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How women are helping feed the world

Mar 09, 2012

On the International Women’s Day we take a close look at how women are leading the global fight against hunger despite overwhelming odds.

For decades women have been the unsung heroes, fighting gallant but unrecognised battles, at the forefront of the global war against hunger and poverty. However, today, when people around the world observe the International Women’s Day, they are unlikely to find too many reasons to celebrate.

The dichotomy is stark enough: As many as 1.6 billion women around the world make their living from farming and produce more than half of the world’s food. In sub-Saharan Africa alone 75% of all the agricultural producers are women.

Yet, a majority of women farmers face huge occupational obstacles. "The lack of access to information technology and the inability to connect rural enterprises to banks can prevent women from obtaining vital financial services," said Danielle Nierenberg, director of the Worldwatch Institute's Nourishing the Planet project, a two-year evaluation of environmentally sustainable agricultural innovations to alleviate hunger.

Undaunted, women around the world continue to break new ground in farming and sustainably nourish their families and communities with their innovations. "Access to credit, which provides women farmers with inputs and improved technologies, can be an effective tool in improving livelihoods in Africa and beyond," according to Nierenberg.

The State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet, reports the work of Worldwatch researchers with more than 350 farmers, groups, NGOs, government agencies and scientists across sub-Saharan Africa to improve their agricultural capabilities.

It also, outlines the 12 innovations that are helping women access credit, improve their incomes, feed their families, introduce sustainable crops to markets, and reduce rural poverty.

Cooperatives for boosting health and incomes: Democratically owned and governed women’s cooperatives are providing quality food to school children at a remote village in war-torn Côte d'Ivoire and consequently improving the health of the community and the income of its women.

Creating Links Between Women Producers and Markets: Women cooperatives in Africa's Western Sahel produce and market Shea butter to global cosmetics majors like Origins and L'Oréal, cashing in on the lucrative global market for organic beauty products. The beauty companies pay a fair price for the butter, used for making skin creams, and invest in the women's communities.

Educating Girls on Family Planning: The United Nations Foundation sponsors Girl Up, an organisation that protects girls from the perils of early and childbearing and helps them instead go to school, enjoy health and safety, and grow into the next generation of leaders. Particularly active in Ethiopia where child-marriages are rampant, the project offers basic literacy classes, family-planning information, and agricultural training. Even a few years of delay in motherhood, can help girls gain critical education and knowledge about successful agricultural practices.

Empowering Young Girls: Through Agriculture: In Rwanda, the Farmers of the Future Initiative is empowering young girls by integrating school gardens and agricultural training into primary school curriculums. Over 60% of these students will return to rural areas to farm for a living after graduating instead of going on to secondary school or university. As young girls learn these skills, they become self-sufficient and empowered.

Extension Services: Inclusion in extension programs helps women acquire education that results in increased agricultural yields, higher incomes, better nutritional standards and improved communities. To promote female inclusion in extension programs, the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture's Sustainable Tree Crops Program has created videos that women could watch at home or in groups, without disrupting their other activities. Since 2006, nearly 1,600 farmers in Côte d'Ivoire and Ghana have received training in cocoa-production at Video Viewing Clubs.

Female Trade Unions: In developing countries, women are often deprived of the opportunities and rights available to men like access to credit and land ownership. The Self Employed Women's Association (SEWA), a female trade union in India, works with poor, self-employed women by helping them achieve full employment and self reliance. Small-scale women farmers in India have benefited from this network that links farmers to inputs and markets.

Increasing Access to Water: In Zambia, Veronica Sianchenga, a farmer living in Kabuyu Village, saw improvements in her family's quality of life when she began irrigating her farm with the "Mosi-o-Tunya" (Pump that Thunders), a pressure pump that she purchased from International Development Enterprises. In many parts of sub-Saharan Africa, the task of gathering water can take up to eight hours of labor per day and usually falls to women. Because of the pump, her children are eating healthier and she is enjoying increased independence.

Microfinance Credit: Only 10% of the credit services available in sub-Saharan Africa, including small "microfinance" loans, are extended to women. The New York-based nonprofit Women's World Banking is the only microfinance network focused explicitly on women, providing loans of as little as US$100 to help women start businesses. Microfinance institutions from 27 countries provide the loans to women who in many cases have no other way to access credit.

Vertical Farming: Over 800 million people globally depend on food grown in cities for their living.  In Africa where women own just 1% of the land, the practice of vertical farming which allows them to raise vegetables without having to own land has emerged as a big boon. More than a 1000 farmers in Kibera, Nairobi's largest slum, practice vertical farming using seeds provided by the French NGOSolidarites thereby. These women have not only achieved self-sufficiency but also increased their household income.

Urban Farming: In Kenya, about 20 urban farmers grow fruits and vegetables on a small strip of land in Kibera. These farmers do not own this land and farm through an informal arrangement. Despite constant harassment, these farmers continue to come up with innovative ways of raising food and incomes on the farm. With the help of the farmers' advocacy group Urban Harvest, the farmers are not only growing food to eat and sell, but, perhaps surprisingly, becoming a source of seed for rural farmers.

Women's Collectives: Because of their subordinate position women in many countries become easy targets for domestic and sexual violence. This greatly inhibits their ability to work to their full potential.  In Tamil Nadu the Women's Collective focuses on advocating for women's rights and improving food and water security across 1,500 villages spread over 18 districts. The collective provides counseling and support for female victims of domestic violence, promotes women's participation in local government, and helps women strengthen local food systems, through education on natural farming techniques.

Women-Run Community Seed Banks: Studies have shown that women farmers typically have lower crop yields than their male counterparts. This is usually because they do not have access to high-quality seeds and agricultural inputs. The GREEN Foundation has partnered with NGOs including Seed Savers Network and The Development Fund to create community seed banks in Karnataka. Women run these seed banks, gaining leadership skills and acquiring quality organic seeds that yield profitable crops.

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