The United Nations has named comic book heroine Wonder Woman as a new honorary ambassador to promote messages about women’s empowerment and gender-based violence. There is something to be said for having role models to inspire women to break the shackles and overcome barriers, but we do not need to look to fiction for this. I am inspired by the real wonder women I meet in my work who are facing and overcoming enormous challenges: women farmers.
Every day these women are on the frontlines of the fight against poverty, hunger and malnutrition. It is high time that their vital role in food production was recognised.
Bholi Devi, a 50 year old mother of two girls and a boy, is a rice farmer in Muzaffarpur district of Bihar in Eastern India. She—and millions of others like her in the developing world—have been toiling all their lives, and for several generations, on farms without being recognised as farmers. They are seen by their communities merely as family labour and are expected to do all that agricultural work along with taking care of their extended families, livestock, fetching water, cleaning and cooking—all unpaid and unrecognised jobs.
Even governments have not recognised them as farmers. As a result, they have no access to agricultural loans and credit, extension and advisory services, fertilizers or the knowledge and information they need to make progress as farmers. Government statistics don’t include the value of their contributions to GDP.
This is of growing importance as there has been a feminisation of agriculture in the developing world. More and more men have migrated seasonally or permanently in search of economic opportunities and employment, which leaves women to manage and make decisions on their farms. In the developing world women provide 43% of the agricultural labour. Even so women and children continue to be amongst the most malnourished and women make up 70% of the world’s poor.
In my more than 20 years working with women farmers it continues to be a challenge to get women their fair share of support and recognition. The agricultural research and development sector have only recently begun using the term ‘women farmers’. We still hear about ‘farmers and their wives’ or ‘farm women’.
We will have 9 billion people to feed by 2050 and the agricultural production is not keeping pace. If we want to eradicate poverty, hunger and malnutrition, investing in women farmers is non-negotiable.
Just a few simple measures and a change of attitude can start to make progress. I met a group of women farmers in a remote village in Bihar who are starting to transform their lives.
“We are sitting here today in this group and talking to you. It might not seem like much, but it was not easy for us to get here” said Bholi Devi. Bihar is very patriarchal and conservative, but in recent years this group of women have begun to gain an identity as farmers in their own right. This has increased their access to knowledge and modern technologies; given them confidence and boosted their self-esteem. This may sound trivial to many but it is changing their world.
Coming out of their houses and interacting with each other and other people started about 10 years ago when they became members of the Self Help Groups, promoted by a government program. These are village-based groups of 10–20 local women who make small regular savings contributions over a few months until there is enough capital in the group to begin lending to the members or to others in the village. It is estimated that India has about 2.2 million such groups.
In doing this, they were breaking the long, rich traditions and culture. It was not a smooth transition for these women as the men in their family and community did not approve of women leaving the house to attend meetings. They said being in a collective gave them confidence. In fact, this didn’t just help generate income in improve their farming; it also empowered them to start addressing issues of gender-based violence.
It has been a long journey for these women but they persisted and were patient. Today, they can lease land, hold bank accounts, access credit and other services. It has helped them increase their crop yields. They are able to make decisions around production, marketing and how to use of income they earn.
These women are now being recognized by their families and communities as knowledgeable and credit-worthy farmers and entrepreneurs. They are held in high regard by the men who told me how proud they are of their wives, daughters-in-law and daughters.
The effects go far behind agriculture; they are now investing in their children’s education, household assets and health, and report a 90 percent decrease in gender-based violence.
They are not just transforming their own lives, but that of their households and communities. They are demonstrating how, with access to resources, knowledge and, services, we can transform agricultural production and contribute to eradicating hunger. They are proving that when women farmers have decision-making power they can be powerful agents of change
If we are going to meet the United Nations’ fifth Sustainable Development Goal—to ‘achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls’—then we need to honour these women rather than cartoon heroines. The women farmers who I encounter day after day in flesh and blood are my ‘wonder women’ and they keep me going.