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DEVELOPMENT: Think of the Women Farmers

Sabina Zaccaro

ROME, Feb 19 2009 (IPS) - The new president of the International Fund for Agricultural Development takes over at a time when women farmers are becoming a growing force – without a growing voice.

Women farmers in India. Credit: IFAD

Women farmers in India. Credit: IFAD

This could present a major challenge to Kanayo F. Nwanze who was chosen IFAD president at a meeting in Rome of representatives of the 165 member countries of the UN organisation for financing agricultural development. Nwanze, a Nigerian national, was elected Thursday for a four-year term, ahead of five other candidates from Pakistan, Germany, Israel, Niger and India.

IFAD has made the issue of women farmers a key challenge, together with price rise and climate change.

IFAD experts say that the past decade has seen women's participation in agricultural labour grow by a third, and in the off-farm labour market by 10 percent. While there is no official figure for the number of women farmers worldwide, around 30 percent of African smallholder farms are headed by women.

The work of women farmers is often not recognised. "Worldwide in developing countries women do most of the farming work although their work and their role remain invisible, unrecognised and undocumented in statistics," says Annina Lubbock from the IFAD gender-technical advisory division. "And yet in Africa, for example, they're producing between 60 and 80 percent of the whole food."

Lubbock says women live with all of the constraints that affect all smallholder farmers – difficulty in access to credit, to services, lack of money for inputs, poor infrastructure and poor markets. But beyond these are constraints that specifically affect women.

"They have a huge workload that comes from having to combine their productive work with their domestic work and caring for their families," said Lubbock. "They don't have access to property, they don't get access to extension services." These services offer information such as patterns in crop prices, new seed varieties, and training in the use of new technologies.

One reason that women's voices are not heard is their weak representation in farmers and producers organisations, said Lubbock. "They're heard down at the grassroots but not at the higher levels."

Some groups are working to change that. "What our national members do to make women's voices heard and articulated is give 'affirmative action' to them," says Estrella Penunia, secretary-general of the Asian Farmers Association for Sustainable Rural Development. "This means at least giving 30 percent of seats in the training, board and governance structure organisation to women."

The association, based in the Philippines, includes nine farmers' organisations in eight Asian countries, representing around ten million farmers.

In the Philippines and in Korea women have their own independent organisations working in parallel with other farmers organisations, Penunia told IPS. "They do a lot of work in terms of making governments respond to their need for credit, for capital, for access to resources, and working hand in hand with male members of farmers organisations in lobbying governments."

In the Philippines 5 percent of local and national government budgets are set aside for gender related development issues. "But this is something that needed to be fought for," Penunia told IPS. "If we hadn't fought for that, money would have gone to dance rooms and parties or whatever in the name of gender and development. But women farmers are there to tell the government, put this in agriculture, put this in training…they are organised to lobby, to dialogue and to negotiate with their governments on policies."

A similar struggle was launched for land rights in the Philippines. "When the government gives certificates of land property there is only men's name in the title; women farmers' organisations asked to put the name of both man and woman in there, and in the end it worked."

India is supporting women's participation in policy dialogues. "The decentralised government system is strengthening local governments that now can take decisions over resources, and the quota system will make women participate in the decentralised decision making bodies," Eija Pehu from the agriculture and rural development department at the World Bank told IPS.

Pehu said that a recent 200 million dollar World Bank programme to support smallholder agriculture in the state of Andhra Pradesh in India started initially without any differentiation for women farmers.

"But then the state leadership realised that there were a lot of self-help groups run by women, pooled together to run community-based procurement centres for agricultural products like grains, vegetables and fruit." The World Bank consequently began to address women's issues specifically.

The picture appears less positive on the African continent, where gender-related barriers still prevent many women from accessing land, resources and technology, according to a 2008 study by the U.S. based International Centre for Research on Women (ICRW). In Uganda, most agricultural labourers are women, yet they own only a fraction of the land. In Gambia less than 1 percent of women were found to own a seeder or other cultivation instruments.

In Burkina Faso, the study found that women have less access to extension services because they have smaller portions of land and less political voice to demand these services.

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