"Women are the key to eradicating poverty. The roles they play in their families and communities make them the real facilitators of development. Whenever there is progress for women, the whole world benefits."
Ban-Ki-Moon, UN Secretary General
Much of Africa is governed by patriarchal society, and even when it is matriarchal as in Benin, traditional lore is often overlooked in favour of men. Africans women traditionally do not have much, if any, decision making power in the household. They have multiple roles making demands on their limited time; gathering water and firewood, cooking, cleaning, caring for family members, growing the food crops. Typically, but not always, men are responsible for growing the cash crops and income generated may be spent on things do not directly benefit the family. Women may not be allowed or encouraged to participate in the management of finances or income generation, yet when women generate their own income, it is usually spent on family welfare.
In many cases women are more disadvantaged due to reduced access to productive assets, rights to land and support services, resulting in female-headed households tending to be poorer in general than their male-headed household neighbours.
Women are also faced with the increased household burdens of caring for sick family members, while often being sick themselves, struggling to produce enough food.
Traditionally women have little or no voice. Where husbands are more liberal, or are absent, the women may be shy and unconfident about making decisions and making their voice heard. In some areas it is neither common nor encouraged for women to take on leadership roles or speak out on household or community issues.
There are gender imbalances in education as girls often drop out of school earlier than boys, as they are required to help with the multiple and time consuming household duties. This compounds the problem of lower female literacy, especially in rural areas.
Due to high levels of illiteracy amongst girls and women, they are less able to protect themselves from sexual exploitation. Combined with female physiology, and women’s lack of power to negotiate sexual relationships, especially in marriage, women are more vulnerable to the impact of HIV and AIDS than men.
For these reasons, it is important to empower women so that they are able and allowed to meet their potential as full and equal citizens, being as economically and socially productive as they can.
The Solution – WASFO ’s interventions
In this context WASFO is focused on prioritising the important role that female members can and should play in their communities as the involvement of women makes good business sense for smallholder farming productivity. Female membership is currently 36%, and female leaders 30%, but the ultimate goal is to have female representation mirror national gender statistics of women, at 51%..
WASFO ’s gender participation strategy focuses on the following activities;
- Equitable Gender Participation: WASFO prioritises equal participation of women throughout the WASFO system. Women are encouraged to become members and to actively participate in their local Committee activities, as well as putting themselves forward for leadership positions. Female role models are used to encourage participation of women, and to ensure support from within the WASFO system, Association leaders are trained on equal gender participation and how it translates for the roles of men and women. This is further supported by the HIV and AIDS sub-Committees whose role is to endorse and promote more equitable gender participation to the broader membership.
- Functional Literacy and Basic Business Skills: Illiteracy is a national problem that is more prevalent in rural areas and is thus impacting on social and economic productivity of smallholder farming communities. Illiteracy is higher for women (56%) than men (31%), which compounded by lack of confidence, prevents women from fully participating in the development of their family, farming business and community. WASFO runs a comprehensive training programme, which focuses on literacy, numeracy and basic business skills for all members who are partially or completely illiterate. While the training is offered to both genders, by default attendance tends to be 65% women as men are often embarrassed to admit their illiteracy. The increased confidence that comes from literacy training helps to increase female participation in WASFO .
- Livelihoods for Women: Women are often not able to access productive assets and yet evidence shows that income earned by women is spent on household welfare. WASFO works with a proportion of female members, particularly female headed households, to help set them up in sustainable income generating activities so that they can farm as a business and support their families. Some of these women may have benefited from the functional literacy training.
The implementation of these project activities is facilitated by the support activities of;
- Farming as a Business Concept: The “Farming as a Business” concept underpins all WASFO programmes, and in this case supports the Gender programme by increasing knowledge on gender roles and equal gender participation which make good business sense for farming productivity.
- WASFO Radio Programmes: WASFO produces a twice-weekly 30 minute radio programme, aired nationwide helps provide members, and the broader community, with information on the role that equal gender participation can play in governance and increased farming productivity.