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Extension liaisons

Extension liaisons

The formation of "extension liaisons" was meant to improve the ability of the extension system to reach rural women by educating women from rural communities to work with grassroots women's groups, thus expanding the scope and quality of the extension services for rural women. In order to be considered as candidates for training, potential liaisons had to be literate. Initially, the project proposed that women needed a sixth-grade education, but within the first six months of execution, expectations had to be lowered because women with this level of education were not to be found.

Women were trained as one of four types of extension liaisons, in four separate training modules:

The most successful module was the fourth, which prepared Food Production Liaisons. The other three training modules suffered from institutional, financial and social constraints that limited their success. However, the fact that the different modules were executed consecutively rather than simultaneously made it possible to apply the lessons learned from the first modules to the later modules. In this way, the so-called "Interim Project" and Phase II of the project were directed toward replicating and documenting the fourth, most successful module -- that of the Food Production Liaison. A description of the four training modules and the subsequent work of the women and men who received the training is given below.

Literacy workers

Learning how to read and write gives higher skill levels and greater personal confidence that in turn enhance democratic group processes and boost participation at the grassroots level. As well, with 50 percent of their members illiterate, women's groups in the project area had difficulty dealing with technical problems that might otherwise have been tackled on a group basis. The FAO project addressed this concern by training 141 Literacy Workers to teach basic math, reading and writing.

Eighty percent of the trainees chosen by the National Agrarian Institute were women. The methodology used for literacy training was developed by the Ministry of Public Education for their national literacy programme.

Some 97 literacy circles were formed between 1986 and 1990 in the project area, but by 1991 only 30 circles were still functioning. More than half of the Literacy Workers never completed their first course. Despite the critical need for literacy training, cultural, personal and institutional problems limited implementation of the plan. Women's participation as Literacy Workers was limited by socio-cultural obstacles. The women were at times denied permission by their fathers or husbands to travel to the villages where they taught. Literacy classes generally were offered in the evenings, and walking through the woods or crossing rivers at night was considered dangerous for women. They did not have the freedom to travel, or the encouragement and support at home to be accompanied by a family member.

After the Literacy Workers were trained and had initiated their teaching activities, lack of follow-up on the part of extensionists in each region also weakened the expected results. Most extensionists did not stay in the villages after dark, since transport was difficult and they were not paid for overtime.

Literacy Workers expected technical support for the development of literacy circles and were also led to believe that they would receive financial support for their activity, including improvements in the teaching site and a token amount of pay for their work. They were disappointed in both expectations. As a result, Literacy Workers did not continue teaching.

Housing/environment liaisons

The Housing/Environment Liaison module was not one of the three modules originally proposed in the project document. Rather, it was proposed in 1988 by the director of the National Agrarian Institute. The director at that time was interested in supporting traditional projects for women as mothers and housewives.

Although the concept was somewhat at odds with the project's objective of changing attitudes about women's multiple roles, the project team agreed to implement the module, recognizing that the overall lack of infrastructure adversely affects women's time availability and family hygiene. Housing in rural areas is typically cramped and unsanitary. Difficult living conditions impede women's participation in group activities.

After their training, the enthusiasm with which the Housing/ Environment Liaisons carried out their work led to demands from grassroots groups that the project could not fulfil. The Liaisons were active within their groups, especially in the construction of improved wood-burning stoves. For stove construction and many other housing improvements, a certain amount of materials had to be purchased -- nails, hammers and tiles, for instance. Without credit, most women could not make even simple improvements.

The improvements that the women considered most important -- building concrete floors, constructing water receptacles and latrines, and improving roofs required construction materials whose costs were prohibitive. The transfer of appropriate technology generated a demand for larger, more comprehensive changes in infrastructure that required credit and construction materials. When the project team recognized that the Housing Liaisons were creating a demand that could not be satisfied, training and follow-up activities were halted. The Housing/Environment Liaisons and their groups lost the motivation to continue home improvement activities, although some have since been able to take advantage of outside support from non-governmental development organizations to implement major improvements in their communities.

Women's group organizers

The Women's Group Organizers module was proposed in order to develop "peasant women activists" among women who belonged to predominately male peasant organizations. These women typically had above-average levels of organizational consciousness, but their access to decision-making within the organizations was usually minimal. The "activism" proposed was intended to promote change in male-dominated peasant organizations and to stimulate demand for extension services in the groups these women led.

The training of the Women's Group Organizers consisted of six one-week courses on the following themes:

The training methodology included talks, demonstrations, action, group dynamics, role-playing, and discussion and problem-solving in small groups. After completing the courses, each woman, depending on her circumstances, committed herself to promoting the formation of 5-20 groups of rural women. The work of these women was to encourage grassroots organization and train group members in appropriate agricultural techniques. The Women's Group Organizers were supported by the project for four months with a 300 Lempira ($75) per month subsidy; after this time the subsidies were supposed to be provided by their peasant organizations.

A number of problems arose among the Women's Group Organizers and the peasant organizations they belonged to that created obstacles to the continuity and sustainability of their work. One of the problems was a lack of conviction and hence a lack of resources from peasant organizations to support the Women's Group Organizers. (The responsibilities of a Women's Group Organizer were equivalent to those of a full-time male peasant organizer who generally received about $150/month for his work, plus expenses.) Second, the drop-out rate among initial trainees was high. And, finally, the Women's Group Organizers' own workload proved to be incompatible with full-time organizing activities, particularly for women heads of household, and personal confrontations at the household level were common. Despite these difficulties, 55 of the original 92 women trained continue in some organized capacity today, although not in that originally designated by the project.

Their job was to encourage grassroots organization and to teach appropriate agricultural techniques.

Elements of success

The "multiplier effect" of the Women's Group Organizer training was very great. Statistics from the National Peasants' Association of Honduras (ANACH - Asociación Nacional de Campesinos de Honduras), for example, show that within 18 months after 17 Women's Group Organizers were trained, they formed 61 new groups with a total membership of 800 women. The Organizers' increased motivation and initial remuneration gave them the willingness, confidence and ability to transfer the knowledge they received through training to numerous groups within their area of influence. These women were also inspired by their previous involvement in peasant organizations.

By offering technical support in villages where extensionists rarely visited, Women's Group Organizers initiated and continued work that would not have been possible otherwise, helping new groups to form and consolidate and to administer their affairs. The women's groups formed enjoyed stability thanks to continuous supervision by their Organizer, rather than having to wait for an extensionist to arrive.

The political impact of the women's training was felt in the household, the community and the peasant organizations. Women's involvement in organizations increased their responsibilities in the public sphere.

Trained peasant women who belonged to predominantly male organizations began to demand increased decision-making power and fought for recognition of their rights. The women of the National Peasants' Union (UNC -- Unión Nacional de Campesinos), for example, formed a block and in 1988 successfully demanded the right to vote within the organization. Female members of ANACH have pushed for greater representation at the regional level, demanding that at least one woman be included in the leadership of each region.

Increased activity often caused personal problems for the women because they were taking on a non-traditional role. After a period of time, though, the positive results of the Organizers' activities transformed village gossip into community respect. Women working as Organizers universally agreed that they initially experienced rejection at home and in the community, but that their struggle to work with the women was worthwhile. Overall, the women, the peasant organizations, and the project's personnel recognize that women's greater presence at all levels within the peasant organizations is a direct result of the training programme.

Additional constraints

The high drop-out rate among trainees, especially at the beginning of the project, was found to be in part the result of trainees' lack of connection to a grassroots base. Often the women chosen by the peasant organizations to participate in training were involved in their organizations at the regional or national level. They were not able or willing to transfer their knowledge to grassroots groups. In these cases, the desired multiplier effect did not materialize.

Lack of funding was the most persistent constraint to successful continuation of the work of the Women's Group Organizers. Each Organizer was supposed to depend on her own peasant organization for a subsidy, or at least to cover travel expenses, after the end of the first four months of project execution. However, predominantly male peasant organizations denied payment to the women Organizers, or paid them half the men's rate. Women's peasant organizations had limited funds to pay the Organizers, having depended on volunteerism in the past; even payment of travel allowances was interminably delayed, and Organizers had to pay transportation and meal costs out of their own pockets.

Payment for work that many consider to be political activism can be controversial, but not for the Women's Group Organizers themselves. Almost one-third are single mothers. They work out of necessity as seamstresses, farmers, or market vendors. Organizing is itself a full-time activity, and productive work cannot be carried out while organizing and attending to grassroots groups on a full-time basis. Without compensation, the women were unable to expand their organizing activities beyond their villages.

The majority of Women's Group Organizers also had to struggle within their families for the right to participate actively as organizers. The women report that their husbands mistreated them, or tried to control them (one man reportedly even left his wife), once they had completed their training and begun organizing. They received neither support nor approval because, in the words of one woman, "I was a different person after the training. I had more confidence, and my husband didn't know what to do with me." After a period of personal struggle within the family, however, most husbands came to recognize the value of their wives' participation and allowed them to leave the house and travel to other villages.

Lessons learned

The three principle lessons derived from the Women's Group Organizer module are: 1) the need for incentives for full-time participation in organizing activities, 2) the desirability of selecting women who are connected to the grassroots in order to achieve the greatest impact, and 3) the need to integrate spouses in women's efforts in order to soften the impact of women's personal changes and their new time commitments. These lessons and others were applied in the final training module, described in the following chapter.

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