Enabling poor rural people
to overcome poverty



15 October 2011

The United Nations’ International Day of Rural Women celebrates and honours women and girls living in rural areas on 15 October each year. It recognizes the huge role that rural mothers, daughters and grandmothers play in producing food, and building agricultural and rural development worldwide.

Across the developing world, rural women carry the main responsibility for providing the food, water and fuel needed by their families. And the quality of the care that mothers give to their children and other household members influences the prospects for healthy and productive lives for all.

Gender equality and women’s empowerment has always been at the core of IFAD’s work to fight rural poverty.

“Addressing gender inequalities and empowering women is vital for improving food security and nutrition, and for raising poor rural people out of poverty,” says Clare Bishop-Sambrook, Senior Technical Adviser at IFAD.

“Evidence shows us that agricultural growth is increased if women and men are both enabled to participate fully as economic actors, if they are motivated by sharing the benefits that arise from their endeavours, if they are able to express themselves equally in decision-making forums, and if their time – particularly that of women – is released from the laborious and repetitive tasks associated with rural living. Reducing gender inequalities leads to improved yields, higher economic productivity, faster growth and improvements in the quality of life, such as lower infant mortality.”

The programmes and projects that IFAD supports demonstrate that empowered women have the ability to be powerful agents of change in their communities. Here are just two examples of the many IFAD-backed programmes that aim to level the playing field for women in developing countries and bring about lasting change.

Gender justice: Changing the attitudes of women and men

In the Rwenzori Mountains region of western Uganda, Betty Vira is a struggling single mother. After her husband deserted her, she became the sole provider for her family of five children, responsible for their food, clothing and school fees.

“I am staying on family land that I don’t own,” she says. “The family members are not happy for me to stay on that land.”

In many countries like Uganda, land traditionally belongs to men, and it is commonly accepted that they control the income from cash crops. Often, men migrate to towns in search of work, and women do most of the farming and processing. Still, they are denied land and property rights, have little access to credit and to profitable markets, and consequently, their productivity and income remain low. So although the region is blessed with fertile soils and regular rainfall, poverty and hunger are still common.

As 90 per cent of the practising farmers in the area are women, any attempt to boost the local economy must give priority to women’s empowerment.

Improving farmers’ productivity and livelihoods has been the common vision of two local grassroots organizations in the region for more than a decade: the Bukonzo Joint Cooperative Micro Finance Society Ltd. and the Green Home Organisation for Women Development. The organizations train local farmers, men as well as women, in agricultural skills and microfinance management.

Since 2007, both organizations have included addressing gender inequalities in their training as part of the Oxfam Novib programme Women’s Empowerment Mainstreaming and Networking (WEMAN) for Gender Justice in Economic Development. The training is participatory and community-led and based on the innovative Gender Action Learning System (GALS). Oxfam Novib uses the GALS method to challenge and change gender inequality in households and communities. It is also a way to address power relations between communities and service providers, religious and traditional authorities, and private sector and government actors.

GALS uses visual diagramming – a powerful communication tool that conveys ideas and information through pictures, symbols and geometric shapes. Through hands-on group work, people learn to make improvements in ways that bring the greatest benefits to their lives. GALS also helps build consensus on the benefits of gender justice and develop collective long-term strategies for change.

The facilitators are all women and men from the communities.

“Using the GALS tools has helped me to support myself on my own,” says Vira. “It helps me to see how much I am spending and earning in trading coffee, and how I am spending my money.”

Valuing women in the value chain

In the summer of 2009, the GALS training started to focus specifically on gender and value chain analysis for the production of coffee, fruit, maize and beans. Co-funded by an IFAD grant to Oxfam Novib, the Gender Justice in Pro-Poor Value Chain Development programme was rolled out in Uganda, working with a producer organization and a local NGO.

The GALS method helped to empower poor rural women and men in agricultural value chains to develop, implement and monitor their own plans for increasing productivity, quality and incomes. This allowed them to reduce risks and increase gender equality within households.

Teresa Kulabirahi, a member of Bukonzo Joint Cooperative, says that before she and her husband joined the programme, she would finish harvesting her coffee crop and her husband would collect the money and take total control of it.

“Since we have started working together I feel more comfortable because now I know how the income is spent while before I didn’t know. Now we discuss together around the table what to do with the money. Now I can spend some of the income myself.”

Kuli Eziron, a local leader, says the programme has encouraged and convinced men and women in the community to create a ‘system of togetherness’ and to strive to sensitize others about the importance and benefits of gender justice.

Perhaps the most striking change brought about by the programme is the significant shift in men’s thinking about property rights for women.

“Because of the changes that we are intending to make for the growth of the country these days, women should share equally with men, also because there are women who work more than men on the development of the land,” says Eziron. “Many people have now realized that ownership of land should be given equally to the mother and the father.”

Kulabirahi’s husband Moses agrees. “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. I am trying to convince other men and neighbours to do the same. I tell them about the advantages of joint land ownership.”

Coffee trader Rauliano Rujumba is also on board. “Before the training I didn’t appreciate the value of my wife but now I do. Now I sit down with my children and wife and we plan together. We recently bought land and my wife has also signed the land agreement.”

Due to the success of the programme, a second grant from IFAD to Oxfam Novib will allow GALS to be expanded to Rwanda and Nigeria.

Spinning yarn for export in Central Asia

To gain a footing in international markets, small producers often need support to boost the quality and competitiveness of their goods. In Tajikistan, poor rural men and women raising angora and cashgora goats are working with an IFAD-supported grant programme managed by the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) on improving goat breeding and fibre processing.

Tajikistan is one of the poorest of the former Soviet republics. The population depends on subsistence farming, livestock and money sent home by family members working abroad. The majority of rural Tajik women have few earning opportunities and rely largely on their husbands, most of whom have to migrate to Russia for work, often for several years. Based on their success in finding work, some husbands send money home and some do not, leaving their families struggling. Even in those cases when women receive support, the long separation takes a toll on the families. In some cases, the men do not return, leaving the women and their children to rely on their relatives for support.

Most rural women try to produce food for subsistence and to a lesser degree for sale. They keep a small flock of sheep and goats and produce fruits and vegetables in their gardens. In northern Tajikistan, on the slopes of the Kuraminsk mountain range, many families produce angora goats that give meat, milk and fibre.

During the Soviet period, Tajikistan was Russia’s largest angora goat and mohair producer. Today there are still about 200,000 angora goats grazing in the northern tip of the country, which produces about 140 tons of mohair a year that is exported to China, Russia and Turkey.

Producers earn approximately US$5-US$10 per goat in profits, depending on the strength of the mohair market. The bulk of Tajik mohair is sold unprocessed, but many women spin mohair yarn and sell it to Russia for approximately US$10 per kilogram.

Realizing the potential of the high-quality fibre sector, IFAD and ICARDA launched a programme in 2009 to improve mohair production and processing: Improving Livelihoods of Small Farmers and Rural Women through Value-added Processing and Export of Cashmere, Wool and Mohair.

The programme works at the household level with women and their husbands.

Work with the male herders focuses on improving angora goat breeding, feeding, health and other aspects of animal husbandry. A key component of the breeding work includes the import of angora goat semen from Texas to Tajikistan. At the same time the programme works on improving breeding of coloured angora goats that produce lustrous fibre in grey, brown and black and are rare in other mohair-producing countries. 

The full beauty and value of mohair is best expressed in luxury yarn and knitwear.

The programme works with rural women, spinning kid mohair into high-quality yarn for the international market, successfully competing with luxury mohair in yarn stores in the United States and Europe. The yarn is used to knit hats, scarves and sweaters with contemporary designs. 

The Tajik knitters are using the yarn to produce soft, lustrous knits that reveal the beauty of mohair as well as a superb craftsmanship. This has been achieved through hands-on training sessions in new technologies, continuous follow-up to maintain the highest quality and introduction of western product designs. 

As a result of the programme, rural women have more than doubled their incomes from fibre processing. It has helped Tajik women to gain access to the North American market: their yarn was successfully test-marketed in Wisconsin in 2009 and 2010 under the name of ‘Mohair Magic’. Currently spinners sell the yarn to Austria, and have received new orders from Italy, Peru and the United States. The newly crafted knitted products will be test-marketed in 2011 in the United States.

A website was set up this year promoting the programme and linking directly with wholesale buyers. In addition to producing yarn and knitted products, in 2011 the programme started to produce woven products such as shawls, blankets and carpets.

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