Their more than 100,000 members are among the most marginalized women of India. They are Dalit, landless widows and indigenous women. Individually they lack power. Collectively they advocate for sustainable agriculture, social justice, local governance, and rights for workers and seniors.
They were on the short list for the 2013 Food Sovereignty Prize, honoured for their work to improve food security by encouraging women to plant native millet varieties that are hardier and more nutritious than the genetically modified rice and wheat they are pressured to plant.
The collective has identified lands left fallow, acquired leases, and trained women to cultivate crops suitable for local conditions. Tapping into the agriculture knowledge these women possess, they have formed groups to farm organically, with the intent of providing food for their families for at least half of each month.
Their work is the new Green Revolution. It differs from Norman Borlaug’s Green Revolution of the 1940s to 1960s in its focus on local knowledge and techniques rather than the expansion of industrial agriculture. By honouring local knowledge and empowering women to act on behalf of themselves and their families, the Tamil Nadu Women’s Collective is not only creating economic opportunity. It is also encouraging sustainable agriculture, universal literacy, elder rights, environmental protection, local governance, and disaster preparedness.
That is a tall order, and the collective works under the weight of history and cultural expectations. But they are bringing women together for purposes that are large and important, and they are having some successes. They give me hope.