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Story Publication logo August 6, 2014

Ethiopia: "Hero" Farmer Finds Her Place

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Image by Philip Brasher. Ethiopia, 2014.
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The Obama administration is spending $3.5 billion and partnering with multinational corporations to...

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Media file: rukiya.jpg
'Hero' farmer Rukiya Abenkeyir has not only improved her life through an irrigation project that emphasizes female empowerment, but she's also taken a leadership position among her peers. Image by Philip Brasher. Ethiopia, 2014.

Women dominate farming in Africa, but getting them more involved in decision-making within their communities is no easy task.

The United Nations World Food Program and the U.S. Agency for International Development are struggling to ensure that women farmers benefit directly from the markets the agencies are working to develop. NGOs such as Oxfam America, which like WFP and USAID have made female empowerment a priority, also find it hard to do.

A recent ceremony I attended in Ziway, Ethiopia, illustrates that it is possible to increase female involvement, even if the results still fall well short of the goal. Fifteen women who are participating in irrigation projects run by an Ethiopian environmental group, with support from Oxfam America, were honored during a three-hour ceremony as "hero" farmers.

There was nothing modest about what they had done.

One of them was Rukiya Abenkeyir, a woman I had met the day before on her small vegetable plot in the Rift Valley, a fertile but sometimes drought-prone region. Before the irrigation project, she and other farmers in her community had to hire themselves out for laborers for 50 cents to $1 a day on their own land. The project helped them install a pump for the water they need to produce their own tomatoes, onions and cabbage.

The irrigation water allows them to produce two crops a year, increasing their income. Abenkeyir says through an interpreter that she's now made enough money selling her crops to build a modest house to replace a thatched-roof hut. She is also able to support her husband and five children, three of whom are her own and two of whom are orphans. And now, instead of sleeping on the ground, she has a bed—compete with "very nice sheets and a very nice blanket."

Just as impressively, she's been elected to a leadership position—cashier—for the 75-member water-users association that the farmers formed.

Abenkeyir's story is repeated over and over at the awards ceremony. Each of the women's stories are praised in detail, and several including Abenkeyir are invited to speak.

Still, the challenge of increasing the number of women farmers in leadership continues. Oxfam's goal is 35 percent female involvement. To reach that goal, training is provided to community leaders on the contributions of women and the need to have them included in the decision-making process. Also, the projects promote the use of small pumps to irrigate backyard gardens that women can tend while caring for their young children.

Projects like the one here in Ziway include a provision in the water-users association bylaws requiring that the needs of women be taken into account when scheduling their access to water. "If they prefer to have their irrigation in the late afternoon, the water is allocated" for them at that time, said Tibebu Koji, water program coordinator for Oxfam America. "In all our activities we have identified important issues that can increase the involvement of women," he said.

Still, Oxfam has a long way to go to reach its 35 percent target. Of the 75 members in the Ziway project, only 14 are women, or less than 19 percent of the total.

One of the chief obstacles to empowering women farmers is their lack of land rights, experts say. Men have the dominant share. The government owns all land in Ethiopia—a legacy of the nation's communist era—so acreage can't be bought or sold, only rented for a temporary period from the person who holds the rights. Only recently did women gain the legal authority to inherit land rights.

USAID, through its Feed the Future initiative, is helping Ethiopia address the land rights problem through a certification process that ensures that women, as well as men, have the paper to back up their claims. USAID has been supporting the process through GPS mapping.

Officials with the WFP made clear to me that they are unhappy with the level of female involvement in their Purchase for Progress program, which buys corn and other commodities from smallholders for use in food aid. The idea of P4P is to help smallholder farmers learn how to supply high-quality commodities to a commercial market. P4P Ethiopia is WFP's largest such project, but so far only 11 percent of the participants are female.

"It's a cultural issue. It's a land issue. Land is not in the hands of the women," said Mauricio Burtet, who manages the program from an office in Addis Ababa.

"At the end of the day, the man is the head of the household, which is reflected in these statistics."

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