Mayadebi Tanchangya, of Bilaichhari upazila, toils away every morning till night to make ends meet for her seven-member family.
From domestic work and rearing livestock to farming vegetables on a small field in her homestead and jhum, the 48-year-old works for hours every day for only Tk 15,000 a month, which she spends on her family.
When the pandemic-induced shutdown had begun, she started facing problems while selling her farm-grown vegetable. As she is not registered as a female farmer and has no state support, she is still facing difficulty due to Covid-19’s impact.
On top of this, she did not know that the government is providing under a Tk 5,000 crore stimulus package to small and medium farmers in rural areas.
“I don’t know anything about it. I heard this from you,” Mayadebi told this correspondent.
Mayadebi is among the hundreds of indigenous women, living in hilly districts and on plain land, who hardly get any recognition despite making important contributions to the country’s society, agriculture and subsistence economy.
An overwhelming majority of them are kept out of the loop in terms of any state support, such as agricultural cards, seeds, fertilizers, or low-interest loans.
The Daily Star spoke to 15 indigenous women from the three hill tracts districts and plain land, but none of them have been registered as farmers in the digital database of Department of Agriculture Extension (DAE).
Anjum Banhi Chakma, project coordinator of Trinamul Unnayan Sangstha, Khagrachhari, in the Chittagong hill tracts, said an overwhelming number of indigenous women belonging to Chakma, Marma and Tripura communities cultivate rice, vegetables and fruits in their subsistence gardens and Jhum.
“They engage in almost every step of the production, such as seed collection and preservation, sowing, planting, reaping, carrying crops home, sorting and selling,” she said.
Although their numbers are higher than the male farmers, they are not usually registered as farmers. “In a few cases, their husbands are registered in the database and state support is also given to them,” she added.
The DAE does not have specific data on the rural indigenous women’s farming activities, she said.
However, Arunangkor Chakma, deputy assistant agriculture officer of DAE Panchhari upazila of Khagrachhari, said the number of female farmers in Panchhari upazila is 763 and the number of the male farmers is 9,577.
“We are enlisting only one name from an agricultural family and that’s why the number of the male farmers is high,” he said.
To tackle the impact of Covid-19, he said they will provide five kg aush paddy seeds and 10 kg fertilizers free of cost, Tk 835 for seeds and fertilizers under a project for creating homestead gardens and Tk 1,500 for creating a fence and overall caring of the garden.
He, however, could not give any information on how many women would receive the support from his office.
Sarah Marandy, director (social development), Gram Bikash Kendra, a grassroots organisation in Parbatipur of Dinajpur, stressed the need for focussing on the indigenous women who are mostly landless farmers and engage in seasonal agriculture work.
For example, Santal women find it hard to maintain a livelihood, she said, adding due to agricultural automation, they don’t have work for more than 3-4 months a year and the outbreak of Covid-19 only made matters worse.
Sanjeeb Drong, general secretary of Bangladesh Adivasi Forum, said rural indigenous women are the custodians of indigenous identity and culture.
“But sadly, in Bangladesh, there is no policy or specific measures targeted to protect their rights, health and economic development, even though they endure hours of back-breaking works both at home and on the fields,” he said.
Sanjeeb said at least 25,000 rural indigenous women should be enlisted as beneficiaries of the Tk 5,000 crore stimulus package for small-holder farmers.