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Grassroots women meet face-to-face with women leaders

Nereide Segala Coelho, a Brazilian farmer, was among rural women from Africa, Asia and Latin America who exchanged ideas at a meeting with women ministers and diplomats

Nereide Segala Coelho © A.Porfido

17 November 2009, Rome - At a face-to-face meeting at FAO headquarters in Rome, grassroots women urged women ministers, diplomats and other leaders to work directly through women's groups and networks to fight hunger and promote food security.

The women were in Rome as delegates to a Civil Society Forum held on the eve of the World Summit on Food Security. They had previously taken part - along with hundreds of women from 21 countries - in a series of grassroots consultations in Africa, Asia and Latin America on ways to address food insecurity.

The meeting offered a rare opportunity for women farmers and grassroots organizers to sit down for a frank exchange of ideas with ministers and diplomats from four continents. Their stories reflected the challenges facing rural women in developing countries.

Violet Shivutse Khayecha, of Groots Kenya, said Kenyan women farmers were "big producers" but often failed to reap the benefits. Women lacked direct access to markets and were vulnerable to exploitation by agricultural employers. "Women are given two kilograms of maize for a whole day's work, equivalent to US$1," Shivutse said.

Shivutse said her network has responded by organizing para-legal training for women's groups on casual workers' rights and the growing problem of the disinheritance of widows and orphans. The network has also promoted traditional food preservation techniques and women's joint cereal banks, which allow them to store their grain until prices are favourable.

"The problem is not a lack of food but lack of access," said Nereide Segala Coelho, of Rede Pintadas, a network of Brazilian women farmers. Coelho's network has successfully addressed key problems facing women farmers by introducing technology and training to save rainfall for irrigation, conserve local seeds and process fruit for sale. However, many farmers cannot earn enough for basic necessities because they are unable to get their products to far-away markets.

The grassroots women underscored the importance of sharing information through grassroots consultations and other peer-learning experiences. Prema Gopalan, director of the Indian NGO Swayam Shikshan Prayog, said using women to share their experiences and knowledge with other women was an effective way to spur local action.

Food for thought

Women ministers and diplomats attending the encounter reacted positively. "Women are the key to food security for hungry households," said Ertharin Cousin, U.S. Representative to the United Nations Agencies for Food and Agriculture. She pledged to help raise the visibility of women's grassroots groups and urge their direct involvement in rural development planning and project implementation.

Olivia Muchena, Zimbabwe's Minister of Women's Affairs, Gender and Community Development, said the meeting had given her ideas of how to turn dialogue into concrete action. "We have described the situation of women very thoroughly, but we have not done much in terms of strategy. Already, I have sharpened ideas in my mind about what strategies we should adopt."

Said Mireille Guigaz, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of France to FAO, whose grandparents had been "very poor" subsistence farmers: "It's not only a question of women in agriculture - it's a question of women." She suggested matching diplomats with women farmers in developing countries in a "twin-sister" programme designed to spread stories of both the challenges and successes of women in agriculture.

The meeting at FAO was hosted by the U.S. Representative to the United Nations Agencies for Food and Agriculture, and jointly organized by FAO, WOCAN, IFAD and Heifer International. The grassroots consultations were organized by the Huairou Commission in partnership with FAO and WOCAN.

Media contact
Charmaine Wilkerson (Rome)
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