4%

 

 

Impact on agriculture and production

Most researchers suggested that secure land ownership for women would increase her access to other agricultural productive inputs such as seed, credit, technology, and information, and these will help increase a women’s farm productivity.

 

“Secure land rights for women have demonstrated enhanced agricultural productivity and building resilience among the small and marginal farmers, who constitute 75 percent of the farming community of India, said Subash Dasgupta, a Bangladeshi agricultural economist, who worked for a long time in the FAO regional office in Thailand as a researcher.

 

Increased access to agricultural inputs increases their agriculture productivity and reduces their dependence on their spouses. In the context of increased rural migration and feminisation of agriculture, access to productive inputs on time is non-negotiable for women farmers and this affects, their farm productivity in a substantial way.

FAO argues that improving women’s access to productive resources (such as land) could increase agricultural output by as much as 2.5 percent to 4 percent (http://www.fao.org/news/story/en/item/52011/icode/). At the same time, women would produce 20-30 percent more food, and their families would enjoy better health, nutrition, and education.

Women’s Empowerment

Secure land tenure is quite important for a woman as it would provide her source of livelihood and income generation after the death of her husband, and also protect her from other social evils like trafficking.

 

“Individual land rights are important for all women but its significance is far greater for single women. A piece of land in their name can help single women in rural areas to a life of dignity, with access to credit and other agricultural inputs,” Phulon Bhattachariya, a mayor in the council of the Agartala Municipality.

In traditional Hindu law women are given the user rights to land but the male relative (husband, son, father-in-law, etc.) owns the land. In this kind of a situation, women are vulnerable as the land on which the entire family is dependent may get sold at any time without her consent and leaving her without any livelihood.

Most married women prefer to claim their right on marital land rather than on the parental land as they contribute significantly towards the development of and production from the marital land.

“When the land is in my husband’s name, I’m only a worker. When it is in my name, I have some position in society and my children and my husband respect me so my responsibility is much greater towards my own land and I take care of my fields like my children,” said Sachi Rani Dev Barma, a member of Ponchayet (a local government body) at Bishakha village in South Tripura.

Feminization

Women’s importance in agricultural production both as workers and as farm managers has been growing in the last two decades, as more men move to non-farm jobs leading to an increased feminization of agriculture. In India, 48 percent of all male workers are in agriculture as against 75 percent of all female workers, and this gap is rising. Further, an estimated 20 percent of rural households in India are de facto headed by females, due to widowhood, desertion, or male outmigration. These women are often managing land and livestock and providing subsistence to their family with little male assistance. Hence agricultural productivity is increasingly dependent on the ability of women to function effectively as farmers.

However ownership of land is concentrated mostly in male hands in India’s patriarchal society. It has been estimated that in India, land ownership in favour of women is not more than 9.3 percent. Lack of entitlement to land (and other assets such as housing, livestock, and so on) is a severe impediment to efficiency in agriculture for women cultivators because in the absence of title women cannot get credit or be entitled to irrigation and other inputs, especially technology.

Not only rural-urban migration, huge numbers of people from some developing countries are migrating to other countries for jobs. This is a stark reality for Bangladesh, as at least 8.7 million of its citizens (almost all of whom are male) are working abroad. They left behind their lands for women to work. Unfortunately, women are not the owners.

“The feminization of agriculture is evident in many countries, but it is hard to assess accurately owing to difficulties in capturing all of women’s employment activities, including secondary and seasonal work. In addition, their roles and responsibilities have been changing from subsistence farming to wage employment, and from contributing household members to primary producers,” said agricultural economist Subash Dasgupta.

“Closing the gender gap would lead to enhanced productivity and improved development outcomes for the next generation,” said Dr. Baharul Islam Majumder, an agriculturist in Agartala.

Thailand situation

In most of the countries across the globe, inheritance is traditionally patrilineal, property being passed through the male line, with some limited matrilineal nations like Thailand. Seizing the opportunity to visit Thailand, which was never colonized by Europe, it can be seen that Thai people are ruled or guided by homegrown laws, though not entirely free from other influences. What is the situation in Thailand?

The traditional Thai society is matrilocal. Upon marriage, a Thai man goes to live with his wife’s parents, which is totally opposite to India and Bangladesh barring a few tribes. After having proved his loyal and responsibility by working on the land of his wife’s family for several years, the husband is given a portion of the land.

There are discrepancies or gaps between statutory and customary laws in Thailand. Although Article 1604 of the Civil Code states that men and women enjoy equal rights to inheritance, traditionally it is the youngest daughter who inherits most of the property.

 

“The youngest daughter usually remains with the parents and takes care of them, while the sons are expected to move out and stay with the wife’s family,” said Nazir Sharkar, the general secretary of the Thai-Bangladeshi Community in Pattaya Thailand.

The adoption of the Civil Code in 1923 has undermined the traditional rights of Thai women in the area of inheritance and family, at least in rural areas where customary law had great influence.

However, Thai society is still found to be freer and more progressive than India and Bangladesh in terms of socio-economic indicators.

Pulack is an agricultural journalist in Bangladesh and the Bangladesh Agricultural Journalists and Activists Federation’s representative on the IFAJ executive committee. Pulack’s interest is in the religion-based customary laws that largely deprive women of land ownership, which has a major impact on the agricultural economy.

With rural transformation, employment opportunities increases in non-farm sectors for both women and men. However, in many developing countries, when men move out of agriculture, women tend to remain on the farm. As a result, the number of women farmers and their responsibilities in agriculture increase. As the “feminization of agriculture” is evident in developing countries, women’s equal access to and control over economic resources is crucial for achieving equitable growth. But that access is hard to assess accurately owing to difficulties in capturing all of women’s employment activities, including secondary and seasonal work.

In addition, their roles and responsibilities have been changing from subsistence farming to wage employment, and from contributing household members to primary producers. However, this change is hard to detect using the data currently available. In all developing regions, women’s employment in agriculture relative to that of men is on the rise.

With this perspective, Pulack intends to write a series of reports on the impacts and changes in customary laws in agriculture and the feminization process with a focus on selected Asian countries with strong traditions of religion-based laws. The reports would be published in the Daily Observer of Bangladesh and BAJAF website/magazine. In addition to talking to famers, NGOs leaders, government officials, economists, legal experts and agriculturalists, he will also meet with agricultural journalists and host meetings to contribute to formation of guilds in these two countries.