Successful interventions - supporting women in Liberia
Made up of nine cooperatives and 560 members, Zorzor Women in Action (ZWA) was born in a Liberian refugee camp. "Life in the displaced center was not easy," Mama Garyah recalls. "We started grouping ourselves and when the war ended we returned home and formed ourselves into a formal organisation. We started doing little things like backyard gardens. Then FAO came."
During Liberia's 14 years of war, agricultural production dropped significantly as hundreds of thousands of people, like Garyah, were displaced, infrastructure was destroyed, and agricultural value chains and markets collapsed. Women grow more than half of the world's food, yet often lack access to resources such as agricultural inputs, land, financing, technologies, training and markets. In response, the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has been working to strengthen women's producer organisations by providing training, seeds, fertiliser, and machinery, building their capacities and supporting their participation in decision-making processes.
On the cooperatively-owned farm, where Mama works, the women grow rice and interplant it with maize, cucumber, okra and beans. "Our farm is our pride, our trophy for our hard work," Garyah says. "FAO is helping us to overcome the war through this farm and the advice they give us." Garyah and the other members of the group are convinced that unity, hard work, and a bank account are crucial for their future viability. "We will open a savings account and put our money there so that when FAO pulls out we remain a stronger group. This is our investment and our future."
In Tappita, Sarah Mendoabar, the city's mayor, insisted on getting women involved in an EU-funded FAO project to revive rice fields and help farmers increase their food production. "There's money in agriculture," Mendoabar says. "We decided that women needed to get involved so they could generate food and income and not depend on men." Since then FAO has provided over 270 women farmers with rice seed, fertilisers, integrated pest management inputs and training in modern rice farming practices, including both upland and lowland rice systems.
After being widowed during the war, Elizabeth Roberts struggled to feed her eight children. "I had to struggle daily, working on people's farms just to support my children," she explains. But in 2008 she joined the Tappita Rural Women's Structure (TRWS) and was taught how to transplant rice seedlings, prepare nurseries, manage and control pests, clean and dry rice, and market her produce. By applying her new skills Roberts has been able to increase her production of rice and pass on her knowledge to 35 other women in her village.
By gaining independence and growing their own food, women are now more respected by men. "To process our own paddy rice into clean rice and process cassava into gari without men means we are independent, and they know it," enthuses Pauline Wailah, a TRWS member. The district agriculture coordinator, George Martiah, agrees: "This FAO project is building the capacity of our women and from now on women's dependence on men will be reduced. Women are operating power tillers like men, and when you see them you would be amazed."
A call for concrete action
In addition to supporting women's cooperatives, FAO recently held a series of high level meetings to urge the international community, and national authorities, to accelerate and sustain efforts to support the critical role women play in the fight against poverty and hunger. "There is an urgent need to recognize women as stakeholders, and support an agricultural research agenda that focuses on rural women's needs. Women's voices must be heard," the Liberian Minister of Agriculture, H.E. Florence Chenoweth, said at the Global Preparatory Meeting in April. "Women must be supported to become successful entrepreneurs and need to own land, equipment and get access to training, credit, markets and information."
Over the past two years there has been a renewed commitment to increase support for the agricultural sector, but according to a joint statement prepared on behalf of FAO, WFP and IFAD at a major meeting of the UN Economic and Social Council, these pledges have yet to be translated into the breakthrough action needed to achieve and sustain results to improve the lives of rural women and their families.
To ensure that women farmers have equal access to agricultural resources and an equal voice in decision making at all levels, the three UN organisations state that the international community must move from rhetoric to action: "We have the evidence. We know what needs to change. The only remaining challenge is the political commitment to do so."
With contributions from: John T. Monibah
Date published: September 2010
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