Grassroots action across the globe demonstrates that collectivities of the poor can improve their well-being in ways that individual approaches usually cannot.
It can enhance their incomes, their self-respect, their ability to challenge structural inequalities and oppressive social norms, and their bargaining power in markets, both at home and with the State. The process of empowerment is especially important—one that recognizes the poor as agents rather than simply as welfare recipients—and is more likely to bring long-lasting gains. Globally, rural areas have 2.1 billion people living on less than $ 2 a day (and 880 million living on less than $ 1 a day). Most of them are involved in agriculture (World Bank 2008). The majority are small and marginal farmers, many are landless agricultural labourers, and in recent decades an increasing proportion are women. An estimated 70 per cent of those living in absolute poverty globally are women, and the number of rural women living in absolute poverty is assessed to have risen by 50 per cent over the last two decades relative In most developing regions there has also been a highly gendered agrarian transition, as men, in notably larger numbers than women, have moved to non-farm jobs. In India, for instance, agriculture sustains 57 per cent of the population but contributes only 18 per cent of the Gross Domestic Product. Agricultural growth rates are low, and the agrarian transition has been slow and clearly gendered. As men move out of agriculture, those left behind on farms are increasingly women. In 2004–05, 49 per cent of male workers but 65 per cent of all women workers and 83 per cent of rural female workers were still employed in agriculture (NSSO 2004–05), and their percentage is rising. An estimated 20-35 per cent of households are de facto female-headed from widowhood, marital breakdown, or male outmigration (GoI 1988),1 and overall 38.9 per cent of all agricultural workers are women (NSSO 2004– of the Indian farmer today is thus a far cry from the young, articulate, new-technology- falling: 70 per cent operated less than 1 ha in 2003 as compared to 56 per cent in 1982 (GOI 2008), and landlessness is growing (Rawal 2008). Women constitute most of the landless, typically owning no land themselves, even when born or married into landed households (Agarwal 1994, 2003). Indeed, given intra-household inequalities in resource distribution, there are poor women in non-poor households whose work contributions (as unpaid family workers) are usually invisible, and who remain atomized and isolated as workers.