Four rural women tell stories of struggle and achievement

video spot
International Women's Day is 8 March -- a day to reflect on the role of women in the world. As the lead UN agency for food and agriculture, FAO will focus on women in agriculture.

In many developing countries rural women provide most of the labour for farming, from soil preparation to harvest. After the harvest they play a crucial role in storage, handling, processing and marketing. In addition, women in rural areas are generally responsible for preparing nutritious meals for their families. On a global scale, women's role in household and national food security is vital.

The stories of four rural women -- from Bolivia, Nepal, Turkey and Zimbabwe -- offer vivid testimony of their daily struggles to build better lives for themselves and their families.


Martha Vargas gets the women's vegetables ready for the private customers


Women vegetable growers grow stronger

A year ago a group of rural women in Bolivia got together and set up a system for producing and marketing their vegetables. Now, instead of producing only for their own families' survival, they sell organic vegetables to individual customers and supermarkets in the nearby town of Santa Cruz -- and they are making money for the first time in their lives.

The 50 women -- who formed the Association of Organic Producers, ASOPEC -- come from small farm families in seven villages in the lush, mountainous area surrounding the town of Samaipata. They grow 40 different kinds of organic vegetables from greens and herbs to carrots and cauliflower. They have always grown most of these vegetables, but some new varieties were introduced by an FAO project that also provided the group with training in subjects such as nutrition, vegetable processing, presentation, marketing and bookkeeping.

Every Thursday one woman from each village collects all the vegetables that have been produced and brings them to Samaipata. Here, the vegetables are labeled and packed according to individual orders, and then one of the women travels the 120 kilometres to Santa Cruz to deliver them personally to the customers.

"The clients are very happy," says Martha Vargas, 33, one of the 50 women. "They get fresh and healthy organic vegetables, attractively packed. They only complain when something is missing." And sometimes something is missing because the group cannot always keep up with the demand.

"It takes a lot of work to grow the vegetables. We also have to cook, wash, take care of the house, the children and our husbands," says Ms Vargas, who has five children. "But it is also very good to be in the group. I have learned a lot from the training we have had, and now that I earn money my husband listens more to what I have to say".

On average the group fills orders for 18 customers a week. In a good week, the most productive women earn US$6-7.

As part of another FAO initiative Martha Vargas and 11 other women are now attending a training course on the processing and use of medicinal plants, which they also sell. This will enable them to get more for these products when they go to the market.


Goma Danuwar (right) with one of her leasehold forestry groups.


Women organizers make the difference in Nepal forestry

When the Government of Nepal introduced an innovative programme to give poor families 40-year leases on degraded land for conversion into wood and fodder plots, it hired village women to promote the new concept. The women walk for many kilometres between communities to explain the programme, organize groups, give training and note problems.

The leasehold forestry programme shows the poor how to grow grasses for animal fodder and plant fast-growing trees on the leased land. Participants raise improved breeds of livestock and start revolving funds to finance village improvement. The programme, which assists 11 000 families in Nepal, is so successful that the government wants to expand it to cover the rest of the country.

Goma Danuwar, 31, a single woman who cares for her widowed mother and siblings, first got involved in the programme by working with fellow villagers to turn a barren hillside into a green Eden. Although without formal schooling, she proved a natural leader and caught the eye of programme organizers. Now a group promoter, she earns 3 000 rupees (US$40) a month overseeing 36 leasehold forest groups in the Panchkhal Valley 40 kilometres east of the Nepalese capital, Kathmandu.

"In the beginning, husbands didn't want their wives to go away to other parts of Nepal for training," Ms Danuwar said, "but that is gradually changing. Of all I've done, I am most proud that women are now taking part and that women in our district are now more confident."

There is reason to celebrate on this International Women's Day, which Ms Danuwar is actively involved in organizing in the district.

The leasehold forestry programme targets marginal villagers who get left out of mainstream development: women, occupational castes, ethnic minorities and especially those with little or no land. Local women have much to gain from the programme, since they traditionally gather fodder and look after the animals.

"Look at my grass here, it's very close to the house. Before I had to walk four or five hours to collect it," said Sanu Babu Udas, 40, as she shows visitors the lush hillside behind her home. "We also produce vegetables now, which is good for the children. And with fodder so close, we can feed the animals in stalls, and the children can study instead of herding livestock."

FAO, which has promoted leasehold forestry for the poor in Nepal since 1993, stands by its use of women as important agents for change. "It was very innovative to use women group promoters," said Winston Rudder, FAO Representative in Nepal. "They're great. They're worked up. They're involved and they are very convincing with other women -- and with the men."


Gulustan Ircap poses with her children and one of her new TeleFood sheep


Gulustan Ircap savours her first earnings

Born into poverty and normally destined to die in it, Gulustan Ircap said she now has a glimmer of hope in her life in the hamlet of Sahgeldi, set amid the gentle slopes and rugged cliffs of Turkey's remote eastern region. Suddenly, she found herself the proud owner of three sheep, courtesy of the Telefood campaign.

Soon, she would be selling their milk and cheese to earn money for the first time in her life. Gulustan, a mother of four, is a typical Anatolian "seasonal village widow," owning and earning nothing. Her husband Kutbettin wanders in search of daily work in Istanbul, some 2 000 kilometres and a world away. "What he earns when he finds work is hardly enough for him," Gulustan says. "If he can save something, he brings it here and stays with us during three winter months."

Mostly, the diminutive and smiling Gulustan and her children survived on bread and on milk and cheese from a cow the family inherited. Occasionally they got meat from neighbours in the tightly knit hamlet of 375 people. There are no shops because nobody can afford to buy anything. Here, trees are grown to supply roofs for their mud and stone huts; cow manure is packed for heating and cooking; water from a single village pump is shared.

The FAO TeleFood project provided Gulustan and 29 other Sahgeldi women with four sheep each, but one of Gulustan's died. Now, the women will not only raise and breed the sheeps, but also fatten them by growing animal feed on nearby government land.

Ironically, Gulustan's travails are the exception rather than the rule in Turkey, a country noted for its farming prowess and potential. Turkey ranks alongside the United States, India, Canada and France in wheat production and is the world's top hazelnut producer. Half of Turkey's workforce is involved in agriculture, producing a great range of foodstuffs. Hunger is confined to pockets of poverty.



An AIDS widow's story

In Zimbabwe, nearly 26 percent of the adult population is HIV positive. Partly as a result of the disease in some areas such as the Zambezi Valley, more than one-third of rural households are headed by women and this figure is likely to rise to over 50 percent.

Angelina*, 42, lives in the Zambezi Valley. She became an AIDS widow and head of household when her husband died four years ago and left her with seven young children to look after. She inherited the family land from her husband, so now it is she who has to take all the decisions regarding the land and the family finances.

"I used to stay with the children, but now it is a problem," she says. "I have to work in the fields." Her yields of cotton, maize and groundnuts have fallen, due to late planting, a smaller area planted and insufficient weeding of the fields. "Last year I had more money to hire labour so the crops got weeded more often," she says. "This year I had to do it myself." In addition, she had to sell an ox to buy cotton seeds and food and to pay for her children's school fees.

Angelina is now benefiting from the Zambezi Valley Organic Cotton Project, which was initiated to help women farmers earn extra income. Like Angelina, many of the women are AIDS widows. FAO-supported Farmer Field Schools have been introduced and act as "support groups" for the women by providing training and knowledge of time saving technologies. The schools also try to build confidence in the women who are not used to making important financial and farm management decisions.

The project also helps the women save money. "When you grow organic cotton, you don't have to use money on chemicals," Angelina says. And the number of women joining the project is on the rise. One of the widows was even selected as the best organic cotton grower in the area in 1999.

* Angelina is not her real name

8 March 2001

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