Rural Women. Period.

October 15 is the International Day of Rural Women. This year marks the fourth celebration. According to the United Nations, the day “recognizes `the critical role and contribution of rural women, including indigenous women, in enhancing agricultural and rural development, improving food security and eradicating rural poverty.’”

Rural women do a bit more than ”enhance” and “improve”, and the do so in more areas than “the rural”.

Who, and where, exactly, are “rural women”?

On one hand, they are women in rural zones. As such, they are the heart of the current food crisis. They are the women working the sugar farms, or sweatshops, in KwaZulu-Natal and the citrus farms of the Western Cape, both in South Africa, too often overlooked or forgotten by the trade unions, the State, and, to a certain extent, large swathes of the women’s movement. They are also the South African women who comprise Sikhula Sonke and the Surplus Peoples Project, women who struggle, organize, keep on keeping on.

They are the rural and indigenous women in Argentina who speak out about and who organize to stop the environmental and economic devastation of climate change, a process they see and live with every day.

They are the rural and indigenous women across Asia who struggle with the intensification of patriarchal exclusion the emerges from the embrace of local power brokers, national governments and multinational corporations, especially but not exclusively those engaged in agriculture. They are women, like Rajkala Devi, who have broken glass, linen, silk, and concrete ceilings to attain public office in villages, as in hers in Rajasthan, India, and to move more than the village into more than recognition of women’s rights.

They are the fisherwomen like Rehema Bavuma, from Uganda, who struggle, along with their Asian and Latin American sisters, to do more and better than merely stop land grabs, to change the entire system. These women know, without the `benefit’ of longitudinal studies, that girls and women are the key to food security, to well being. They also know that girls and women are the key to food sovereignty, to something more and better than an end to hunger and an end to threat of starvation.

They are women who struggle with patriarchal governments, like Lind Bara-Weaver, a stone’s throw from Washington. Bara-Weaver struggles with the economy, as do all farmers. But she also struggles with the US federal government’s policies concerning loans to women farmers.

They are Dina Apomayta, in the highlands of Peru, the seed keepers, the guardians of diversity, the last station against what some call “Holocene extinction”, the end of diversity. And they are everywhere.

Rural women are not just in rural areas. They are in cities, too. They are women like Somali farmer Khadija Musame and Liberian farmer Sarah Salie, both now living and providing food for residents of San Diego … in the United States. They are women like Jenga Mwendo, founder of the Backyard Gardeners Network in New Orleans, and women like Regina Fhiceka, a garden and community organizer in Philippi, just outside of Cape Town.

Rural women are everywhere. They are in rural areas and they are in cities. They are the world. That’s the message we should carry on the International Day of Rural Women, today, and into tomorrow, World Food Day … and beyond. Rural women. Period.


(Image Credit: American Dairy Association of Indiana)

Women farmers wait for justice

In the Washington, DC, metro area, the local food banks are swamped. Loudoun County, a half hour away or so, is the wealthiest county in the United States, at least if measured by median income. For the first time ever, its food pantry is providing free food. It will feed some 2000 families this week. The same story goes for the other nearby wealthy counties, Montgomery in Maryland, Fairfax in Virginia. Food insecurity is on the rise here.

The past week’s news stories of people seeking food more often than not profile women. On the one hand, it’s the season. Thanksgiving is in a couple days. Winter is looming large, as are Christmas and other Festive Season holidays. This year, the stories are of women who had jobs, good jobs, well paying jobs, who break down into tears as they stand, for the first time, in food lines at soup kitchens, or at fast food emporia, seeking jobs that would have been unacceptable a few years ago. Readers and viewers shake our heads in sympathetic dismay, and we sigh.

The story of food security and food insecurity is more than a story of hunger, of lack. It’s a story of food from field to fork, as Raj Patel has argued. Where are women in the rising swamp that is our current food situation?

Women produce about half of the world’s food and own about two percent of all land. In the United States, women own 7% of all farms, their numbers doubled between 2000 and 2007. Women are the fastest growing demographic group among farmers in the United States.

Last Friday, the United States Senate voted to settle a claim by Black farmers against the United States Department of Agriculture. Those farmers, the ones still alive, will receive $1.5 billion. It sounds like a lot. It’s not. On one hand, this case started in 1997, when Timothy Pigford, a North Carolina Black farmer, sued the USDA for discrimination. In 1999, the Clinton administration came to a settlement. Then it was `discovered’ that thousands of Black farmers were left out of the initial deal. And so, eleven years and how many dead Black farmers later, we have a deal. Meanwhile, in 1910, Black farmers owned more than 15 million acres of farmland. In 2005, that number was 1 million.

A similar story holds for women farmers. In October 2001 Rosemary Love and nine other women farmers sued the USDA Farm Service Administration, FSA,  for discrimination, dating back to 1981, in loan making practice. That case is still pending. One of the stories of women denied loans begins in … Loudoun County:

Lind Bara-Weaver’s difficulties with FSA began in 1984 when she sought to obtain an FSA loan in order to purchase and operate a 16.5-acre farm where she planned to raise Welch ponies, holly trees and worms. Ms. Bara-Weaver was repeatedly refused loan applications by FSA staffat the Loudoun County, Virginia office. She was told that there were no loan application forms or loan funds available. Yet Ms. Bara-Weaver’s husband was able to obtain a loan application during this same time period by simply calling the FSA office and requesting that an application be mailed to him. She tried to obtain a farm loan from FSA again in 1988, but to no avail. After some difficulty, she was able to obtain an application, but was told by the FSA loan officer for Loudoun County that women could not run farms. The loan officer also called her patronizing names like “cutie” and “honey,” and made sexual advances toward her. While making a visit to her farm in order to appraise it during the loan review process, the loan officer again made sexual advances toward her, which she refused. Her loan application was subsequently denied. Ms. Bara-Weaver lodged a formal complaint with the FSA state office in Richmond, Virginia, and with the USDA Office of the Inspector General in Washington, D.C., but never received a response to either of her complaints. After her husband’s death, Ms. Bara-Weaver relocated to Florida and sought again to apply for a farm loan from FSA. She visited the Flagler County, Florida FSA office a number of times in 2000 before she was finally able to obtain an application form. When she submitted the completed application in person to the Flagler County office, the loan officer asked her how she expected to farm without a man around, and then he threw her application in the wastebasket right in front of her.”

Loudoun County is the wealthiest county in the United States. When you read about `food insecurity’, when you read about local food banks being swamped, remember Lind Bara-Weaver, of Loudoun County, and all the women farmers and Black farmers who have struggled for decades to provide us with food.


(Image credit: Oregon Tilth)