Women in rural areas in developing countries produce about 60% of household food. Therefore, our projects should be addressing them in order to enhance sustainability. But equally we should be working with their knowledge of traditional crops specific to that region, and, of course, women are traditionally the seed savers, have knowledge of greens (usually considered weeds by Western agronomists and agribusinesses).
Women already know about the biodiversity of their gardens and farms, and they know the nutritional and medicinal properties of those greens (aka weeds) that grow between the staple crops and harvest them for consumption.
Women know about the consequences of de-forestation. It was rural women in Ghana who first alerted Wangari Maathai about the knock-on effects of de-forestation on their ability to keep their families together, this initiated the Green Belt movement.
Of course, women in third-world countries have many responsibilities with few rewards or respect for their efforts. Education is an important factor, even learning to swim. When countries are flooded as a result of hurricanes, 5 times more women drown because they haven't learned to swim. So, educated women on a variety of pragmatic levels is important.
The Barefoot College in India should be an example of training women and emancipating them from their second class status. The College, which operates under the slogan 'train a grandmother and change the world' has shown the way forward and the advantages of training even illiterate women in basic solar technology. For example, assembling solar lamps and cookers. These women then go back to their villages and train other women. Mostly, according to Bunker Roy, founder and spokesperson for the project, the self-estime and respect for women rises incrementally as they take on roles as educator and improve local conditions.
The most effective method of small-scale farming is permaculture. It is effective because it mimics a natural eco-system with all elements being multi-functional and mutually supportive exactly in the way a natural forest (the most natural and effective eco-system) would be. These eco-system farming principles can be adapted to any climate or locality, focusing mainly on crops that are natural to that region and climate, but equally focus on maintaining the hydrological cycle, improving the soil micro-organisms and humus content, keeping rainwater in the soil, maintaining biodiversity and, therefore, on combatting desertification and regenerating land that has already been seriously degraded by drought, loss of top soil, and depletion of soil micro-organisms due to monoculture production and use of chemicals.
Bill Mollison, the founder of the permaculture movement has already set up several permaculture projects in African and at least one in India. The idea is to teach the principles to locals who understand local resources and will adapt the principles to regenerate the land. The individuals trained then go on to train others. In some cases schools have set up permaculture courses so that children can go home and teach their parents. This is spreading rapdily, but is so far run without funding and mostly through donations and volunteers.
It seems evident that permaculture could be directed to women in rural areas in developing countries, asking them what is wrong and what they think they need before training them in permaculture principles. We should have a programme of funding for these projects, which should remain small in scale in order to focus on women and their needs and on local conditions.
Some projects already exist run by groups of local women in Malawi, for example, and teaching permaculture in places where girls do get some basic education would greatly enhance the ability of women to maintain sustainable, small-scale agriculture and gain more respect. A sustainable, small-scale agricultural plot keeps families together, because when women can feed their families and earn money taking produce to markets in local town, the sons are less likely to be sent to cities to try to earn money to send home.
In countries where HIV has had a major impact on the shape of families, often girls are left to fend for siblings. Training programmes in permaculture would greatly improve the lot of these children providing them with nutritious food and establish a tradition for future generations.
The principles of permaculture can be adapted to any climate, so it is a powerful tool in adapting agriculture in the tropics (as elsewhere) to climate change and the ability of native species to survive changing weather conditions.
If we train ten women, working closely with them to relate permaculture to their local situation, they will train ten others. From one 'garden' that demonstrates how degraded land can be transformed into a fertile garden producing a healthy diversity of food that has a high nutritional value, without abusing and depleting local ressources, more gardens spring up in the surrounding areas. For example, by training seven local permaculturists in Malawi, 34 permaculture gardens have emerged.
So, to sum up permaculture can work with women to emancipate them and provide higher yields of more diverse crops with a higher nutritional value.