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Giving a voice to rural women


The shift in development thinking and practice towards people-centred programmes and the participation of people and communities in decisions concerning their own lives is creating new opportunities for social change and the empowerment of both women and men in rural areas. Nevertheless, it is vital to stimulate their awareness, involvement and capabilities further.

Different methods of communication and media can facilitate development by encouraging dialogue and debate. Furthermore, they can give a voice to rural women, thus enabling them to articulate their own development agendas. Similarly, by fostering the exchange of knowledge and information, communication can stimulate women's awareness and motivation, allowing them to take informed decisions on the crucial issues affecting their lives.

Communication can promote changes in attitudes and social behaviour and help communities to identify sustainable opportunities and development solutions that are within their reach. In addition to putting development planners in a position to respect women's traditional knowledge, communication processes can improve the management and effectiveness of new social organizations and institutions, ensuring that they provide services to women in a participatory and democratic manner. Bernard When used effectively, communication acts as a mediation tool between planners and rural communities, helping to resolve conflicts, achieve consensus and find common ground for policies and actions to be taken. Media and communication technologies can also help rural women to exchange experiences and learn from each other. They can be powerful tools for advising women about new ideas and practices and improving training. The majority of rural women are illiterate and live in remote, isolated areas where access to information, lack of transportation, a scarcity of trainers, and cultural and language differences are common problems - problems, however, that can be overcome through the use of appropriate communication technologies.



An FAO project covering several countries in southern Africa is studying issues of knowledge related to the conservation of biodiversity and considering how that knowledge can be used to promote food security.

The project is designed to support organizations that are already working with rural communities in the documentation of indigenous knowledge. The question is: How can this knowledge be gathered, conserved and shared in ways that lead to concrete benefits for the women and men who hold it? This is why communication is vitally important to the project strategy.

Field staff are trained to work with women and men in rural communities to help them realize and document the value of their knowledge, using media that they can understand and adopt easily. This may involve folk media to promote awareness, for example, or the introduction of new media such as participatory video, which opens new horizons and interests. The project will then take the knowledge gained from working with a given community and share it with other rural communities, NGOs, government institutions, decision-makers and the media.

Communication is the key to raising awareness, sharing knowledge and supporting a broader debate on indigenous knowledge and biodiversity, all of which are conducive to more effective policies and action programmes


The communication technologies and expertise exist. The challenge now is to use them appropriately and effectively to give a voice to rural women and to promote social change and sustainable agricultural and rural development for both women and men.


Communication is no longer seen as a one-way, top-down transfer of messages and information through the media; instead, when applied to development, communication is used to promote a two-way process of sharing and participation. The word itself comes from the Latin "communis facere", which means participation and doing things together. An FAO consultation in 1984 defined communication for development as "a social process, designed to seek a common understanding among all the participants of a development initiative, creating a basis for concerted action".

Communication technology and the media are useful tools for facilitating this process, but should not be considered as an end in themselves. It is the process that is important. Interpersonal and face-to-face forms of communication are essential components in this process, and they are critical for changing attitudes and behaviour.


The experts at the 1984 FAO Consultation indicated that "people-oriented and sustainable development can only realize its full potential if rural people are involved and motivated and if information and knowledge are shared. Sharing is not a one-way transfer of information; it implies rather an exchange between communication equals. On the one hand, technical specialists learn about people's needs and their techniques of production; on the other, the people learn about the techniques and proposals of the specialists." This means that participatory communication efforts with rural women should begin with development planners and technical specialists listening to them. Lstening goes beyond a simple appraisal of needs. It involves listening to what women already know, what they aspire to become, what they perceive as possible and desirable and what they feel they can sustain.

Although often illiterate, rural women have wisdom, knowledge and practices based on deep-rooted cultural norms, traditions and values, as well as generations of experience. This indigenous knowledge should be taken into account, and traditional methods of information exchange and communication should be harnessed together with modern means.

Communication strategies and materials should reflect women's perceptions, needs and perspectives. The development of participatory and qualitative research methods such as participatory rural appraisal (PRA), focus group discussions, interpersonal communication techniques and audiovisual media enable communication specialists and communities to quicken the process of sharing experiences and learning together. Where the questionnaire and statistical survey were once the main tools of research and analysis, there is now a mix of methods that are not dependent on literacy and formal education capabilities and can be applied to discover the problems and needs of rural women as well as the opportunities and solutions open to the community.



A number of major international conferences have stressed the important role of communication in attaining the goals of their action plans and achieving sustainable development.

  • Earth Summit (1992). Officially called the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), this conference produced Agenda 21, a programme devoted to various aspects of the environmental crisis. All 38 chapters of Agenda 21 implicitly recognize the critical role of communication in successfully implementing sustainable development. The Conference affirmed that all stakeholders in development are users and generators of relevant information on the environment.

  • International Conference on Population and Development (1994). The Plan of Action passed by this conference calls for the strengthening of information, education and communication activities concerning population and sustainable development issues.

  • World Summit for Social Development (1995). The Declaration and Plan of Action produced by this summit directs attention to rectifying social disintegration and emphasizes the role of communication for doing so.

  • Fourth World Conference on Women (1995). This conference produced, for the first time in history, a Platform for Action that devotes an entire section to women and the media. It identifies the mass media as having great potential for promoting the advancement of women and the equality of women and men. It states that "television, especially, has the greatest impact on young people and, as such, has the ability to shape values, attitudes and perceptions of women in both positive and negative ways". It identifies actions to promote a balanced and non-stereotypical portrayal of women in the media, as well as the incorporation of more women at decision-making levels in the development of communication policies, technologies and media operations. It also identifies actions that can help increase women's access to, and participation in, the expression of views and decision-making through the new communication technologies. It encourages the development of education and training programmes in communication and media technologies for women.

  • World Food Summit (1996). The Plan of Action passed by this summit deals with women and rural development, among other issues. It affirms that sustainable agricultural development will only be achieved if policies and technologies are accompanied by participation, equity, dialogue, enabling mechanisms and empowerment. In short, it advocates a people-centred approach to development, in which communication is an essential component.



Participatory audience research is an essential prerequisite for the planning of successful communication strategies, the selection of appropriate media and the design of creative messages. In developing countries, the communication requirements of women in rural areas are different from those of women and men in urban centres and developed countries. Rural women do not have equal access to information, for reasons such as their restricted mobility outside the home, lack of education and, in some cases, men's control over information and media. Development communicators may need to "repackage" information in forms that are comprehensible to illiterate women, adapting it to their understanding and perception of messages.

Special attention should be paid to selecting the communication channels that are most appropriate for women and to producing materials in local languages. Because women are involved in many aspects of rural life, their traditional knowledge systems are complex and holistic. Consequently, communication programmes must deal with the various economic and social issues affecting women, including agriculture, habitat, health, nutrition, family planning, population growth, the environment and education and illiteracy.




With the support of an Italian-funded FAO project, the Southern African Development Community's Centre of Communication for Development, based in Harare, Zimbabwe, has pioneered a people-oriented alternative to traditional communication research. Called participatory rural communication appraisal (PRCA), the new approach involves rural people in the design of communication strategies.

PRCA has been used effectively to promote the involvement of rural women in decisions that affect their livelihood. Perceptions and local knowledge play a key role in development, hence the need for a communication approach that ensures the problems to be resolved are perceived in the same way by the distinct groups concerned (women, men, elders, youth) as well as by the development agents working with them. Unearthing women's perceptions and local knowledge can be difficult, however, because rural women often hide their true feelings and information from outsiders. To overcome this, PRCA uses visual methods and group facilitation techniques for generating, analysing and presenting information that helps to reveal the "visions and voices" of women. Through PRCA, development efforts can be firmly rooted in women's realities and thus be more responsive to their needs, aspirations, abilities and knowledge.

  • PRCA has been used to identify constraints to, and opportunities for, women's participation in beekeeping in the Solwezi District of northwestern Zambia, where beekeeping is traditionally undertaken by men. Since considerable interest in the activity had been shown by women, a team of researchers (trained by the SADC Centre of Communication for Development) used PRCA tools to reveal the perceptions of the various stakeholders in the activity. Findings indicated that a women's beekeeping project would be viable, and also revealed the necessary conditions for its successful implementation. Based on its appraisal, the team provided guidelines for the design of a communication strategy and training materials for the project's implementation.

  • "Oy! Engiten'g Ai." When a Masai mother or father expresses love for their child, especially a daughter, they will always compare the child to a cow - beautiful and full of riches. This sums up the importance of cattle to Masai people in the United Republic of Tanzania. Here, PRCA served to show that it is the women who tend the cattle from the time they enter the kraal (Boma) in the evening up until midnight. Traditionally, the Masai men have been considered the principal caretakers of cattle while the Masai women have been thought to play a minor role. However, a multidisciplinary research team that visited the Masai of Kimokouwa village in Monduli District in support of the FAO Pan-African Rinderpest Campaign was able to reveal the full role played by women in cattle rearing. The team (including staff from the SADC Centre of Communication for Development) carried out a PRCA exercise which, in addition to revealing the Masai's traditional communication practices, clearly illustrated the important role of women in cattle rearing activities.



The Platform of Action set by the Fourth World Conference on Women stressed the importance of enhancing women's skills, knowledge and access to information and communication technology. The training of women as rural communication specialists at all levels - from fieldworkers to trainers and planners - is an essential requirement for successful communication efforts carried out by women for the benefit of women.

Women can only have access to communication media if they have the skills and training to use them. a question of training more women, but also of improving and adapting the type of training provided. In the past, training was often theoretical and primarily concentrated on media production and technology. New participatory communication approaches require innovative and interactive learning processes, preferably field-based. Women can learn more effectively through field experience and practice rather than through traditional classroom training.

In addition to technology and media production, curricula should include participatory research methods, practices such as group facilitation, group dynamics and conflict resolution and the socio-economic, political and cultural processes related to rural development and communication.

Video, audio and computer technologies have become smaller, cheaper and more user-friendly. Easy-to-use equipment as well as participatory approaches and methods have given rural women the opportunity to become skilled in using media and to have access to, and control over, the necessary tools for information generation and exchange.



The Centre for Mayan Women Communicators, located at Atitlán in Sololá, Guatemala, is a non-profit organization that enables indigenous women to come together and communicate. The centre is supported by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and other donors, and has its own Web site. It provides training to indigenous women in video production, photography, computer use and Internet communication. Video and photography are used for research, dialogue and community organization.

Among other things, the communication process is considering the oral Mayan language and exploring ways of using visual media to overcome barriers of language and illiteracy. Videos produced in and by the communities are used to share information with neighbouring communities that can identify with the local images.

Padma Guidi, the trainer at the centre, says:

"In developing the curricula, I have been led by the requests of women who come and want to see how the stuff works. Cameras are popular and exciting, easy to use and a real ice-breaker. My approach is to keep the learning interactive... [H]istory will not repeat itself in Guatemala if indigenous women have their voices heard. With today's user-friendly communication media available to them, these women will establish themselves as a conscious and participating force in future world events."


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