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August 22, 2012 / Man in the Mirror

Africa News: Binding women in circles to banish hunger, poverty

Posted on Friday 3 August 2012 – 12:39
Frazer Potani, AfricaNews reporter in Lilongwe, Malawi
Soon after Nellipe Mtete’s husband died in Rumphi over 70km from Mzuzu city in northern Malawi her in-laws agreed to snatch away the 36 acres of land she had for many years with her late spouse produced crops for food and sale from. Mtete however, still possesses the land where she grows maize, potatoes, soya beans, tobacco with her children.
“I diversify in my farming because I have adequate land inherited from my late husband after ActionAid Malawi empowered me through RELECT Circles otherwise, it’s not easy for a woman to access land since grabbing deceased estates is very common here,” the 48-year-old widow told in April this year during an interaction of four visiting Dutch women farmers and Malawian women farmers in Rumphi which was organized by ActionAid Netherlands, ActionAid Malawi and the European Union (EU). 

Despite facing so many challenges in her farming such as climate change, lack of new farming technologies, lack of markets, lack of resources to add value to farm produce, lack of transport to deliver farm produce to the market, poor farm produce prices on the markets, failure to access farm inputs such as fertilizer and hybrid seed due to their exorbitant prices Nellipe is able to produce crops for food and sale and meet her basic needs and of her 15 dependents including children.

In Malawi only four per 100 women own the land they work on and although by tradition the producers of crops, they are the most vulnerable to hunger: food portions are served to men and children first women eat last.

“Women are often treated as less than equal to men and their high illiteracy levels tend to perpetuate gender inequality,” said Reen Kachere one of Malawi’s prominent campaigners for women’s rights now in President Joyce Banda’s Cabinet. 

On land access in Malawi like in other countries in southern Africa, national laws dealing with women’s right to own land coexist with (often contradictory) a parallel set of customary laws. 

When divorced a woman for example returns to her natural village (birthplace) and she may only use land through her male members of the family, or be allocated a piece of land by the chief or her clan members. But in many cases most widows like Mtete would be chased away from their natural villages.

The trend is common across southern Africa as a study by the Southern African Research Documentation Centre (SARDC) in Gaborone Botswana reveals that although over 70 per 100 farmers are women due to some cultural values they are denied land access.

The centre says for example close to Malawi, in Zambia, women do not own land because 90 percent of it for agriculture falls in the hands of chiefs with patriarchal principles in its allocation. 

So as the system gives women no direct access and control over land for agriculture, denies them from producing food to curtail hunger and poverty pockets in the process. 

SARDC even discloses that where technologies were identified to improve southern Africa’s economic back bone (agriculture), agricultural technical experts developed more technologies for crops grown by men not women. 

To empower women in land access in Malawi ActionAid Malawi launched the Women Land Rights (WOLAR) Project using REFLECT Circles under the Hunger Free Campaign in 2008.

“When women understood that they can have their own land they took a radical approach. Every woman wanted to have her own land,” explained WOLAR Coordinator Chikumbutso Ngosi. 

Regenerated Freirean Literacy through Empowering Community Technique (REFLECT) Circles are innovative and diverse approaches to adult learning and social change, used by over 500 organizations in 60 countries worldwide based on fusing theories of Brazilian educator Paulo Freire with participatory learning methodologies. 

Under the WOLAR Project rural women, men and traditional leaders were sensitized on women’s rights and national land policies in Malawi.

Presently, there are over 90 REFLECT Circles across Malawi, and as of 2010 over 2, 000 landless women were allocated land through the WOLAR Project.

Chiefs have even changed their attitudes on women and land access as Boldwin Chavula [Group Village Headman (GVH) Chakoma] in northern Malawi explained. 

“I never knew that women also had the right to own land because according to our culture a woman is supposed to use her husband’s land,” he said however, adding that after returning from the training he held community meetings about women’s rights to land. 

“Since then I have allocated land to 11 women. The biggest piece of land allocated is five acres which has been given to a woman who is HIV positive,” said Chavula.

In Machinga alone in southern Malawi 109 women also benefited from the project.

“For all these years, land ownership and the control of its use including the proceeds from the land were men’s issues. As a woman you could grow maize, rice, pigeon peas and other farm produce, but all these were controlled by the men,” explained Sifati Kwalakwata, a member of Tithandizane REFLECT Circle in Ngokwe Village. 

She however, added that through the WOLAR Project and the REFLECT Circles, their eyes opened and realized that the state of being landless was a serious human rights issue and they had to find solutions. 

“We now have access to land and have control over the produce and income. A man manages his own piece of land and a woman does likewise. We now have the choice of whether or not to sell our produce and how much to sell,” said Kwalakwata adding that as a result, there are fewer conflicts between women and men over who controls the farm produce and the proceeds from sales. 

Coalition of Women Farmers (COWFA)’s leader for northern Malawi Mazoe Gondwe said land access for women is vital if Malawi and southern Africa are to eradicate hunger and poverty and achieve all Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

“If land becomes a woman’s property she will produce more harvests hence sell some of the farm produce to solicit money for other needs. This will enable her fight both against hunger and poverty,” she said.

The former United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) Resident Representative in Malawi, Esperance Fundira emphasized that women empowerment was vital as it has links with HIV and AIDS prevention.

“Several studies reveal that women without resources for sustaining their lives are at a higher risk of contracting HIV and AIDS than their colleagues who are empowered. Widows for example, who have been stripped off land particularly in rural areas have very few economic options to secure their livelihoods and that of their children,” said Fundira adding: “Often this leaves such women with no alternatives but engaging in risky survival strategies including prostitution for money, housing and food and puts them at higher risk of contracting the virus.” 

In a research report “What works for women: proven approaches for empowering women smallholders and achieving food security” ActionAid International’s Head of Right to Food Ruchi Tripathi and her team reveals that although women are majority of food producers in the developing world many of them suffer from pains of hunger and poverty.

Tripathi even disclosed that women in the developing world are not recognized as farmers by their own families, communities, governments and donors. 

“Patriarchy, stereotypes about men and women’s rights and roles, traditional values and cultures as well as the current global economic model all come together to generate and reinforce why women are not recognized as equal human beings in society, never mind as farmers,” she said adding that this is compounded by actual policies, legislation and practices on the ground including extension services, research or other government support. 

“Women are desperately short of secure and adequate land, basic tools and inputs, credit, extension services and technical advice, relevant research, and appropriate infrastructure and technology,” said Tripathi adding, “In short, women farmers have not received the support they need in order to thrive.” 

Yet according to the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DfID) research paper “The turning point on poverty: background paper on gender” says total agricultural outputs in Africa could increase by up to 20 percent if women’s access to agricultural inputs was just equal to men’s. 

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) says that across the poor developing countries and regions such as Malawi and southern Africa on the planet respectively, women account between 60 and 80 per 100 of total farmers but the majority of over 925 million people going hungry daily worldwide are also women.

The organization however, discloses that if men and women could just equally access resources for agricultural production including land between 100 and 150 million people could be bailed out of hunger and poverty on the globe.


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