By Jacob K. Lupai
April 1, 2009 — A lot has been written about the role of women in agriculture. It may therefore be boring to some to read time and again about the role of women in agriculture as though there is something new to add. Well, there may be nothing dramatic but it is worth reiterating the role of women with specifics in agricultural development for food security. It is in order for policy and decision makers, and development agents to appreciate more than ever the vital role of women in agriculture. Without female farm labour and the active participation of women in the retail trade on food commodities perhaps we wouldn’t find breakfast or dinner on our tables. It is a constant reminder that women should not be ignored in strategic planning such as in policy formulation on agricultural development for self-reliance in food production.
Women are about half of the population of a country and in other instances they may make up more than half of the population. Common sense will therefore dictate that ignoring the participation of half or more than half of the population of a country in development activities may be poor planning to say the least. Women are noted to have been the first to domesticate wild plants to achieve household food security. This puts women at the centre of agricultural development and it is very important to take note of this central position of women.
About 10,000 year ago a woman from a plant-gathering tribe, somewhere on the Middle East’s Fertile Crescent, returned home after a long day collecting seed in the wild for food. The woman stumbled and the basket with the collected seed fell to the ground. Although the woman tried to pick up the seed as best as she could some remained on the soil and eventually became buried. The rains came and when the woman was collecting food the following summer, she happened to pass through the place where she had previously dropped the seed. To her surprise the woman noticed grain growing in abundance on the spot. The woman scattered more seed on the ground that year and to her delight it once again yielded results. This appears like a fairy tale but this was the start of planting and harvesting of crops for food and of the state of agriculture itself as we know it today.
The stumble of that woman marked the beginning of a new chapter in human development which meant more food then. However, today 10,000 years later another chapter needs opening for the millions of people particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa who are chronically short of food. Opening a new chapter requires a new approach to agriculture that breaks out of a pattern of farming that leaves too many in hunger, a new policy from a government that learns from farmers, new ways of releasing women’s contribution to food production and a new synthesis of farming practices for millions of small-scale farmers that combine traditional ways with recent and innovative technologies.
Central to a new chapter that requires a new approach to agriculture that breaks out of a pattern of farming that leaves too many in hunger, is the role of women in agriculture to achieve household food security. In Sudan women have been obscured by their male counterparts partly due to paternalism. The male are paternalistic, treating the female as though they were no entity and did not know how to talk for themselves. Of course women are capable of talking for themselves. However, this suggests that female farmers must form their own group to articulate freely their faming needs to be addressed in achieving household food security. One example of women’s group is Abongoniki Women’s Association in Morobo County in Central Equatoria State in Southern Sudan. Abongoniki in the local language means the forgotten people. Abongoniki Women’s Association literally means Forgotten Women’s Association. One question to ask may be were the women in Morobo County really forgotten? It could have been a strategy to attract attention. Whether forgotten or not Abongoniki Women’s Association is one example in the right direction for the women to gain attention of policymakers and donors. It received tools and seeds from a non-governmental organisation (NGO) operating in the area and successfully applied to a government ministry for funds and bicycles.
Abongoniki Women’s Association is an example of women empowerment to accelerate the rate of development in the field of agriculture. Development agencies must encourage the formation of women’s groups as channels of dissemination of innovations in reaching female farmers. The policy should be to work with organised women’s groups. This will be effective in agricultural activities as the use of extension group method becomes appropriate. The group method offers the possibility of greater coverage and is therefore more cost-effective. By using group method, the development agency can reach more farmers and in this way make contact with many more farmers who have had no previous contact with development activities. Groups offer a more reflective learning environment in which the farmer can listen, discuss and decide upon their involvement in the development activity. The support of the group helps an individual farmer to make decisions and determine a course of action. In this atmosphere the group creates a supportive environment and individual farmers can gain greater self-confidence by joining others to discuss new ideas and try out new practices.
As a matter of policy the development agency should first try to form a farmers’ group, to encourage its members to continue to meet and to establish the group on a permanent basis. Second, the agency should use the group to transmit new ideas, information and knowledge that will assist the farmers in their agricultural activities. To achieve a common purpose within the group, it is better to have groups of farmers with common problems. It is therefore appropriate to have female farmers’ groups in contrast to male farmers’ groups because the former may have unique farming challenges compared to those of the male farmers’ groups.
The role of women in agriculture for food security is unique. In Sub-Saharan Africa about 80 per cent of farm labour is contributed by women. This makes the position of women in agriculture a highly significant one. Ignorance of this significant position of women in agriculture is one cause of household food insecurity where women’s role in agriculture is not prominent in development planning. Women are knowledgeable in farming when they make every effort to achieve household food security. Women’s knowledge may be the envy of male farmers. Women’s local knowledge and the indigenous vegetables they select for cultivation in their homesteads is of interest. However, local capacities and knowledge have not been recognised far enough or incorporated into the mainstream development processes. People’s search for self-sufficiency in food production takes place within parallel systems of production. There are certain systems requiring high external inputs of manpower, expertise, equipment and chemicals. On the one hand others utilise local knowledge, manpower and biodegradable inputs. The difference between the two is that those requiring high external input are not sustainable in the context of a poor developing country like the Sudan.
High external input agriculture depends heavily on artificial chemical inputs such as fertilisers and pesticides, hybrid seed, mechanisation based on fossil fuels and often also irrigation where developing society may hardly afford. In contrast farmers using indigenous knowledge have found ways of improving soil structure, water-holding capacity and nutrient and water availability without the use of artificial inputs. The major strength of indigenous farming systems lies in their functional integration of different resources and farming techniques which have sustained farming throughout the ages. However, there is no way agriculture should develop on parallel lines, one scientific and the other traditional. Sustainable agriculture is feasible through the use of regenerative technologies and the full participation of farmers in the processes of planning, research and extension. This implies the full participation of female farmers.
Recognising and promoting the active role of women in agriculture is one sure way of achieving household food security in the Sudan. However, women need to form into groups for effective participation. The objective is to awaken in each member of the group a better understanding of themselves and of the realities of their situation. Formation of a women’s group signifies a change from a state of resignation to a state of awakening. The first principle of group formation is that the people must be motivated to come together to work for their own common good. However, motivation must not be imposed from outside. It must be done as a way of creating awareness and conviction. The people must see that coming together to work in a group is not only to their own advantage but may also lead to increased solidarity and may strengthen the people as a group. It is the promotion of teamwork.
For sustainable agricultural development in achieving household food security it is of paramount importance that one strategy is the empowerment of women through their own farmers’ associations. It is important to note that so many well-intentioned rural development programmes have made so little lasting impact on women they were supposed to benefit. One of the main reasons for failure is that women have seldom been actively taken into account when projects are planned. The reason for this neglect is frequently because women and their work were not included in the data used for project planning as women are not well organised to reckon with. It is imperative that women are assisted and empowered through their own organisations such as Abongoniki Women’s Association which the author had successfully assisted with an application for funding for a project to benefit the women.
The role of women in agriculture will be enhanced when accurate and appropriate data which reflect the true status and needs of women are made available through the women’s own groups. Development agencies need to encourage the formation of women’s groups and work with them in the rural areas for the achievement of household food security in the Sudan.
The author is a regular contributor to Sudan Tribune and can be reached at email@example.com