2020 is a unique year. We have spent most of it ‘surprised’ by the turn of events. In early 2020, we found ourselves in a global health pandemic. We started by learning that we could not travel from one country to another. At first, we thought it will be a few weeks, maybe a few months of disruption, but this has persisted for most of the year 2020. The virus, first reported in China travelled the world, impacting sectors of the national and international economy as well as social processes (no large gatherings like attending schools, colleges, sport events, weddings, funerals in person) and even changing long-held traditions like hugging and handshaking. The year has gone by, we have worked from home, social distanced, worn face masks, maintained research and development collaborations online through amazing innovations on ‘meeting apps’ and now, it is October 2020, and our attention is drawn to the UN International Day of Rural Women. On this day, we focus on Rural Women and Girls building resilience – in the face of two great stresses – Covid-19 and climate change among other socio-ecological stresses!
Critical role of girls and women in the drylands, during the COVID-19 pandemic
In this year, we have learnt that food availability and accessibility hinge on peoples’ movements i.e. interconnectedness of various sectors of the food system despite the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. Investments of the dryland farmers and especially the critical role that women and girls play in ensuring the continued thriving of dryland rural households and communities, improving livelihoods and overall wellbeing is well acknowledged as key ingredient for delivering food in the agri-food system. As workers in other sectors comfortably worked from home, the farmers have had to be out there in the field. The demands on their time and commitment were even more this year than before. The critical role farmers play in food production and the associated value chain players in food systems delivery to consumers have been demonstrated. Even in a pandemic, populations needed to be nourished! We salute the rural farmers, and especially the women farmers, who make up 24-56% of labor providers in rural Africa*, who bear the largest burden in the drylands!
In support of provision of food in the drylands, ICRISAT and the CRP-Grain Legumes and Dryland Cereals (GLDC) is contributing by delivering high quality seeds of improved varieties of dryland cereals and grain legumes as a tool for recovery from COVID-19. The cereals and legumes we offer (millets, sorghums, groundnuts, chickpeas, pigeonpeas) are SMART foods that are highly nutritious and, in a recipe, offer trace minerals, oils and vitamins that contribute to restoration of health for invalids, young children and the old. We purpose to have women and youth participating in the GLDC seed value chains (as contract seed producers or as seed distributing agents) as well as in the grain value chains (as aggregators or farm level production of high quality grains that are responsive to the preferences and needs of the markets).
Women in the drylands: The transition paradox
As we design response and recovery programs for supporting women, and dryland communities build back better from the COVID-19 crisis, we have been asking a question: ‘Do we really know the women we work with? Can the transition stories for girls and adult women have something for us to learn from to better understand their experiences, needs and respond to them better? How might this help us to be deliberately inclusive in our targeting?’ I want to share the lessons we have learnt in the last 18 months that have implications for the way youth – especially young girls and women – are targeted as beneficiaries of agricultural interventions.
We were working on a youth strategy for the CRP-GLDC and as we pre-tested our tools in Tanzania, we had a conversation with men and women of the community, asking them – Who are the youth? How do they transition? How would we work with them in dryland agricultural value chains? During this conversation, the young men were emphatic, that men ‘can be youth until they are 40 years old, as long as they feel strong’ but ‘women have a very short window to be ‘youth’, by 22 years old, they are too old, especially if they already have children’. As we did life history interviews in the Southern Highlands region of Tanzania, we came across a respondent who was about 30 years old. She told the story of her transition to adulthood that started when she was 14 years old. She got pregnant and had her first girl child when she was 14 years old. Her daughter grew up, and when she too was 14 years old, she gave birth to her first child. The respondent was a grandmother by the time she was 28 years old. Since the age of 14 years, the respondent did not self-identify as a youth nor would her community identify her as a youth, even though the guidance of the UN is that the youth are persons of ages 15-24 years. As we continued with the fieldwork, we realized that the youth in the drylands transition early (girls transition from as early as 12 years and boys from 17 years of age), through socially facilitated rites of passage events, which are unique and different for each community group across the different countries. The rites of passage event un-locks guided opportunities that are highly gendered e.g. access to resources especially land and large stock for the boy child. For most patriarchal communities, access to land is transacted primarily through the boy and through marriage. As soon as a boy gets married, they are allocated land, which they are most likely going to inherit. Land is a key asset for rural livelihoods that are based on agriculture. Girls would access such land through marriage, but their rights are limited to access and not control of the land assets.
Young mothers missing in the beneficiary radar?
So, what happens to the girl who happens to get a child out of the traditional wedlock path, as a single parent in the context of Ethiopia, Uganda and Tanzania? This becomes a beginning of all manner of inequalities for her and the child she raises. She does not access land with her parents, and she does not access land with the family that fathered her child. To access land, she needs to hire/rent or get into share cropping arrangements. She becomes a wage laborer tending other people’s farms. When development programs go out there to identify beneficiaries as youth, she will not show up because she has transitioned to a mother with a new name and a new identity and her community does not identify her as youth. When we go out asking for farmers as beneficiaries, she will not show up because she does not own a farm and does not have the title of a farmer. When we go out with the ‘women’ as our target beneficiaries, she does not show up because mentally and age-wise, she is still a young teenager who is growing up and finding her true self. Young mothers are invisible in our tools and processes unless we are very deliberate in seeking them out.
Call to action on this day of the rural women 2020: Recognize the young mothers!
The ONE CGIAR mission has five key result areas to deliver on. One is the area of equality and opportunities for women, youth and marginalized groups. We are therefore calling on the invisible young mothers who are rendered so by social norms in society, to be ‘recognized’ as a vulnerable group with unique needs. Appreciate the strong contribution they make to the food systems in the rural areas. We recommend starting by having a positive identifier for them and recognizing that the term ‘youth’ does not cover them. In most societies in Ethiopia, Uganda and Tanzania, we find that the social norm is to shame them by giving them dehumanizing identifiers. The second is to have them in our national level statistics and design interventions to support the transition. We tried getting data on these young women and the closest proxy we could get was on ‘girls’ school dropout statistic’. The third is to understand their vulnerabilities, which may not be about resources only but also more on personal agency, self-esteem and appreciation. In designing interventions for them, it may help to have a 360O approach (informed and holistic approach) to their challenges, appreciating there are many intersecting and significant factors that impact their transition and success in dryland farming. We propose they are the category of youth that are have the highest probability of staying in the dryland farms for a lifetime and although the common narrative is that young people are not interested in agriculture, for them, it is the main means of their livelihoods… they are our key beneficiary in the rural drylands.
About the author:
Senior Gender Scientist, ICRISAT ESA.
 Statistics from Ethiopia, Malawi, Niger, Nigeria, Tanzania and Uganda in the book by Christiaensen, Luc; Demery, Lionel. 2018. Agriculture in Africa : Telling Myths from Facts. Directions in Development—Agriculture and Rural Development;. Washington, DC: World Bank. © World Bank. https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/handle/10986/28543 License: CC BY 3.0 IGO.
We have been working on this with Brenda Boonabaana of Makerere University, Dismas Mwaseba of Sokoine University, Shambel Getachew of Haramaya University as well as KatindiSivi- Njonjo, Rachel Gitundu and Philip Miriti at ICRISAT.
A disclaimer: This pathway doesn’t apply to 100% of all boys and girls in transition. Some of the factors that change the process include access to education, conversion to religion e.g. Christianity that imposes different value systems, incidences of civil conflict/political upheavals or episodes of climate change.