International Women’s Day 2021: Ethiopian farm woman transforming her own life—global pandemic or not

Friday, March 05, 2021
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As months of coronavirus restrictions continue, it’s becoming increasingly clear: all are not equal.

We’ve gone from saying that we’re all in this together to the growing realization that COVID-19 has a gender bias—a bias that is compounded by poverty.

International Women’s Day, celebrated on March 8, is a day to reflect on the particular challenges women and girls face in coping with crises, whether COVID-19, climate change or conflict.

A growing body of evidence shows that pandemic impacts and restrictions have hit women and girls particularly hard. They are already more likely to earn less and work informally, their unpaid care work has increased with school children at home and ill loved ones to care for, and gender-based violence has increased. Women are also more likely to sacrifice their own food intake in times of crisis.

But we are also hearing stories of resilience, where women are flourishing despite the pandemic, challenging gender biases and creating change.

Take Asnakech Zema. She is a farmer in southern Ethiopia. She has grabbed onto learning and training opportunities in sustainable agricultural practices and is thriving on her farm, despite numerous challenges and frustrations.

Three years ago, she joined a conservation agriculture project. An experienced woman farmer in her community showed off her own productive farm that used conservation agriculture, and Zema was sold.

But her husband was much less impressed and made no secret of the fact that he thought she should concentrate on taking care of their kids, not waste her time experimenting on their land.

Then Zema began attending trainings on conservation principles. Through Canadian Foodgrains Banks’ five-year Scaling-Up Conservation Agriculture in East Africa program, Zema learned how to incorporate things like minimal soil disturbance, crop rotations and associations, and permanent soil cover to improve the health of her soil. She joined a savings and loan group where women saved money together, purchased goats, and sold them for profit. She purchased hermetically sealed bags that allow farmers to store their grain without using insecticides and dramatically cut down on post-harvest losses. Now she and others can store their grain longer and sell when market prices are high.

Zema’s production increased and her income soared. Her husband became a believer too.

As a result of this program, which has support from the Canadian government, more than 61,000 farmers in Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania were trained in conservation agriculture, and roughly half of those are women.

Increased production and income has had dramatic effects on food security. By the end of the program, 94 percent of participating households were accessing a diverse and adequate diet.

Through savings groups, 24,901 farmers (19,461 female) saved close to $900,000 CDN in 2020. These funds enabled farmers to send their kids to school, invest in their farms, and delay the sale of their crops until prices rose in the lean season.

Nowadays, 89 percent of women in the Ethiopia program make household decisions on what to grow, and where and when to plant. This compares to just two percent of women who made these decisions at the start of the program. Most also report that they make the decisions on how to use farming incomes, compared to 23 percent of women at baseline. Almost all women say that conservation agriculture is a time saver for them, both for weeding and preparing the land for seeding.

Zema says she and her husband make all their decisions together now. They work together on their farm in harmony, and their family is flourishing. Where once their children only attended school a few months of the year, they are now able to attend year-round. Where once they received funds from a government safety net program to help them buy food, they’re now able to produce more than enough food for their family to eat, with surplus to sell.

When women flourish, entire communities also flourish. When women and men work together, they can better prepare for and respond to crises, such as COVID-19. Women joining with other women in savings groups gives them a collective voice and greater strength. Making decisions together builds unity and respect.

Despite the challenge of the global pandemic, Asnakech Zema has thrived.

This International Women’s Day, let’s celebrate positive change for women on the farm and everywhere. And then let’s work together to remove the barriers that remain.  It’s the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do.

 –Carol Thiessen, Senior Policy Advisor, Canadian Foodgrains Bank

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