Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Lindiwe Majele Sibanda is president and CEO of the Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network (FANRPAN) based in Pretoria, South Africa, and is a spokesperson for the Farming First coalition. The opinions expressed are her own. Thomson Reuters is hosting a live blog on March 8, 2011, the 100th anniversary of International Women's Day.
As we mark the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day, a global day celebrating the economic, political and social achievements of women past, present and future, it is unfortunate that it is only those women that have a space and platform in academics, science, economics and politics that are celebrated and yet in Africa there is a deserving group of extraordinary women that still have no voice – the African women farmers.
Women farmers are the pillars of African agriculture. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture
Organisation, over two thirds of all women in Africa are employed in the agriculture sector and produce nearly 90 percent of food on the continent. They are responsible for growing, selling, buying and preparing food for their families.
Yet even as the guardians of food security, they are still marginalised in business relations and have minimal control over access to resources such as land, inputs such as improved seeds and fertilizer, credit and technology.
A combination of logistical, cultural, and economic factors, coupled with a lack of gender statistics in the agricultural sector, means that agricultural programs are rarely designed with women’s needs in mind. As a result, African women farmers have no voice in the development of agricultural policies designed to improve their productivity.
Engagement in policy processes is reserved for government and the literate, but literacy levels are as low as 40 percent in some African countries. In Malawi female literacy is at a low of 49.8 percent and in Mozambique it is even lower at 32.7 percent.
Africa has an oral culture and yet we do not talk enough – at local, national or regional levels. The dialogue concerning agricultural issues is happening at the international level, where a few speak for the majority, and not on behalf of the majority.
The Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network (FANRPAN) is working to change this. Recognising the critical role that women farmers play in ensuring household food security, in July 2009 FANRPAN launched Women Accessing Realigned Markets (WARM), a three year pilot project supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which seeks to strengthen women farmers’ ability to advocate for appropriate agricultural policies and programmes in Malawi and Mozambique through an innovative tool, Theatre for Policy Advocacy (TPA).
Based on results of a FANRPAN commissioned input subsidy study done in Malawi and Mozambique, FANRPAN has developed a theatre script “The Winds of Change”. The play explores challenges rural women farmers face in accessing agricultural inputs, land, credit and extension services among other things.
In 2010, FANRPAN together with its partners took the play to rural communities in Malawi and Mozambique. The play was modified to suit the local context in each village. Following each performance, women, men, young people and local leaders were encouraged to participate in facilitated dialogues. These gave all community members, especially women, a chance to voice the difficulties they face and speak with local leaders and policy makers who represent their interests at national level.
During a dialogue session in Chimphedzu in Malawi, farmer Evelyn Machete asked the local District
Agriculture Development Officer (DADO), “We no longer have agricultural extension workers based
in our communities, and visiting us everyday, so how do you expect smallholder farmers like us to learn new farming technologies or to learn how to improve our agricultural enterprises?”
Women farmers were grateful for the opportunity to engage in discussion with their local policymakers and development organisations. Another farmer, Martha Nyirenda from Sokele Village in Lilongwe District in Malawi, applauded the WARM initiative for having given her a platform to voice her agricultural concerns: “I have always wanted this kind of forum to raise my issues. My eyes have been opened. Now I know who to consult when I have issues concerning farm inputs”
There is no doubt that the role of women in agriculture has been undervalued over the decades and their voices have not been heard. Renewed focus on agriculture as a means of ending poverty presents an excellent opportunity for a paradigm shift. It is high time African policy makers pay more attention to women - the architects of African rural livelihoods.