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Food security in times of crisis: rural women speak out

Hundreds of rural women in Africa, Asia and Latin America took part recently in grassroots consultations on food insecurity and its impacts. A selection of viewpoints...

"When you put a project in women's hands, women deliver" [FAO/G.Bizzarri]

Analucy Bengochea, Honduras

Analucy Bengochea is coordinator of the Garifuna Emergency Committee, which was formed in 1998 after Hurricane Mitch devastated the Garifuna indigenous community in north-eastern Honduras.

Our committee recently held a consultation with rural communities in Honduras and found that families are now eating only two meals a day. From what we see, the economic crisis has brought greater poverty and increased food insecurity. Many farmers grow food for the family and have very little left to sell.

Women farmers are in a very difficult situation - they cannot grow crops because they have no land or money. They need loans, but the banks demand guarantees they can't give. In many cases, women find themselves as heads of their households because the men have left to find work elsewhere. The responsibility of women keeps increasing as they have to find ways to feed and educate their children. There are no public policies that reward all this work that women are doing.

Nowadays, hunger is not just a problem of rural communities. It is a problem in all areas of society, at a global level. It is important that farmers, indigenous people, governments, and donors learn to work together. It is also important that all groups are represented in decision-making because nobody can decide for anyone else if they do not know what their reality is.

We need food security programmes that deal directly with rural and indigenous women. All rural and agricultural communities have leaders. These communities have functioning structures that have survived over time, and it is important to work with them. When you put a project in the hands of women, women deliver.

Through the grassroots consultations, we were able to meet with farmers in Central America to share and compare different strategies and ideas, especially on crops, organic fertilizers and family gardens. For example, I learned that Guatemala uses organic fertilizers, so we adopted it in Honduras, while they learnt from our experience with seed banks. We try to use every experience that can be applied in our countries.

At a government administrative level, the good practices emerging in the communities should be institutionalized. The change is emerging from the people in our own countries. We need to encourage new public policies that protect our environment, eliminate food insecurity and promote education.

Gódavari Dange, India

Gódavari Dange is a farmer from Maharashtra and leader of the Sakhi Federation Network, one of 5 000 women's groups assisted by the Indian learning and development NGO Swayam Shikshan Prayog.

We did a study which found that women in our area were very anaemic and not eating properly. When we asked the women why they were so anaemic, they said they had to serve food to all the family first, before they could sit down to eat. By that time, there was not much food left. So we did a large educational programme for women on how they should take care of their own health and explained that if they did not give importance to food, they would always get sick.

Agriculture is the sole source of income for most women in our area. But working alone, women farmers suffer from a lack of information, and have little say in what to grow. But working in groups, women are able to benefit. For example, the rains this year were supposed to come in June, but they came in August. The women's groups quickly changed their cultivation plans and switched to "short" vegetables for 30 days. We funded women to travel and go around as teachers and conduct training for other women in this knowledge.

Through the grassroots consultations, we share experiences among women – for example, what is practiced in Nepal or in Sri Lanka. We collect all kinds of experiences, and then we share with the government officials our experiences and our recommendations on what we think they should do. When they see a large group of women, government officials talk more easily about their plans.

It is only when we women travel outside our own countries that we can see the problems of others and take information back home. For example, HIV seriously affects our area, but we've not really been looking at it that way. When we visited Kenya, we learned some things and saw how the Kenyans and the African Union worked on HIV and AIDS. So, we started our work and now we have more than 50 women focusing on that issue.

We've had problems with men who were not allowing the women to join grassroots networks. But the situation is changing because it is women who are now accessing resources, not the men. When women have control over resources, men respect them.

Florence Shakafuswa, Zambia

A farmer and member of the Katuba Women's Association in northwest Zambia, Florence Shakafuswa attended two grassroots consultations for women.

I got involved with the grassroots consultations through my association. I attended a consultation in Ghana where we learned about the value of paralegal training. Access to land is a big issue for women in Zambia. But many women are not aware of the steps to go through to apply for recognition of land rights. At the grassroots consultation, women with paralegal training were able to explain to us some of the basic steps. I would like to see the grassroots consultations continue because we're learning a lot from other women's experiences.

In Zambia, even at the very top level, there are few women who are ministers, and that trickles down to the lower levels. Women do not have the confidence to speak out for themselves. Sometimes women have to hide from their men the fact that they are coming to meetings of women's groups. In a lot of cases, resentment or suspicion towards women leads to violence and harassment.

Women need leadership skills and we need to work together with men. Sometimes, men recognize that women are important for food security. They'll find food at home and some of them won't even question where the food is coming from. And yet, they'll eat that food and recognize that this woman has made it possible for them to have that meal. So, men are slowly realizing that women can do a lot of other things that are important to men as well.

Men are the ones distributing seed and fertilizer. We would like women to be part of the distribution because the women who need it are being passed over. So it's not enough to say, "Go and help these women in the community". It's a matter of who is making the decisions, who is handling the assistance. I think rural women's ideas and initiatives have to be reflected in policies by involving women earlier in the decision-making and policy making process.

Nereide Segala Coelho, Brazil

Nereide Segala Coelho is a member of Rede Pintadas, a development forum in the Brazilian state of Bahia that brings together local government, women farmers' groups, agricultural cooperatives and other NGOs.

Before I became involved with the grassroots consultations, I thought it was only Rede Pintadas, in one isolated municipality, that was discussing food insecurity, rights to water, marketing problems and working conditions. Now I know that rural women all over the world face similar issues.

My husband and I have one hectare of land where we grow crops and produce milk from three cows. Our land is in a semi-arid area, one of the poorest in Brazil. The work is labour-intensive because we do practically everything with our bare hands. In our area, land usually belongs to men. The only government programme that helps rural women directly is an endowment given to low-income women on condition that their children go to school. But that income is not enough to allow a woman to take bank loans. Men are usually the first to have access to credit. When the woman tries to get a loan, she finds that what she "owns" has already been pledged as collateral by her husband.

So, a woman farmer needs, first, the right to own land. She also needs access to resources so that she can produce. For example, it is difficult for us to make cheese or yoghurt – to enter the market, I have to pasteurize our milk at a plant 36 km away from our farm. But we don't have refrigeration to store our milk, so by the time we have enough to process, it has gone bad. We have had other problems with selling beef and veal. It took us two years to get approval from health authorities to market our meat, and without refrigeration we can't store it.

Recently, we women have been discussing storage, product processing, and marketing of products that come from our agriculture. But we need to change consumer behaviour. When children at school were asked where their food came from, they all said "from the supermarket". None of them said "from the Earth, from the Pacha Mama". If we want to cultivate and preserve our agricultural practices, it is essential to include agriculture in the school system. If not, our children will grow up with an urban mentality. So now we have started a big project with young people to help them understand that everything we have comes from agriculture.