Women and girls in India’s sugar fields are exposed to sexual harassment, backbreaking work, and inadequate healthcare
15-year-old Meera Gaikwad*, who is six months pregnant, knows her life will change forever when she moves 100km to cut sugarcane in Karnataka this season. There is no work at her drought-prone home of Paargaon, a small village in western India’s Maharashtra state.
Gaikwad told Climate Home News that she is afraid she will have to deliver her baby in a hut next to the fields, without access to medical care.
Thousands of girls like Gaikwad migrate from their villages every year to join in the sugarcane harvest from October until April. In total, more than 1.5 million workers leave their homes for the sugarcane fields.
Climate impacts, in particular heatwaves, droughts and floods, are worsening their plight. Women, some of whom are pregnant, cut and package sugarcane in temperatures of up to 46C.
In August and September, Climate Home travelled to the states of Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh, where most of India’s sugarcane is grown and manufactured. Reporters found women and girls working in in dangerous conditions for up to 18 hours a day, without access to health or sanitation facilities.
Climate Home spoke to dozens of women who have had their wombs surgically removed, in the misguided belief it would help them to cope with the intensive workload.
Climate change is aggravating an already dire situation for women in Maharashtra’s drought-prone Beed district, where farming grinds to a halt for almost eight months due to a lack of rainfall. The region suffered from droughts in four separate years between 2010-2019, according to a government report.
Sugarcane cutting is physically demanding. Women work the fields in all weathers, they told Climate Home – and are also expected to do the heavy lifting at home.
Typically, they wake up at around 3am, two hours before the men, to fetch water and carry out domestic work before heading to the fields at 6-7am. After returning home in the evening or late at night, the women cook dinner for the family and finish off other tasks, such as cleaning and washing clothes.
“The men get some rest, but the women don’t,” said Arundhati Patil, executive member of Marathwada Navnirman Lokayat, an organisation working on socio-economic issues in Beed.
A 2020 study by researchers of Pune-based Symbiosis International University concluded that the working and living conditions of these women “violate basic human rights”. They have to bend for hours, pick up very heavy cane bundles and mount them at risky heights, sometimes in complete darkness at night.
Many women, like Gaikwad, carry out this backbreaking work while pregnant. They work in all weathers right up until their delivery.
20-year-old Anisha Sharad Bhavale, from Koyal village in Maharashtra, gave birth in a hut near a sugarcane field in 2020. Her baby boy died two weeks later. The nearest hospital was 30km away.
She had borrowed 70,000 rupees ($840) from a labour contractor for her son’s medical care. A week after the birth, she was back at work to start paying it off.
The unsafe working conditions in the sugar fields also sometimes result in miscarriages. One of Bhavale’s relatives was six weeks pregnant when she tripped and fell into a hole, which led to a miscarriage. Her husband, Sharad Bhavale, said there was no vehicle available to take her to the hospital or a nearby healthcare facility where she could have treatment.
The lack of healthcare and sanitation facilities is a major concern, Patil said. “There is no provision of medicines or doctors that can address their issues.”
A 2020 report by Oxfam India said “public health facilities at the villages are inadequate to address [women’s] ailments,” making medical treatments “impossible,” and prolonging any illnesses they suffer from.
Gaikwad was married two years ago, when she was just 13. She became pregnant earlier this year. “Until we have a baby, we are considered young and poachable, even after we are married. That is why, we try to become mothers as soon as we are married — to avoid any disgrace to our family,” she said.
Thousands of girls are forced to marry by their parents soon after they start having their period – between 12-15 years of age. According to social activists, parents insist on this to ensure their daughters’ safety and because couples are hired more easily and earn more money in the sugarcane fields.
During their early teenage years, many girls also start working in the fields, said Mahadev Chunche, associate professor at the Kumbhalkar College of Social Work in Wardha, Maharashtra. This is partly to avoid them staying behind at labour tent camps, where parents fear they will be abused and harassed by men, he said.
“If a girl is good at cutting sugarcane, she starts getting a lot of marriage proposals. Single men are on the lookout for life partners as couples get a better advance for working in the fields,” Chunche told Climate Home News. “Marriage [eligibility] is mostly dependent on a girl’s skill in the field rather than her education or how she looks.”
A married couple receives a higher amount as an advance for cutting sugarcane – in the range of 150,000 to 300,000 rupees ($1,800-3,600), whereas a single woman is paid 50,000 to 150,000 rupees ($600-$1,800).
Abuse goes unreported
Sexual harassment and abuse are rife in the sugar fields, the investigation revealed. More than a dozen women and girls told Climate Home, on the condition of anonymity, that they had suffered or witnessed abuse.
“When I stay back in the tent and my parents go to the sugarcane fields, sometimes men come to the hut and say bad things … and harass us. They come when they see I’m alone at home … I feel scared,” a 20-year-old widow, who has one child, told Climate Home.
According to a study by Symbiosis International University in Pune, India, “physical abuse and rapes [by male contractors at the worksite] happen quite often though they are not formally reported.”
Chunche spoke to more than 400 women in Maharashtra for his PhD on India’s sugar labourers, seen by Climate Home News. He said that almost 80% of them told him they faced sexual harassment, were molested or raped by male sugar labourers, drivers and middlemen.
“Usually no one says anything or files a complaint,” Chunche told Climate Home News. “Sometimes the pressure is from the labour contractors not to speak but the main reason is their poverty. They fear that if they report [the abuse], it will bring disrepute, they will get no more work and there will be no one to marry them.”
Whenever such an incident happens, parents view it as a disgrace to the family and choose to marry their daughter off at a very young age, said Gaikwad.
In many cases, teenage girls don’t complain about sexual harassment as they are scared that they will lose their chance of going to school and be forced to sit at home, she said.
Women working in the sugar industry endure daily pain, as they lift 20-40 kg sugarcane bundles on their heads, including while pregnant or suffering from menstrual cramps.
“When women work long (15-18) hours or they squat in agriculture fields or when they lift heavy weights, they can develop abdominal pain,” said Himani Negi, a Delhi-based gynaecologist who runs a women’s care clinic.
To escape this constant pain, many women choose to have their womb removed. The practice has been prevalent among sugar workers for years. Women in Maharashtra’s Beed district were twice as likely as the state average to have had a hysterectomy, according to analysis of official data by Climate Home News.
In many villages in Ambajogai, a division of Beed district, at least 50-60 hysterectomy cases have been recorded over the past two decades, according to Patil.
Ishmala Raghu Patwade, who is in her mid-40s and has several children, told Climate Home News that she had a hysterectomy three months ago.
“My stomach was hurting. I was going through a lot of pain. My uterus had developed knots because of working in the fields. It had to be removed,” she said. Other women recommended the surgery to relieve her pain.
But the operation didn’t help her. Since having it, she can no longer work or lift any heavy items. As a result, the sole earner of the family now has to sit at home. Her husband, Raghu, used to also work in the sugarcane fields but stopped five years ago after he got severely injured working in the field.
Misinformation and complications
In 2019, a report by the Maharashtra government found that over 13,800 women (about 16% of the 82,300 surveyed) involved in harvesting sugarcane from the Beed districts had their womb removed in the last 10 years. Most of these women were in the 35-40 age group.
According to a report by the Society for Promoting Participative Ecosystem Management, one of the main reasons women choose to have surgery is to avoid losing wages when pain prevents them from working.
Dr Nitin Chate, associate professor at the Swami Ramanand Tirth Rural Government Medical College in Beed, who comes from a family of sugarcane labourers, blamed misinformation.
“Poverty and illiteracy are two devils,” said Chate. “Due to poor awareness, women choose hysterectomies. After this surgery, many women face a disease called osteoporosis, which is related to weak bones.”
Other common complications include vaginal prolapse, back pain, poor balance and urinary incontinence. “Women should be made aware that this surgery won’t address their pain,” said gynaecologist Negi.
Gaikwad told Climate Home it was her dream to go to university, but she has accepted her reality. “We cut sugarcane, no matter what. Whether there’s sweltering heat, frigid cold, or even if the sugarcane fields are flooded with rain, we have to work in the field to cut the sugarcane. There’s no other option,” she said.
“Do girls like me not deserve any justice?”
*Meera Gaikwad is not the subject’s real name, to protect her identity as a minor.
Reporting by Meenal Upreti, Mayank Aggarwal and Arvind Shukla. Photography by Meenal Upreti. Data visualisation by Gurman Bhatia.