Going Far, Going Together: Rural Women Leading Change

The event titled “Empowering Rural Women to Develop Resilient, Sustainable Livelihoods and Communities”, which took place on March 17, 2017, was jointly organized by the UN agency IFAD (International Fund for Agricultural Development) and the NGO Huairou Commission. It was one of the 290+ side events during CSW61. The highlight of this event was the coming together of four rural women change-makers from India, Nicaragua, Peru, and Zimbabwe who shared their perspectives and experiences regarding transforming their rural communities through grassroots interventions.

To put together this event, the NY IFAD team had worked hard for the past three months. I had the opportunity to directly get involved with this event since its inception and coordinate it on behalf of the NY team. To the last hour, there were numerous technicalities (from projector screens to mic sets), processes and personnel that had to come together in the right manner. So, after all that hard work, it was exciting to see the room overflow with more attendees than we had expected. This crowd was a testimony, I realized, to the transformative potential that these four women leaders represented. The moderator for the panel discussion, Ms. Maria Hartl, Senior Technical Specialist, Gender & Social Equity at IFAD set the stage by summarizing the overarching goal of this event: “to showcase new ways of thinking about the implementation of the SDG and targets, and see how women, rural women in particular, minority women, can contribute to it.” Ms. Hartl also underscored that rural women make up nearly 45% of the agricultural labor force in developing countries and thus are critical players in ensuring food security and in reducing rural poverty.

Highlighting women’s changing role in agriculture, Ms. Shorai Chitongo, founder of ‘Ray of Hope’ in Zimbabwe told us about how farming has shifted from a subsistence activity during her mother’s times to a livelihood activity for rural women. To this end, she added, “Land is a very important resource for women, so it started with claiming land for women, through land and property rights initiatives, but we realized that it wasn’t enough.” In addition to land, there is a need to develop climate-resilient agricultural techniques and greater linkages with urban planners to find markets for their produce.

Despite this widespread struggle by rural women across the globe for access to land, there are innovative and meaningful interventions too. Talking about her organization ‘Unión de Cooperativas Las Brumas’ in Nicaragua, Ms. Marling Haydee Rodriguez reminded that in 2016, they “cultivated 11,000 quintals of coffee, 3500 quintals of corn, 2800 quintals of beans, and that 200 women were working on food security in kitchen gardens.” But there too, land alone is not enough. More complex challenges abound: lack of access to productive resources, machinery and product certification methods. Despite this, she stressed her underlying conviction: “We are women of change.”

Going beyond the conventional ownership structures, Ms. Relinda Sosa told us how her organization CONAMOVIDI began to use politico-legal frameworks in Peru (such as Law 30355 on family farming) to their advantage in order to ensure access to budgetary resources and technical capacity from the State. Over the past 20 years, they organized about 20,000 community kitchens (attending to thousands of people per kitchen). Echoing similar concerns, Mr. Rolando Castro Cordoba (Member State representative from Costa Rica) urged the Rome-based Agencies (RBAs) to promote family farming, by stressing its role in achieving gender equality and in combating poverty.

While talking about the IFAD supported Tejaswini Rural Women’s Empowerment Programme (RWEP) in Madhya Pradesh, India, Ms. Rekha Pandram described how via RWEP self-help groups were now equipped with farming techniques and processing facilities and how they formed federations for community lending & saving (with total deposits exceeding $90,000). Earlier in the week, I had spent time with Ms. Pandram at the IFAD Liaison Office in NY. There, she was mostly silent greeting everyone with a gracious smile but at the event, I saw how she transformed into a very assertive and natural leader. By citing the example of RWEP, Ms. Archana Chitnis (Member State representative from India) pointed out that membership in self-help groups has also led to increased political participation among rural women.

The concerns and stories shared by these four remarkable women leaders was further reflected in the findings of an IFAD supported study — 14 smaller-scale, local consultations in 13 countries and 4 national-level multi-stakeholder dialogues — led by Huairou Commission. Ms. Nicole Bohrer summarized the report’s key findings as the need to improve women’s access and control to (a) land and natural resources (b) climate resilient agricultural techniques and (c) to ensure their greater participation in formal decision-making processes.

At an emotional level, it was these four tales of empowerment that I took home. But I also recognized that we need more meaningful partnerships involving government actors, NGOs, Civil Society and the UN to support these initiatives of rural women. Rarely has the truth of an African saying struck me more forcefully as at the end of this event: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

Development practitioner & writer | Former policy consultant & researcher with United Nations | I work in migration, gender policy & technology for development.

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