Women work together to improve livelihoods in rural India

Dhan Maya Chhetri shows off results of improved poultry production

Dhan Maya Chhetri proudly holds her hands open to show the bigger and better eggs that have allowed her and other women in her village to raise nutrition levels and earn extra income in the remote Indian mountain state of Sikkim.

An FAO Technical Cooperation Project to develop small-scale goat production was inititated in the spring of 1994 at the invitation of the government of Sikkim, the newest Indian state. Although not originally intended to be a so-called "women's" project, a strong gender focus quickly emerged as the project formulation mission saw that most goat production, as well as chicken raising, was done by women. The all-female mission - thought to be the first of its kind fielded by FAO - talked with the villagers, listened to their concerns and constraints, and decided that a focus on gender responsibilities would result in a more successful project. The scope of the project was therefore broadened to include village poultry production as well as a gender focus.

To boost poultry production, an improved chicken breed, the Rhode Island Red, was introduced into Sikkim from another part of India and distributed to selected participants in poor villages. Each participant began with 12 chicks. A chicken specialist taught village extensionists what to feed the chickens, which local medicines could cure illnesses and even how to build better chicken sheds. The extension workers - the first to visit Sikkim - passed this information on to participating villagers. For some women, the training given in poultry management by the extension staff was the only education that they had ever received.

Soon the women were organizing themselves, sharing their experiences and sturdy roosters for better breeding - even agreeing on the selling price of their eggs in the local markets. Their small earnings from the sale of eggs and chickens allowed the women to improve nutrition levels in the household. Instead of skipping meals or cutting back on portions when food runs short, participants can now simply sell some eggs to buy food or medicine. Also they have more financial security and no longer have to rely on moneylenders for small loans at high interest rates.

The project's strong monitoring component showed the villagers that the extension workers were genuinely interested in their progress and were committed to supporting their efforts. It also increased participants' sense of responsibility to the project and discouraged them from eating the chickens, which would have put an end to the project. Instead, the original participants passed on ten chicks from their growing flocks to the next group of villagers, who eventually did the same, thereby increasing chicken production - and food security - throughout the village.

Monuman Rai in her new shop - the first ever to exist in her village

By the time of the last visit by extension workers in January 1997, considerable progress had been made. One woman, Monuman Rai, was able to save and invest her egg money and had constructed and stocked her own store - the first shop ever in her village.

Extension worker Durga Upreti, who has followed the women's progress over the two-year project period, was pleased with the project's success but was sad to see it come to an end. "There is much more work to be done in these villages," said Upreti, citing pressing problems of water supply and deforestation. Follow-on projects to would address the problems of resource degradation in Sikkim have been proposed, and efforts are currently under way to find donors to sustain the momentum initiated by this small but successful project.

The experience of the women of Sikkim was one of ten case-studies discussed at a recent workshop on gender and participation in agricultural development planning sponsored by FAO's Women in Development Service and held in Rome from 8 to 12 December.

23 December 1997

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©FAO, 1997