In Asia, supporting women farmers crucial to fighting poverty, hunger and climate change

The Paris agreement has been hailed as a success by many, but it fell short of protecting rural women farmers, who are one of the most vulnerable social groups, says Oxfam Philippines campaigner Airah Cadiogan.

assam woman farmer
A woman tends to a field in Assam, India. In many Asian countries, women make up half of the total agricultural workforce. Image: Asian Development Bank Flickr, CC by 2.0

On 12 December 2015, most of the world watched as French foreign minister Laurent Fabius banged the green gavel in a room filled with world leaders and climate experts in Le Bourget, officially signaling the adoption of the “historic” Paris Agreement.

On that same evening, in Colombo, Sri Lanka, women farmers from 14 developing countries – leaders and climate experts in their own right – were getting ready to head back home. They had just attended the first Asia Women Farmer Forum organized by Oxfam as part of its Asia GROW Campaign to bring women together to discuss the challenges they have faced in securing their rights and enhancing their resilience in a changing climate.

“A woman farmer who goes to bed hungry is just wrong,” said Janice Ian Manlutac, Resilience lead for Oxfam in Asia, “But this is a daily reality in many Asian countries, where women make up 50 per cent of the total agricultural workforce.”

Norly Grace Mercado, Oxfam’s Asia GROW Campaign Coordinator, added: “Women have far less access than men to productive resources like land, livestock, education, and agricultural extension and financial services. Our research has also shown that women farmers work up to 16 hours in the field but only share 10 per cent of the profit.”

To put faces to numbers, participants of the forum shared their struggles and, most importantly, their stories of courage in the face of unfavorable odds.

Bangladesh: Organizing women and working with local governments

Bichitra Roy, a farmer from Dinajpur in Bangladesh, was married off by her father when she was 16 years old. She did not go to school and has struggled with illiteracy. She has four daughters, whom she and her husband worried about because they could not provide for them with their small income from farming. To ease her burden, community members encouraged her to marry off her daughters.

“I resisted the pressure because I wanted them to stay in school,” Bichitra shared with the audience of women farmers from Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan, Nepal, Myanmar, the Philippines and Laos.

Today, two of her daughters are enrolled in nursing school, while one works on handicrafts. The youngest is in high school. She recognizes that this would not have been possible without the support of other women in her village.

Bichitra is an active member of a woman farmers association, which she also helped organize. The group has successfully secured basic social and agricultural services from the local government, including better schools and health clinics in their village, along with access to water and seeds.

“Because of all this, our harvest has never been better. Our relationship with the government has gotten so good that they regularly visit our area to ensure services are being delivered and to offer technical support for us farmers,” said Bichitra.

One lesson Bichitra hopes to impart to other women farmers is to organize women and work closely with local government bodies.

“My hope is that all women farmers in the world can equally work like men while keeping our dignity. And I also hope that governments of other countries will give special attention to the needs of the women farmers so our problems can be solved,” said Bichitra.

Nepal: Campaigning for women’s right to land and against gender-based violence

Renuka Malla Thakuri is a farmer leader from Nepal. She currently lives with 23 family members. Although, she has been married for 12 years, she has long been estranged from her husband with whom she has one daughter.

 “Legally, I am not divorced because in my context divorced women do not get respect. Socially, I’m divorced,” shared Renuka.

After working as a community organizer in the last decade, Renuka now focuses on campaigning against gender-based violence. Her leadership has garnered the respect of community members and she currently chairs the National Women Farmer Forum in Nepal.

Renuka recognizes that fighting for women’s rights to land, to basic services, to be free from violence is an all-encompassing task that involves all stakeholders, men and women alike.

Women have far less access than men to productive resources like land, livestock, education, and agricultural extension and financial services. Our research has also shown that women farmers work up to 16 hours in the field but only share 10 per cent of the profit.

“We work with women’s and farmers’ groups to demand better access to government services, including health, education, and agricultural services. At present, these services are more accessible to men, and education and health are not provided for free,” she said.

According to Renuka, in Nepal, where only about 20 per cent of women working in the agricultural sector own land, there is a definite need to intensify the campaign for women’s land rights. However, this should go hand in hand with campaigning against gender-based violence and demanding better services for farmers in general, especially in light of climate change and exposure to hazards like earthquakes.

Myanmar: Building community trust and balancing household demands

Khine Mar Oo is a farmer from the Rakhine region of Myanmar. She first got involved as a community mobilizer during the response to Cyclone Giri in 2010, when her organization assisted village fishermen.

“The men would often laugh at me and tease me because they were not accustomed to women leading activities,” said Khine, who also led consultations between NGOs, community leaders and villagers.

“People were very happy with all these dialogues. It’s tiring but it helped build the trust between community members and myself, a woman,” she said.

Recently, Khine was elected Chair of the Village Savings and Loan Association, a role which has demanded a lot of her time.

“During day time, I work with communities and help manage the community business. At night, I work for my household with my husband and two daughters. My husband is supportive, but he’s a little displeased,” she said, while laughing.

Women farmers and the Paris Agreement  

For Everlyne Nairesiae, Women’s Land Rights Advisor of Oxfam in Kenya, these stories have shown that the experiences of women farmers in Asia are similar to the issues of rural women in Africa.

“We all struggle to have our role and contributions to agriculture recognized, to secure our rights to land, and to be represented in key decision-making bodies,” said Everlyne, who shared her experiences working with Female Food Heroes in Kenya and Tanzania.

“Importantly, this Forum has demonstrated that, like in Africa, women in Asia are well-positioned to contribute to finding solutions to adaptation in their communities and beyond,” she added.

Unfortunately, according to Oxfam, the final Paris Agreement fell short of protecting the lives and livelihoods of the world’s most vulnerable people, including rural women. In its initial analysis, Oxfam noted: “the Paris agreement does little to address the fact that women have greater needs for climate finance, renewable energy and adaptation capacity.”  As the world moves toward a strengthened global climate agreement in the next five years, this will have to change.

“These women deserve better from government leaders, donors and development communities to help them adapt and become more resilient, from financing to specific interventions addressing their unique vulnerabilities,” said Janice Ian Manlutac.

Back in Sri Lanka, as the women prepared to go back to their families and their farms, a newly-formed camaraderie was palpable. Contact numbers were exchanged, tears were shed, and hands were held. Perhaps more than the hand that brought down the green gavel in Le Bourget, these hands – with adequate support and recognition – held the key to sustaining livelihoods and communities in the continuing struggle against poverty, hunger and climate change.

Airah Cadiogan is Climate Change Policy and Campaigns Officer for Oxfam in the Philippines. This post was originally published on Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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