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Women Feed the World: Ritu's Diary from Burkina Faso

Posted on June 18, 2009 by Women Thrive

This week, Ritu Sharma, Women Thrive's President and Co-founder, is in Burkina Faso trying to answer the question: is agriculture working for women and mothers in Africa? Read Ritu's diary from the field.

For most women in Burkina Faso, where approximately half of the population lives below the poverty line, life is a daily struggle. Typically living in rural areas, most women have little access to ongoing education or potable water. Yet because they are the majority of farmers and are responsible for child care, Burkinabe women spend much of their day performing field work, growing food and crops for their families. However, despite this often grueling work, most Burkinabe women are not allowed to own the very land they farm, because customary law excludes women from land ownership, preventing them from investing in the tools, irrigation, and seeds that would make their families better fed and their children better off.

This week, Ritu Sharma, Women Thrive's President and Co-founder, is in Ghana and Burkina Faso, trying to learn about what life is like for women farmers, what their governments are doing to empower them, and what U.S. assistance programs can do to help. Accompanied by a team of Women Thrive staff, Ritu is meeting with local women's organizations, such as our advocacy partner, Coordinator Coalition Burkinabe pour Le Droit du la Femmes (CBDF), a coalition of 15 women's associations that educates Burkinabe women and helps them advocate for better economic rights. She is also meeting with individual women farmers, Burkina Faso government officials, and U.S. development agencies working in the country. Read more about Ritu.

Below are Ritu's updates from her trip. Stay tuned for more posts over the next few days!

Day 1 - Ritu Arrives In Ghana

Day 2 - Ritu Arrives in Burkina Faso
Day 3 - The Farms
Day 4 - Owning Land
Day 5 - Fertilizer That Feeds

Day 1 - Ritu Arrives in Ghana

Yesterday, I arrived in Accra, the capital of Ghana. Next week, my team will return to Ghana to meet with women in agriculture and trade. Tomorrow we leave for Burkina Faso, just to the north of Ghana, but I know I'll be back in Ghana before too long.

We have met with various U.S. government officials from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the Millennium Challenge Corporation, and the West Africa Trade Hub. They all say they work with women "by default," which sounds too much to me like a salesman saying "yeah, we've got that." Still, we've barely scratched the surface and we cannot judge something we know so little about. We also met with various women who make a living selling food in markets in Accra. My team will be back in Ghana next week to work with more local women's organizations.

Tomorrow we leave for Burkina Faso. My next update will be from there.

Me talking with a market vendor in Accra

Baby Kofi, who I met in Accra, and his mother

Talking about agriculture with plantain vendors

Day 2 - Ritu Arrives in Burkina Faso

Going from Accra, Ghana to Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso is like going from Miami to Waco, Texas in a day. Same continent, so so different. Ouagadougou, or "Ouaga," as residents call it, is smaller, drier, and much, much poorer.

Our partners from CBDF greeted us at the airport. We are very much looking forward to spending the week with them, traveling around the country and meeting with women in the rural villages they work with. I'm sure I'll have many stories to tell you about them over the next few days.

The hotel is very modest, but does has A/C and wireless, and I think sleeping under a mosquito net is incredibly romantic, but that's probably because, unlike so many, I don't have to do it everyday.

The impacts of extreme poverty can be seen even in the comfort of our hotel, at the table next to us at dinner. Two, possibly French, men, engaged in business or perhaps development work, were sitting with a very pretty Burkinabe girl, probably not over 15. They treated her to dinner, showed her a movie on their laptop, and then took her back to their room. As a mother of two, the scene made me sick to my stomach. Our colleagues from CBDF says it's a big problem, so much so that many hotels have trainers come and talk to the girls about how to, at the very least, keep themselves safe from STDs and AIDS. It will be good to get out of the hotel and start our work tomorrow.

More tomorrow with pictures. Good night.

Day 3 - The Farms

Catalina (Women Thrive's Director of Global Partnerships), Toni (Women Thrive's African Partnerships Manager) and I all agreed that today was about as good as it gets in life. We visited two women's farming associations.  The first we initially met up with under a tree in a semi-urban area, the second in a small compound owned by the government, but used by the women's cooperative.


A typical plot of land
The women we talked to described a typical day for themselves: They wake up at 4 AM to clean their houses, fetch water (often walking miles to get it), and prepare their children for school. Then they head to small plots of land they farm (but not necessarily own) to tend to their crops. After several hours working in the sun (the average daily temperature is about 100 degrees), they return home to meet their children, who have returned from school, and prepare the midday meal.

Next they return to the plots or to another task to earn income. Several hours of work later, they return home again to prepare another meal for their children, if there is food available. And if they didn't get a turn at the community well in the morning, they return back to their plots to carry water, two watering cans at a time, to their crops. Finally, after a day of literally non-stop work, they go to bed at 10 PM. I truly cannot imagine raising my two children while working such a long, grueling schedule in such extreme heat.

One group of farmers had received a little bit of help from the Burkina government, and they were MUCH better off than the other cooperative (less than a mile away) that had received none.  It never ceases to upset me that we can't get a little aid to EVERY group like this.  If I can fly to   Burkina Faso and get in a truck and visit this group, how can it possibly be so hard for the U.S. government to deliver such a small amount of assistance to local groups that are such great investments for reducing poverty throughout their entire community? CBDF has a network of over 15 women's cooperatives and I believe they'd make a great conduit for getting assistance to the right women. It seems pretty straightforward to me, and yet, it rarely happens.

What would they do with the extra income if they had it? I asked. They told me that they would first buy some land as a group so they are not always worried about losing it to men in the community, or discouraged from improving it (because it could be taken away from them at any moment). Next, they said, they would dig communal wells, so they could access better water and avoid the hours of travel that take away from time farming or caring for their children.

We ended the day with a surprise: we were invited by our partners to attend the second day of a Burkinabe wedding. The clothes, the drums, and the dancing were all very different from weddings back home, but the feeling of the excitement and giddiness in the crowd was exactly the same.

Day 4 - Owning Land

Burkina Faso residents call themselves Burkinabe (bur-KEY-nah-bay). The last two days here I have felt like a Burkina-bee.

One of our goals for this trip was to learn more about the challenges women farmers face in trying to provide for their families. Another goal was to assess to what extent their government was addressing these challenges. We have met with 16 different officials in 10 different agencies. At each meeting we collect a little information and then sprinkle it on the next meeting, like a bumblebee collecting pollen in a garden, filling different agencies and local groups in on what the others are doing. It seems to me that someone needs to be here full time just connecting all these different players to make everyone more effective.

Another thing that has become painfully clear is how insidious discrimation against the poor, especially poor women, is. Women Thrive’s ultimate goal in Burkina Faso is to see the poorest women farmers, who cultivate plots about the size of an average American garage, reap some of the benefits of the Millennium Challenge Corporation’s (MCC) new Burkina Faso agriculture programs (the MCC is a U.S. economic development organization that works with poor countries to help them grow their economies. In 2004, Women Thrive played an instrumental role in helping the MCC create a cutting-edge gender policy. Read More.). But this is going to require serious diligence in making sure they don't get cut out at every step of the way. Take the issue of land ownership, for example:

Me watering vegetables on one of CBDF's farms
Burkina is working on a new land law to give people ownership of government or community held lands, as ownership is often a pre-requisite to getting a loan to buy more fertilizer or seeds. The land will be distributed based on current use--if a business is currently farming 1000 hectares of land, they'll get a big piece, if a women is currently farming a small plot of land, she'll get a very small piece.  In other words, if you're a small subsistence farmer you're going to stay a small subsistence farmer.  The emphasis is on growing agribusiness, not empowering the rural women who are the backbone of the economy.

However, even if the program were designed to benefit rural households, it wouldn’t reach most women, who are the majority of small farmers. Even if a farmer has access to a small piece of land, it can only be titled to the "head of household", which, as you can probably guess, is rarely the woman.The Ministry of Agriculture told us they would register land to women if she is the head of her household, but in this culture, no woman is going to claim that title and risk retribution from her husband and community.  Even if her husband is dead, the head of her household becomes his brother.  Joint titles are an option, but many men here have multiple wives, making joint titling next to impossible

Compounding the problem is the fact that in order to own land you have to legally exist, which requires having a birth certificate or another official goverment ID, documents most rural women don't have.

The result of all this? Women cannot control, improve, or generate additional income from the very land they work on day in and day out. This virtually guarantees that rural women and children will stay poor.

This is discrimination, plain and simple.  If you're poor, tough luck.  If you're a poor woman, well then, we really can't help you.  If I can figure out these "loopholes" in the land reform process in about 5 minutes, my guess is that pretty much every government official can too.  Catalina gives them the benefit of the doubt, saying that they aren’t aware of household dynamics.  I find that highly unlikely.

So, it looks like we'll be working in Burkina for a while, supporting our local partners to straighten out this myriad of loopholes.  Poor women really do need "lobbyists" looking out for their interests. Everyone else has one and it shows.

Day 5 - Fertilizer That Feeds

Yesterday we drove about hour outside of Ouaga to the villages of Droaogo. When we first arrived at Droaogo we met the mayor, from whom we were required to ask permission to visit one of CBDF's women's agricultural associations. He gave his consent and said he was very excited to have guests from the United States come so far to visit his villages.

The meeting with the association was excellent. We met with about forty women under a huge tree where they described their rice farming, the size of their plots, and their typical days in great detail. Of the 87 community plots that were prepared for rice, 32 have been granted to women, one of which is held by the women's association itself. Not bad.  

They women talked a great deal about the fertilizers that they are able to buy when they do receive credit. They told us that, after using it on their crops, they pray like crazy that their yields are enough to pay back the loan AND earn a little extra income. They explained that one of the biggest barriers they face in trying to grow more and better crops (and thus earn more income) is that they simply do not have the resources to improve their land and farming techniques. For example, they have no machine to manually de-husk the rice, so they are forced to boil it, dry it, pound it and finally sift it, an extremely labor-intensive process for such meager profits. Most of the women also have kitchen gardens on which they grow greens for their families' meals.

The association does try to save the income they earn from their plot to collectively invest in better farming tools. When we asked what they are saving the association's money for right now, the response was quick and clear: a rice mill and a new fertilizer that is rumored to simultaneously enriches the soil, improves the yield, and kills insects. This, they said, would improve their ability to feed their families by leaps and bounds.

In discussing their worries about providing for their children, one of the villagers said something I will never forget: "We are poor, but we are not jealous. We have happiness and god in our hearts. And we know that we can make our lives better."

Tomorrow is filled with planning meetings and then I begin the journey home to Washington (D.C.).

My next journal will come from Honduras, where I will attempt to live on a dollar a day, the amount of money that 1 billion people around the world struggle to survive on everyday. That should be pretty interesting, eye-opening or traumatizing, I'm not sure which.

A bientot (see you soon).

- Ritu

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