A native of Bihar in east India, Neha completed a master’s in social work and an MBA in finance and marketing, before working on gender justice projects at Oxfam India and then Solidaridad.
Today, she is head of gender inclusivity for Asia at Solidaridad, where she spearheads large-scale projects to overcome the socio-cultural constraints that prevent women farmers from participating in the formal economy.
You don’t use a surname and are known simply as Neha. Can you tell us why?
“I don't have a surname, and that's for a purpose. In my country, by a surname, you would know which caste I belong to, which religion I am, and everything else. I don't subscribe to such practices and there is a lot of discrimination that happens because of somebody's caste and name, so I just wanted to do away with it. That's why I don't have a second name!”
What is the situation among female farmers in the countries you work in – India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia?
“Sometimes, women are so socially discriminated against for so long, they're not able to understand that they are discriminated against and that these are their rights.
“If you ask women in Asian countries, ‘What is your major occupation?’, they will always say, ‘I'm a housewife and I help my husband to do such things.’ But 80% of the farming activities are being done by them – they don't even realise that they are the farmers!
“So, first, we need to make them realise they are the major stakeholders of farming and they should be called the farmers. From there, we need to go to a level where they are able to take decisions and have money in their accounts, which would help, in turn, to economically empower them.
“It's high time we started working on the feminisation – or refeminisation – of the supply chain because women deserve that position. Everybody should start working towards it.”
Do you have an example of how Solidaridad is empowering women as active and recognised stakeholders in the farming system?
“We had a project in Bangladesh with women dairy farmers. The women would take care of the cows and do every activity required for daily care of the animals. So, we set up a formal supply chain but when the milk was being sold at the milk collection centre, it was brought there by the man. The accounts would be settled and the money was [put in] the hand of the male farmer.
“[Before], somebody would come to her house and buy the milk so at least 50% of the time, she would get the money. But since culturally, she's not supposed to go out to the marketplace and do such activities, she never challenged this.
“So, what we did was a very small change: only if the woman was registered as the farmer, [could] the milk be sold at the collection centre. The money started going to women's accounts and we started training these women on digital transactions.
“A small change in the way you approach the whole thing might change the situation of women in the rural setup. I think market, digital, and financial [levers] have huge power and it's time that we started leveraging these to empower women.”
It is a huge task to change social norms that have been in place for hundreds of years. Do you come up against resistance from the male farmers and husbands?
“Yes, of course, because it's a change in power and men have to give away [...] the powerful position that they are in. But we need to approach it at the household level and [say], ‘Both of you are going to benefit from this.’.
“That can happen when we use the market as a lever for this change to happen. If a company comes and says, ‘I want to work with female farmers and I would pay them a bit extra over male farmers’, I'm sure nobody would say no because it's the overall household income. So, there are mechanisms to nudge these norms and to stop these backlashes from happening.”
How did you get interested in the topic of social and gender justice in agriculture?
“During my MBA, I started reading a lot about women and their issues but I was also born and brought up in a very small town, so I grew up in that kind of setup; I had an exposure to everything first hand and it didn't feel correct to me.
“I chose to go into the development sector after my degree and that way I got exposure to women in the agriculture space, which I found very discriminatory. And that's when I just made up my mind that I wanted to remain in the sector and work for the empowerment of these women.”
Have you ever come up against traditional ideas in your own career path and were they a major obstacle?
“I was brought up in a very small town in one of the most backward areas of my country, Bihar. Socially, there was not so much acceptance of women studying or being allowed to go out of the home. But fortunately, my parents are very progressive that way, so I was allowed to do whatever I wanted to do.
“But yes, I have felt a lot of hindrances from society itself. I think it was [thanks to] my rebellious nature and the fact I had full support from my parents that I could overcome it. [...] Having that kind of support system is so required.”