By Regina Laub and Susan Kaaria, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
It’s another typical day for Josephine Keremi. She’s up at sunrise, spends her morning scurrying around the house preparing meals, washing clothes, and gathering water and firewood. All this before her three children and husband wake up to begin another long day in the fields to harvest sweet potatoes and beans for the local market.
The Keremi family lives in a village called Kaithango. It’s located in the Eastern province of Kenya. This region receives very low rainfall throughout the year. This causes many headaches for Josephine and other rural farmers like herself. It not only sparks arguments between them over the use of scarce resources, it also translates in being unable to produce enough food to feed themselves and their families on a daily basis. In fact, many households in her village frequently go hungry or go long stretches without food. Many of whom she knows personally.
Luckily for Josephine, she’s in a position to make a difference in the fate of her people. She leads a group called Maendeleo Farmers’ Group, which is composed of men and women farmers from her remote region near the highlands of Kenya. Most of them are farmers with small plots on which they produce barely enough to feed their families.
Josephine’s group, like many others in the region, have been receiving technical support from experienced technicians and specialists to learn more about agricultural production, water management and adult education opportunities thanks to the Kenyan Government, national agriculture research and extension institutions and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). All these institutions have joined forces to build their knowledge and technical know-how in an effort to address – and redress – the complex challenges Kenyan men and women farmers face, all too often.
As a result of this ongoing collaboration, the Group has been learning how to increase their crop and vegetable production all the while using less water for their vegetables and learning about drip irrigation systems, shallow wells and how to build terraces to reduce soil erosion. This bundle of different techniques and inputs have given the farmers the opportunity to improve their skills and to produce more and better quality food for their families.
PUTTING WOMEN FIRST
However, the challenges that Josephine and the Maendeleo Farmers’ Group face are not unique to them. In Kenya, approximately 3 Million family farmers face a similar situation, and worldwide, it is now estimated that more than 500 million family farmers do as well (SOFA 2014).
Despite their day-to-day problems, these farmers produce more than 80% of the world’s food production. A huge amount of food indeed, but the numbers show that it is still insufficient, as it fails to feed the world’s 809 million hungry people.
The question then arises: how can family farmers, especially rural women, be better supported to increase agricultural productivity, improve nutrition, raise the standard of living in rural areas and contribute to global economic growth?
Even today, in the 21st century, a big divide between women and men in the agriculture sector persists. Women are farmers, workers and entrepreneurs like men, but almost everywhere around the globe, they face more severe constraints than men in accessing resources, markets and services.
In most instances, rural organizations are led by men and often overlook the specific challenges and interests of rural women. This unequal situation between women and men, otherwise called the “gender gap”, keeps women’s productivity low and diminishes their contributions to the agriculture sector.
It also affects the well-being of women and their families and imposes a high cost on the economy through losses in productivity. Closing this gap – and tapping into the potential women have to offer – could lift millions of people out of poverty and hunger.
MAKING A DIFFERENCE
FAO takes concrete measures to provide rural women with better chances to own land, find decent employment, reduce their work burden and participate actively in rural organizations. This is done by promoting approaches that give women the opportunity to participate equally with men as decision-makers in rural institutions and organizations, and in shaping laws, policies and programmes.
The Community Listeners’ Club (CLC) is a great example of this process. It is a development programme that focuses on social communication and aims to improve the visibility and voice of rural populations – particularly women – as a means to empower them socially and economically and improve their livelihoods and food security.
The process consists of training women and men in separate or mixed gender groups, and encouraging them to identify and discuss their community development issues and challenges. Through the use of a solar-powered and wind-up radio sets, members are able to receive latest information from the outside world, and learn about specific issues relevant to their community.
To date, there are 547 listeners’ clubs in Niger and about 450 in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), with an estimated total of 30,000 club members and direct beneficiaries; two-thirds of whom are women.
These clubs have proven to be successful tools in rural areas that have led to increased social mobilization, collective action and empowerment of women by giving them a voice and an active role in their own development.
WHAT ELSE CAN BE DONE?
Most of the women farmers in Josephine’s Group complain about long working days; it is estimated that on average a woman farmer spends about 16 working hours every single day, shared between home care, farming and community work.
This tremendous time burden prevents women from increasing their returns from agriculture. Women do not have enough time to attend training courses, go to distant markets to sell their produce for higher prices and for other additional income-generating activities.
As a solution, FAO carries out several initiatives in support of reducing rural women’s work burden. For example, in order to reduce time spent for water and fuel wood collection, efficient technologies are promoted such as fuel-saving cooking stoves and improved access to drinking water.
Other technologies to reduce post-harvest losses are also developed and disseminated and training opportunities are provided on labour saving technologies to ease women’s work loads in the household and in the agriculture sector.
Women play important roles in agricultural value chains; they are the main drivers of traditional value chains in local markets, where they sell fresh vegetables, fruits, grains, tubers, dairy products and fish daily. The returns are often very low and women have limited possibilities to change this situation as they have limited knowledge about processing technologies, and transport to distant markets is very often too expensive.
These challenges lead to inefficient chains and as a consequence, business opportunities may suffer and profits will be lower and/or unequally distributed. In order to make sure that women can access more lucrative value chains, and to move them out of the lower end of the value chains, where financial benefits are usually low, FAO provides training courses for small farmers and entrepreneurs – especially women – in how to improve their market products, get better access to markets and manage their financial resources.
COLLABORATION IS KEY
FAO works in close collaboration with governments to promote equal access to and control over land and other productive resources by men and women. The Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security (VGGT) were developed in this spirit; they serve to support governments in designing programmes to ensure equal land rights for women.
These Voluntary Guidelines were developed through consultation and negotiation with the organization’s member states, civil society, and other relevant stakeholders, and have been adopted by more than 190 countries so far around the world.
What’s more, FAO is currently providing hands-on support to various governments that are committed to implementing the Voluntary Guidelines, which includes approaches to increase the representation and participation of women and men in the land tenure governance.
Collaboration does not end here. FAO also works jointly with other UN agencies in an effort to generate more lasting and wider scale improvements in the livelihoods and rights of rural women and girls; a goal the organization believes can only be achieved through strong, strategic partnerships.
In this light, a joint programme with other UN agencies, WFP, IFAD and UN Women to accelerate the economic empowerment of rural women is being carried out in Africa, Central Europe, Asia, and Latin America. This programme focuses on four key areas: improved food and nutrition security; increased incomes; enhanced participation of rural women in decision-making and finally, catalysing policy and legislative reforms that are gender-sensitive.
COMMITMENT TO CLOSING THE GENDER GAP
Although the Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing in 1995, and the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action placed gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls at the core of the development agenda, no country has yet finished this agenda.
Twenty years later, for rural women like Josephine Keremi, stark gender gaps still remain, particularly in rural societies in less developed countries. In many areas, women have earned equal rights to men, and many women today actively take part in decision-making and land ownership processes in several parts of the world. But this is not enough.
For this reason, FAO continues in its commitment to collaborate with women like Josephine, to not only make a lasting and concrete difference in their and their families’ lives, but also to empower them and show them that their unique contributions are indispensable for the sustainable development of their communities and societies.
The views expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of FAO.