The Benefits of Strong Networks for Women Farmers Globally

December 23, 2013 09:24 AM
The Benefits of Strong Networks for Women Farmers Globally

By Lauren Supina, Vice President at Women Thrive Worldwide

In many developing countries, women farmers produce 60–80 percent of food.

In fact, most of the world’s smallholder farmers are women. Having travelled across the globe, it’s not surprising to see women in the fields, behind plows, and selling their harvest in the market.

I live in Washington, D.C. now, but I can relate to some of these women’s experiences. I come from a long line of farmers on both sides of my family. Our farms were in Virginia, New Jersey, and Connecticut, and I witnessed first hand the long days and the rush to use every bit of daylight to plow, plant, or harvest.

Farmers the world over—from Virginia to Ghana—deal with factors that can make or break their success, no matter how hard they’ve worked, including weather, soil, seeds, fertilizer, machinery and market access and competition.

Women farmers in developing countries especially struggle with these issues. Weather is a constant for men and women on the farm, but that’s about where most equality stops.

I just returned from meeting with women farmers throughout Ghana. As with many women in developing countries, they lack access to markets, are limited to land plots of 1-3 acres, and desperately need the use of tractors – which are owned and used almost solely by men.

Given their land plots are so small, they are unable to hire workers. Even if women could arrange to pay, laborers prefer to work on the men’s farms because men have 5-10 acres for farming.

All of these reasons hinder women farmers’ ability to feed their families and their communities. According to the World Bank, if women farmers had equal access as men to agricultural resources, as many as 150 million fewer people would go hungry. That’s enormous potential.

Farming can be an isolating livelihood. But women’s collectives and networks are proving to be one of the strongest tools for helping women smallholder farmers voice their concerns and change the way they farm and access markets. These collectives are strong and strategic, and in many cases shifting entire policies.

Take the Development Action Association (DAA) in Ghana, for example.

DAA represents over 1,500 farmers who affect thousands more. When DAA is able to shift policy, they impact thousands of farmers in Ghana. Earlier this month, I visited Lydia Sasu and some of the women of DAA, the collective Lydia started nearly 17 years ago and that has partnered with Women Thrive since 2010.

The collective is now in 46 rural communities throughout the southern part of the country. DAA works to create networks of women farmers – whether they operate vegetable farms or even fisheries. They understand the power of collective voice and collective action.

Through working together and with some advocacy training from Women Thrive, the members of DAA have been able to advocate to the Ghanaian Agricultural Ministry, provide training to each other, and even build schools for their local communities.

DAA is clearly one of the strongest women’s networks in Ghana, but there are sister organizations in other regions as well. These networks and collectives work together on many issues like helping women access better markets, pushing the government to enforce laws that affect their communities, and providing support and training to those struggling in isolation.

The interest in networks for women is so great in Ghana that, in some villages I visited, there were numerous different networks. In one village outside of Bolegatanga in the northernmost region, the village had women’s groups for health, vegetable growing, basket weaving and also a Queen Mother who represents the voice of women to the village chief.

These networks focus on critical issues, bring their concerns to decision-makers, and hopefully, through the power of collective voice, they are able to change their lives.

That's why Women Thrive strives day-in and day-out to help women smallholder farmers get the skills and resources they need to make their voices heard and feed their families.

The simple truth is this: we're stronger when we work together. And that's a lesson that's just as true for women plowing small fields in Ghana as it is for men harvesting corn in Virginia.

Lauren Supina is a Vice President at Women Thrive Worldwide, a 15-year-old NGO dedicated to bringing the voices of women in developing countries directly to decision-makers in Washington and at the global level. Lauren has travelled to more than 20 countries visiting local women, and has represented the United States at international conferences and on international delegations. Follow Lauren on Twitter @LaurenSupina.

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