Celebrating rural women in agriculture


While the world dedicates 15 October to celebrate International Day of Rural Women, organisations such as SNV and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) focus on women farmers every day. Why?

When women control more income, they spend it on food, health, clothing, and education for their children. These have positive implications for the immediate well-being of families and society; long-term human capital formation; and economic growth through health, nutrition and education results.

That’s according to the United Nations, in which IFAD is a specialised agency established to enable poor, rural people to improve their food and nutrition security, increase their incomes and strengthen their resiliency. In collaboration with IFAD, SNV has worked to enable the world’s estimated 500 million smallholder farmers, about half of whom are women, to alleviate rural poverty and improve global food security.

In the past, organisations addressed 'women and development' in terms of providing food and water. While these activities reflected the everyday, urgent needs of families and communities, these stereotypes no longer capture the tremendous scope of a rural woman’s life and contributions.

Women’s roles in agricultural development are so much more as evidenced by SNV’s recently refocused programmes, emphasising agricultural markets created and sustained by women, and balancing benefits so that women share equally with men in the socio-economic power of agricultural markets.

In addition to transforming the food and agriculture businesses, women farmers are reshaping gender relations and becoming economic players in their own right.

“Rural women have limited access to land, credit, information and technologies, and they face difficulties in terms of mobility and political participation,” notes IFAD. It is also addressing gender inequalities and discrimination by focusing on areas which can empower women economically and socially, including access to land, water, education, training, markets, and financial services.

In Nepal, women make up 62% of the agricultural workforce, but only around 8% of the female labour force receives equal pay for their work. To address this inequality, SNV and IFAD are working on the High-Value Agriculture Project (HVAP) since June 2011. Results demonstrate that giving women the right support and training, and connecting them to markets, can have measurable positive results that transform their lives as well as the lives of their families and communities.

Dil Maya Sijapati is from Surket province in Nepal and a 22-year-old mother with a second child on the way. Sijapati could have been one of the thousands of women forced to manage all alone while her husband went abroad to work. Yet because of the training she received  through SNV and IFAD − including how to access markets − she earned more in one growing season than her husband made in a whole year as a security guard in India. When he heard about his wife’s success, he returned home to learn what she had been taught and to actively help her manage the farm.

Meanwhile, a continent away, SNV and IFAD also celebrate the strides Zimbabwe women are making in the Honde Valley. They have struggled to make their farms more productive through improved yields and more efficient growing systems. Even after installing irrigation to grow maize and beans, only the family benefited because there was no market to sell their produce. Despite its extreme fertility, Honde valley farmers couldn’t even get  banana trees at the family home to bear enough fruit.

That changed in 2007 when a group of 22 farmers worked with SNV and learned how to grow a better banana to meet market needs for quality fruit in Zimbabwe. While many women had tried in the past, the quality was poor and they had difficulty selling their bananas for decent prices. Through demonstration plots, these women farmers spent 13 months learning each stage of banana cultivation and production.

“Who would have thought that, instead of digging a one-meter deep hole, we can dig only 45 centimetres to plant bananas? It means I can plant more bananas in a day”, said one woman after.

Many of these farmers report they have at least tripled their annual income from their banana crop. With increased incomes, the women pay for their children’s school fees, invest in quality seeds and other inputs, and improve their homes.

More significantly, noted one woman, was the added respect women received in their homes since adding to the household income, rather than being perceived as burdens.

“How this income changed our lives!” one woman added. “We can now sleep on a bed, we have a brick house, and our children are now going to school nicely dressed. Our clothing is just the same as people who have (non-farm) jobs. When there was no money in the house, people would fight and our husbands would spend too long in the towns, searching for work.”

From Zimbabwe to Nepal, IFAD and SNV continue to support women farmers to reach their fullest potential. By doing so, they are attaining the goal of eradicating poverty through sustainable, balanced market opportunities for both women and men.