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8 Mar, 2012

Equality Begins at Home for Rural Girls and Women

International Fund for Agricultural Development

ROME, Italy, 5 March 2012 – As the world marks International Women’s Day this week, IFAD and its partners are pursuing new ways to advance the fundamental rights of poor rural girls and women at the household level.

In the past, rural development organizations and programmes have generally promoted change – including women’s empowerment – on a community-wide basis. The theory was that expanding smallholders’ access to markets or new technologies, for example, would ultimately benefit everyone in a given locality.

In many cases, however, the reality is that women in smallholder farming households have little or no control over the land they cultivate or the income they generate.

Household-based strategies address this reality. Through regular home visits and mentoring, they help families learn how to plan their livelihoods together. Household members then have an opportunity to jointly improve their food security, raise their income and share in the benefits of their labour, regardless of gender.

Essential to success

Household outreach and mentoring are relatively new interventions in the smallholder agricultural sector. Still, they are essential to the success of IFAD’s mission, according to Clare Bishop-Sambrook of the agency’s Policy and Technical Advisory Division.

“IFAD has set a target to lift 80 million people out of poverty by 2015,”she said. “To meet that target, we have to take the gender dimensions into account.”

Besides advancing women’s rights and economic justice, added Bishop-Sambrook, rural gender equality is good for agricultural production. When women are able to make household decisions and can look forward to reaping greater rewards, she said, they are motivated to improve the yield and quality of their harvests. When men share household resources and get more involved in daily tasks, including child-rearing, old barriers to productivity and food security start to break down.

“If you’re a woman who hasn’t been sharing in the benefits, there’s little incentive to do the extra work,” noted Bishop-Sambrook. “But when you change the dynamics in the household, women begin to believe they have a future.”

Envisioning a better future

Two initiatives in Uganda have been at the forefront of the household-based approach to alleviating poverty and promoting sustainable rural development. Both focus on the poorest and most vulnerable families in agricultural communities.

In the IFAD-supported District Livelihoods Support Programme, locally recruited and trained mentors visit family farms to help women and men share both their work and their income more equally. Similarly, in the Women’s Empowerment Mainstreaming and Networking (WEMAN) pilot project, rural household members of both genders learn to envision and work toward a future in which all of their basic needs are fulfilled.

Implemented by the Netherlands-based NGO Oxfam Novib with support from IFAD, the latter project has developed a process known as the Gender Action Learning System – or GALS – to foster social transformation. In community-led GALS workshops, women and men farmers use flip charts to visually diagram their vision for constructive changes in the division of labour, land ownership and other critical aspects of their livelihoods. Then they work together to realize those changes.

Gains for women, and men

These approaches have resulted in concrete gains for the women involved. Besides strengthened self-esteem, many of them now have more secure control over land and resources, greater involvement in decisions about income and expenditure, and increased access to rural financial services.

Teresa Kulabirahi, a member of a coffee cooperative in western Uganda, recalled that her husband used to take control of the money she made from selling her coffee crop. “Since we have started working together, I feel more comfortable,” she said. “Now we discuss together around the table what to do with the money. Now I can spend some of the income myself.”

Kulabirahi’s husband is among the men whose attitudes have changed, notably on the question of land ownership, as a result of household mentoring. In fact, he has agreed to certify his wife as co-owner of the family farm.

“What encourages me to change the land agreement is to think that if I die, my wife and children would find it difficult to claim the land,” he explained. “I am trying to convince other men and neighbours to do the same.”

Critical mass

Improved gender relations at the household level have also resulted in demonstrable community-wide benefits. For instance, in target areas covered by the WEMAN project, there has been a marked improvement in the production and quality of coffee. Previously, household conflicts often led both women and men to pick unripe coffee beans and sell them prematurely at inferior prices.

At the same time, rates of gender-based violence – often associated with arguments over family resources – have reportedly fallen. Alcohol consumption, a major drain on household funds, has decreased as well.

IFAD is now working to replicate these good practices, and results, in its funded projects in other places, including Malawi, Nigeria, Rwanda and Zambia. The challenge will be to expand such efforts so that they reach a critical mass in regions with the greatest food-security deficits and the worst rural poverty.

For her part, IFAD’s Clare Bishop-Sambrook firmly believes it’s a challenge that must be met. “Unless we do this,” she said, “nothing will really change.”

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