Women have been conspicuously absent from the story I’ve told so far. Through the vivid photos I saw of women hauling milk to their cooperatives and the way I had heard the sector described as a key employer of women, I expected to see women queuing up at the cooperatives I visited those first days. When I didn’t, I held out hope that at least a few of the society employees coming into the main office would be women and that perhaps the cooperatives I visited were anomalously male-dominated. Six weeks later and only a few women spotted, I decided to dig a little deeper.
On a trip out to visit SKEPL engineers servicing customers in the Panchmal district, I hit the jackpot. One of the district’s 192 all-women cooperatives was a mere 10 kilometers away from the service center and Shantaben Kantibhai Baraiya, the society secretary, was available for an interview. Shantaben graciously welcomed us into the front room of her home that had been decorated for her son’s wedding with colorful streamers and flowers dangling from the rafters. The long rectangular room was used as a living and dining room during the day and bedroom at night. One corner was lined with empty milk containers and had been taken over by en electronic weighing scale, milk tester and accounting system. Settling in with a sweet cup of chai, I gave Shantaben an eager smile and launched into thirty minutes of questions.
When the village cooperative was run into the ground and ultimately closed several years ago, farmers were required to transport their milk 8 kilometers to the next closest cooperative. The five-hour daily walk meant farmers had to leave their young children unattended for long periods and were only able to work in the fields in the afternoon. As a dairy farmer, mother and preschool teacher, the closure of the cooperative meant Shantaben had to cut back her teaching hours, spend less time with her family and hire someone to look after the farm. Very much the family matriarch and a likely village leader, Shantaben developed a proposal to open an all-women cooperative in her home and solicited signatures from the village farmers. She took the signed petition to the union and was operational within 3 months. When I asked her why she decided to open a cooperative for women only, she responded, “because women help other women and women here needed me.” Since opening the cooperative in 2006, Shantaben has grown the society to 100 women and collects between 200-400 liters of milk per day. She installed an automated milk collection system three years ago and has been pleased with the increased efficiency and her growing comfort with technology. What’s next for the Kankuthambla society? “A pc, hopefully,” says the cooperative’s leader.
The meeting with Shantaben motivated me to learn more women’s involvement in the dairy sector. According to the National Dairy Development Board, 27% of dairy cooperative members are women and only 3% hold board seats in the country’s 130,000 village cooperatives. Harder to quantify is the number of women involved in dairying activities. In a survey of dairy farmers conducted by the Ford Foundation in 2007, 82% of the surveyed male dairy farmers responded that agricultural farming was their main source of income. Between this data and my own anecdotal experiences, I think it’s fair to assume that in the cases where families have multiple income sources, women are involved in some aspect of the family’s dairying, likely the milking and feeding of the livestock.
In response to the low number of women engaged in dairying, the government, private sector and NGOs have implemented a number of programs over the years. The National Dairy Development Board has provided incentives to all-women cooperatives, Amul has trained thousands of women in modern livestock management and SEWA, an NGO based in Gujarat, established the Gujarat State Women’s SEWA Cooperative Federation, a state level organization of women co-operatives. Such programs increased participation of women by nearly 300% between 1986 and 2002. Though the numbers today remain low, with women like Shantaben involved in the solution, I have no doubt more women will join the “white revolution” both as cooperative members and leaders.