Mbarara — The United Nations' 56th session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) opened Monday in New York, with the empowerment of rural women high on a list of priorities for this year.
According to a press release issued last week by UN Women, "Rural women constitute one-fourth of the world's population. (They) account for a great proportion of the agricultural labour force, produce the majority of food grown, especially in subsistence farming, and perform most of the unpaid care work in rural areas."
Yet, "the livelihoods and well-being of rural women and girls are directly linked to the environment they live in," Lakshmi Puri, assistant-secretary-general and deputy executive director of UN Women, told IPS.
"In many countries, rural women and girls have been directly impacted by the effects of climate change. (Throughout) the Commission on the Status of Women, UN-Women will be listening to rural women from all continents about the ways they have been impacted by climate change and, together with partners, amplifying their voices so that they are heard by world leaders," Puri added.
While the U.N.'s high-level conference is just getting started, women on the ground in the global South are already in the eye of the storm and are busy deploying a combination of indigenous techniques and adaptive agricultural technologies to ward off the impacts of climate change.
Benefits of collective action
Winfred Baryabamu, a peasant woman from Uganda's Southwestern Mbarara district, endured months of saving her hard-earned income to acquire the treasure that sits at the back of her iron-roofed house: a large tank, used to harvest rainwater during the wet season.
The 35-year-old peasant farmer has just returned home from her teaching job. She fills up a jerrycan from the small tank, which is enough for her to prepare a meal for her family and water her goats. "Before this tank was constructed I had to travel five kilometres per day during the dry season to collect water, which was mostly dirty," she said.
Now, Baryabamu is part of a group of one hundred women in Mbarara enjoying greater access to year- round water security.
The rainwater-harvesting tank was constructed using a collective pool of savings that she and other women established with support from the Agency for Cooperation, Research and Development (ACORD) to address the perennial drought that dries wells and springs in the region. Extreme weather changes have made Uganda's drought-prone regions more insecure than ever before.
Female group members contributed labour to construct the tank, while ACORD paid for materials like cement, wire mesh, gutters and pipes.
ACORD's Mbarara district project officer, Dunstan Ddamulira, told IPS that rainwater harvesting has provided women with greater water security.
"Our children used to come home from school, leave to fetch water and not return until nighttime," Baryabamu told IPS. "Now, they come home from school to find water waiting for them."
Adapting traditional agriculture
In South Sudan, women farmers are working with a host of NGOs to engage in climate-resilient crop production as well as sustainable pursuits like goat rearing and bee keeping.
William Taban, an agricultural consultant in South Sudan's Central Equatoria state, said, "Women are the ones who dig the land in preparation for planting, tend the crops by weeding, harvest and even market the produce in case of surplus production."
With the help of NGOs like the U.N.'s Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), Norwegian People's Aid, Catholic Relief Services and Concern Worldwide, women have organised themselves into groups, which "target mostly widows and female-headed households because we believe they are most vulnerable to poverty and hunger," explained Isaac Woja, an agricultural extension worker in South Sudan's Eastern Equatoria state.
The women grow food crops such as cereals, legumes and vegetables in order to improve their children's overall nutrition and bring in a small, market-based income. Given that South Sudan is semi-arid, most parts of the country receive insufficient and unreliable rainfall. To mitigate the effects of drought on traditional rural agriculture, women are being encouraged to grow crops that are drought-tolerant.
"I grow cassava because it is not affected by drought. It can do well even in situations where there is insufficient rainfall. I'm assured of food even when the rains don't come," Alice Naponi, a single mother of four, who owns a farm near the capital city of Juba, told IPS.
In most villages women now grow cereals like sorghum, bulrush or pearl millet, which, farmers agree, usually survive insufficient rainfall and mature early.
However, women are seriously constrained by gender disparities in land ownership.
"If a woman wants to start a large crop farm, she still has to go through her husband to contact the community leaders who are responsible for allocating land to community members. In most cases these community leaders, who are males, frustrate us," Naponi told IPS.
In fact UN Women recognised that, "while women have equal property ownership rights in 115 countries and have equal inheritance rights in 93 countries, gender disparities in land holdings persist worldwide."
NGOs in South Sudan are at the forefront of supporting women's agricultural activities, such as supplying equipment and seeds of improved crop varieties imported from neighbouring Uganda. However, Woja warned that not all agricultural development programmes are foolproof.
"(Some) imported improved seeds have been tested in Uganda but not in South Sudan. Actually what we are doing is a trial and error method that should not be encouraged. If we grow crops that do not do well here and farmers fail in a given season then it would cause a situation of food insecurity," he added, highlighting a major problem with top-down policy and programming.
In Mexico, rural women have organised themselves to struggle against financial and environmental crises. In many cases, local NGOs have assisted in this process by building formal structures and developing capacities.
"We look for women who are able to produce goods in their own yards, and help them bottle or sell vegetables, (essentially) by starting a microenterprise," Magali Costa, at the Rural Value Consortium, told IPS.
Increasingly, women are playing key roles in economic activities, such as planting crops, saving seeds and selling their produce, not to mention performing virtually 100 percent of household labour, which is almost always unpaid.
Almost 13 million women live in rural zones around Mexico, according to the National Women's Institute. Since 2008, poverty has proliferated throughout the country, reaching 52 million people but particularly impacting women in the countryside.
Of 19 million Mexican households, 39 percent are rural. Of these, 11 percent, or roughly 852,000 households, are headed by a woman, most of who are impoverished.
This not only means that women generally bear the brunt of food shortages or price fluctuations in the commodities basket, but also that slight changes can have far-reaching ripple across the entire rural population.
These statistics make a strong case for empowering rural woman, whose leadership generally creates much wider, more positive ripple effects than in communities dominated by men.
As Woja pointed out to IPS, "Women are more supportive of the family; any help provided to them will (always) trickle down to all the family members," and eventually to the rest of the community.
As CSW progresses throughout the week, women around the world can only hope that global leaders will finally stop overlooking the crucial role rural women play in securing a more stable future.
* This is the second of a two-part series on rural women, agriculture and climate change
*Charlton Doki contributed to this report from Juba, South Sudan; Wambi Michael from Mbarara, Uganda; and Emilio Godoy from Mexico City