Wednesday, 08 March 2017 00:00

Behind the Scenes: Celebrating the Women Who Advocate for Small Farmers

Close your eyes. Picture a farmer. Who do you see?

IWD 2017 banner

Close your eyes. Picture a farmer. Who do you see?

Women represent about half the world's agricultural labour force. The figure rises to 60-70 per cent or more in many developing countries.

Now picture a farmer again – did the image change?

Today, we invite you to look closely at few of the women who make our Seeds of Survival program possible. Each of these women is remarkable, but not unusual. They have dedicated themselves to working for smallholder farmers. Some have made it their mission to advance gender equality in the communities where they work. Some, simply by being the fierce advocates for smallholder farmers that they are, empower others.

As farmers, labourers and entrepreneurs, women are crucial to agriculture and rural economies. Yet almost everywhere, they are constrained in access to resources, and have the least control over land and production. Below are a few of the women USC Canada is lucky enough to work with who are changing this.

Today is a day to celebrate women's minds, hearts, and hands in producing good food for the world. It is also a day to reflect on what we can do with our own minds, hearts and hands to help improve the condition of women who farm.

We invite you to start by sharing and celebrating these stories.

International-Womens-Day-2017-Mariam-Mali

Photo: Kathleen Clark/USC Canada

Mariam Sy in Mali

Mariam has dedicated herself to working with farmers, in particular women farmers, in Mali for the past 25 years. In those decades, she's seen – and had a hand in – women's empowerment growing in leaps and bounds.

"In the beginning men didn't even want to meet with women – it wasn't possible," she says of her early days with USC Canada-Mali. Women didn't have land to farm and at village meetings, their involvement was discouraged. "If women did go to the meetings, they weren't allowed to speak. They were pure observers. They had nothing to say or do."

Methodically, Mariam and the organization raised awareness using video, theatre, radio programs, and speaking directly with men and women farmers. They worked with women on training and worked with men to change their attitudes toward their women farmer counterparts.

"There were men who didn't want to be involved with women at all," says Mariam. Today, these same men encourage their wives to get involved in the number of programs USC Canada-Mali offers, from organic pesticide production courses, to cooking classes, to support for micro-enterprises.

"There was a situation that we had to change. We had to be brave," she says when she looks back on her work. "We believe in what we're doing with these people."

International-Womens-Day-2017-Merida-Honduras

Photo: Kathleen Clark/USC Canada

Justa Merina Barahona Martinez in Honduras

Chance got Merida involved with our Honduran partner, the Foundation for Participatory Research with Honduran Farmers (FIPAH). But it is passion that made her stay.

When her mother wasn't able to make it to a meeting with FIPAH, Merida was invited in her place. At 19 years old, she began learning about participatory research, farmers groups and community organizing. Though some people in the group thought she was too young to be involved, FIPAH said she was welcome.

Nearly two decades have passed since that day. In that time, Merida has gone on to university, returned to her hometown to coordinate FIPAH's young farmer groups and worked specifically on gender issues within the organization. More recently, she became the president of the Honduran equivalent of her town's chamber of commerce. She has been responsible for building community centres and establishing soccer field in her hometown.

She is currently overseeing a shift in the number of women in leadership positions within FIPAH. In two or three years she aims to have women hold 40-50 per cent of the leadership roles.

"And we're making progress already!" she says.

International-Womens-Day-2017-Bayush-Ethiopia

Photo: Kathleen Clark/USC Canada

Bayush Tsegaye in Ethiopia

Bayush has worked with our Ethiopian partner, Ethio-Organic Seed Action (EOSA) for nine years.

When she looks at her time with EOSA she sees their work with youth as something she is proud to be part of. Unable to find work, young rural Ethiopians often leave their communities to find work in other countries.

"Sometimes they go to the Middle East to find whatever work they can get, but it's very risky," she says. There are many tales of youth leaving home to find employment who never return. "There are many bad stories."

Bayush works with EOSA helping youth organize into groups to work on farming and conservation. Together, they can work on beekeeping, seedling production, farming and marketing, with support and guidance from the Seeds of Survival program.

And Bayush is deeply committed to the work.

"I like the motives of my organization. I'm very interested to help my communities," she says. "The work we've begun, I'd like to see that it goes further."

International-Womens-Day-2017-Sandra-Cuba

Photo: Kathleen Clark/USC Canada

Sandra Miranda Lorigados

What started as a seed project in Cuba has over the course of more than 15 years become a project dedicated to facilitating farmers' innovation. And Sandra has been there with Program for Local Agricultural Innovation (PIAL) from the very beginning, going on to coordinate it for the past six years.

It's a unique program, nearly spanning the entire country.
"In Cuba, [development] is kind of a top-down thing," says Sandra, describing the context she works in. "Institutions would say 'well this is what we have to offer.' They don't pay too much attention to what the small farmers actually need. Our program is changing all that. It focuses much more on what people's needs actually are."

But in 15 years, Sandra has seen big changes, both in the needs and wants of the farmers she works with and in Cuba itself.

Farmers once focused on diversifying their farms have reached that goal. They are now looking for support for forming farmer groups, devising strategies to lower their farms' carbon footprint, and adapting to climate change. And the country has seen a huge influx of new farmers, as previously unused land has been made available for small farming plots.

It's an interesting time, says Sandra. And that means new opportunities for everyone, especially women and youth.

Update: After more than a decade and a half with PIAL, Sandra has moved on to work with another organization, Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (COSUDE) as their National Program Officer. Congrats Sandra!

International-Womens-Day-2017-Blanca-Nicaragua

Photo: Kathleen Clark/USC Canada

Blanca Iris Castro Briones

Blanca has worked with our partner FECODESA in Nicaragua for the past decade. As an agriculture engineer, she gets smallholder farmers involved in doing research on their own farms.

"The farmers and the farms are the basis of all of this [work]," says Blanca. In their fields, farmers working with FECODESA breed new varieties of crops. "We have a lot of activities with families, women and youth, and local organizations to get them involved in plant breeding."

Read 1648 times Last modified on Wednesday, 08 March 2017 17:56

1 comment

  • Comment Link David Rain Wednesday, 08 March 2017 17:19 posted by David Rain

    Nice to see old friends Mariam and Bayush featured. Vive la biodiversité!

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LottaHitschmanova tbnWhat's in a Name?

We’re called USC Canada because we started out way back in 1945 as the Unitarian Service Committee, founded by the energetic Dr. Lotta Hitschmanova. We’re still planting the seeds that Lotta sowed. Find out more about our founder, Dr. Lotta Hitschmanova.

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