Yesterday we attended a panel discussion organised by the Rosa Luxembourg Stiftung entitled Strategies to Empower Rural Women. The panel focused on approaches to advancing gender equality for rural by analysing the challenges small-scale farmers are facing. The speakers in the panel were Vidya Das (Agragamee, India), Mercia Andrews (Rural Women’s Assembly), Agnes Kirabo (Food Rights Alliance, Uganda), Barbara Adama (Global Policy Forum), and Carolyn Sachs (Penn State University).
The panelists provided a good overview of the political context in which rural women find strategies and tactics to empower themselves. There are two key themes that emerged from this panel discussion; the first issue was on how multinational corporations threaten the food and seed sovereignty of rural women. Mercia Andrews provided an overview of the impact of agri-business on the livelihoods of rural women. She also spoke about the drought in the region and how rural women are affected by it.
The second key issue that emerged is the structural barriers that have an impact on rural women’s livelihoods. Agnes Kirabo, one of the panelists highlighted that Africa is not poor! She said that it is the policies, treaties, and subsidies that create structural barriers for the livelihoods of rural women. She also questioned the usefulness of the Commission on the Status of Women and how governments participate in this international platform.
While, rural women experience various structural barriers they are central to the preservation of biodiversity. Carolyn Sachs presentation provided some examples of how rural women and their informal seed saving strategies is a key strategy of how rural women empower themselves. She also highlighted that it is of utmost importance that we develop policies, and institutional mechanisms that go beyond restrictive measures against the patenting, proprietary breeding, and genetic modification of seed. It is also important to develop legal frameworks and regulations that assure broader farmer control.
Challenges that rural women experience
A common theme that emerged in the panel discussion is that the challenges of rural women are multi-dimensional.
The policies that are developed by the government has a major impact on the lives of rural women. For example, the Plant Breeders Rights Bill in South Africa will impact on the seed sovereignty of rural women.
In addition to policies, the subsidies that government provides also threaten the food an seed sovereignty of rural women. The Farmer Input Subsidy Programme that has been implemented across the region is one example of a such a subsidy programme. FISP does not allow women to be independent and self-sustainable. In the instances, where there are more droughts, rural women often have more debt and are more vulnerable. This results in rural women living from hand to mouth.
Another key challenge for rural women is extractivist activities such as mining. This often displaces women as these multinational corporations grab a large amount of our land. Extractivist industries change our environment and pollute our water.
Strategies to empower rural women
The following strategies are critical for the empowerment of rural women to fight against the multi-dimensional challenges that rural women experience on a daily basis;
It is important that rural women are organised against the corporate control of seeds and land. Rural women organise from the bottom up. This kind of grassroots organising is critical for the empowerment of rural women.
As rural women, we have to come up with strategies of how to lobby government. It is also important that we strengthen our movements to take action and form international alliances for lobbying governments.
It is important that we strengthen our practices of agro-ecology and improve our seed banks at the local level.
It is important that we strengthen the capacity of rural women. As rural women, we need to get a better understanding of the policies and the treaties that our governments are signing. These policies and treaties are often anti-rural small-scale farmers.
It is important that we build the capacity of rural women so that we are less dependent on subsidies and inputs. For example, one way of doing so is to have our own saving scheme at local level
Women are seed custodians and plant breeders and they have the knowledge and it is important that we come up with seed saving strategies and healthy nutritious cooking ways.
We need to encourage collaboration between women farmers as part of the capacity building to empower rural women.
We need to build and strengthen rural women leadership in order to influence policies through the movement
It is critical that we strengthen the solidarity of our struggles.
*This article was written by Lonhlanhla Mthethwa from the Swaziland Rural Women’s Assembly