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Giving voice to rural women and men through Dimitra

Women and land, the role of gender in disaster risk management, HIV-related challenges facing women in Kenya, and women's networking in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. These are just some of the topics featured in the Spring 2010 newsletter of Dimitra.

A radio listeners’ club in Niger [Dimitra]

Giving voice to rural people, especially women, is the main objective of Dimitra, a participatory information and communication project at FAO. Dimitra also aims to highlight the contributions rural people make to their communities, to underscore their crucial role in development.

Named after Demeter, the ancient Greek goddess of agriculture and harvests, the Belgian-funded project works with partners on a wide variety of initiatives to boost the exchange of information, build capacity, and increase community involvement in sustainable development.

The root of Dimitra’s information network is its online database. It contains profiles of organizations based in Africa and the Near East which have projects, programmes or activities involving or concerning rural women, or which take into account the role that gender plays in the experiences and needs of rural women and men.

“The database now includes about 1 800 organizations and a lot of donors contact us to see what is going on where, and who is doing what. One of the trends we’ve noticed is that there’s a great deal of South-South cooperation for projects in Africa” says Eliane Najros, Project Coordinator for Dimitra.

To contribute to the effectiveness of development initiatives, Dimitra also issues publications and organizes events that foster the exchange of information between civil society organizations, NGOs, government ministries and other actors in development.

Dimitra has worked with its partners to organize workshops on subjects like promoting women’s access to land as a means of combating poverty; literacy training as a tool for empowerment; women’s participation in decision-making processes, and the use of community radio.

“We take a training-by-listening approach to these activities,” says Najros. We work a lot on participatory communication, listening to what women have to say.”

Community radio links into literacy network in Niger

By listening to rural women in Niger, Dimitra has found that challenges facing them include isolation, illiteracy and women’s low social status. Dimitra has addressed these issues in part by linking community radio listeners’ clubs to literacy training centres. The listeners clubs have become sources of learning, information exchange, and focal points for rural women’s groups.

The radio listeners’ clubs grew out of a 2006 workshop in Dosso that focused on the impact of rural women’s literacy training on girl’s schooling. In 2004, only 28.7 % of adults in Niger were identified as being literate and, of these, only 35.1% were women.
Studies have shown that illiteracy among parents can lead them to place less value on formal school education.

The workshop, organized by Dimitra’s partner in the Sahel region, ONG-VIE Kande Ni Bayra, ultimately led to plans to set up three community radio pilot projects in Niger. The initiative, “Women Leadership Literacy Training Centres and Radio Listeners’ Clubs,” combines Dimitra’s radio clubs with Swiss-funded literacy centres run by ONG-VIE. (The initiative also receives support from Canadian Cooperation, UNDP, UNIFEM and UNFPA, with funding for the radio component provided by Dimitra.)

Dimitra distributed hand-crank and solar-powered radios to women’s groups. It also distributed solar phones to all the clubs, allowing them to contact each other. By April 2010, four months after the launch of a joint-agency project, Dimitra had already set up 90 listeners’ clubs linked to literacy training centres in Niger, with 25-30 people per club.

“In Niger, which is one of the world’s poorest countries, some of the rural women had never heard a radio before. If anyone had radios, usually they were men,” Najros says. “But when they began to hear their own voices on the radio, you can imagine their reaction. They heard themselves on the radio, talking about issues that mattered to them. It was a very empowering experience.”

Expanding the network

Dimitra is expanding the reach of community radio in Niger to target local youth. It is planning to link the listeners’ clubs to an initiative for schoolchildren, the Junior Farmer Field and Life Schools (JFFLS), in which trained extension workers, teachers and social animators use a participatory methodology to pass on agricultural knowledge and life skills to boys and girls between the ages of 12 and 17.

The Niger project is modeled, in part, on a community radio project in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where some 8 000 people are members of listeners’ clubs in South Kivu province.

Some of the topics put high on the agenda by rural radio clubs in both countries are rural women’s access to land, women’s rights, gender based violence and health and sanitation.

“We hope that this joint programme will continue to grow. It will reinforce the self-confidence of rural people and show them that they know a lot of things that they can share with others,” Najros says.