Ayodele Sampson had managed to make it 40 years without ever having to speak in public. It was understandable, then, for the Guyanese farmer to feel very nervous as she stood behind the podium and looked out at a sea of unfamiliar faces, mostly government and private sector agriculture officials.
She quickly spotted the WUSC staff in the audience, who had promised to be there to cheer her on, and she began to relax. As the moments passed, she became more and more encouraged by the forum participants to share her story, actively listening while she recounted her experiences as a woman and a farmer in Guyana.
Shaping Programs Based in the Realities of Women and Youth in Agriculture was a multi-stakeholder forum held in October 2017 by WUSC’s PROPEL team in Guyana. The purpose of the forum was simple: 1) Let officials hear from women and youth farmers themselves about the particular challenges they face, and 2) Draw solutions from the participants through active collaboration. The forum was a resounding success. It was also the product of a lot of hard work along the way.
Krysten Sewett is a Market Systems Facilitator with WUSC’s PROPEL initiative in the Caribbean. This initiative seeks to connect fresh produce buyers with Caribbean farmers, processors, and related businesses through inclusive market facilitation.In mid-2017, the team in Guyana realized that some of their project activities were not reaching as many female beneficiaries as the project had hoped for. Staff came to the realization that consultations with this target group were necessary to help guide future programming.
Krysten describes her team’s first meeting to canvass women farmers about the challenges they face in preparation for the event: “We went in all ‘PROPEL’, wearing our shirts with the WUSC logo, talking formally and pushing too hard for answers.” When staff scheduled the meeting, they did not consider whether the timing was feasible for the women farmers – if it was a market day, for example, or if the women had young children to care for. “We did not consider their reality,” Sewett recalls.
Perhaps not surprisingly, attendance was low and the women farmers were not very forthcoming. Sewett and her colleagues knew their approach had to change.
A second chance to meet women farmers where they are
WUSC staff decided to convene a second, less formal meeting with a group of women farmers. The idea was to create a relaxed setting where the women could speak and share their concerns with each other, instead of just answering questions from WUSC staff.
At this second meeting, more women farmers attended. Sewett observed, “It was a sacrifice for them to come,”- with time constraints and competing responsibilities – “but they really wanted to come. These are important issues for them and they don’t have many platforms to be heard.”
After the women exchanged stories, they identified many shared challenges. These included access to land, crop theft, access to credit, and sexual harassment. Discussion allowed the farmers to clarify the problems and to suggest possible solutions.
For Sampson, that second meeting was a revelation. “It was very interactive, very informative. Each of us had our own story to tell and we were from different backgrounds. Me, for example, I said I had a major problem with sexual harassment… and the others told me I was not alone. Some of us are still friends to this day.”
Supporting women farmers to tell their stories to community leaders
After that meeting, WUSC staff approached three women and asked if they would represent their peers as speakers at the upcoming multi-stakeholder forum. The farmers participated in intensive sessions at the WUSC office over the course of two weeks, where they were mentored by staff, and given the tools and support to tell their stories with confidence.
Prior to this mentoring experience, Sampson says she and the other women farmers would not have felt comfortable saying: “This is the problem, we are being robbed out there, men are getting a better price for their produce.” When asked why, Sampson responds, “Society doesn’t tend to be serious with women, I mean in Guyana, and if you want to be a farmer they don’t take you seriously. So we would just hold everything in. WUSC gave us the courage to say what is going on, what is affecting us.”
Sampson did some of her own research about the challenges women farmers face with access to credit and access to land. She realized that “It’s not just Guyana but it is around the world that women face these things…This was information that gave me confidence and boosted me up so I could go out and talk about these things — let them hear from the woman who is on the farm and deals with this stuff!”
Shedding light on gender inequality in agriculture at the multi-stakeholder forum
All the mentorship and preparation paid off at the multi-stakeholder forum. With their presentations prepared and stories in hand, “The women spoke with emotion and conviction,” Sewett recalls. ”You could see the participants were captivated by the stories.”
Sampson chose to tell the forum about her experience with a government official who had demanded sexual favours, promising that, in exchange, Sampson’s farm would succeed. The encounter had left her afraid. “We women don’t want to talk about it, but somebody has to come out and say it. I didn’t go into depth about what happened to me, I just touched on the subject, but I had to say something because that is a reality that we are facing here.”
She also spoke about her first trip to the market on her own, to sell her watermelons, when a man tricked her into selling them for much less than they were worth.
The audience’s response to her presentation was overwhelmingly positive. And there was an even more profound impact. “I still think about what I learned and how I can help empower other women. Because most farmers here, especially women, are illiterate, they wouldn’t want to come out.” After the forum and the publicity that followed in national newspapers, other women farmers on the island began to seek Sampson out. She says, “They want to talk to me more. They are proud of me, and I feel real good, real good.”
Rural women represent the majority of the 43 percent of women who are in the global agricultural labour force. Yet, less than 20 percent of landholders worldwide are women, and in rural areas the pay gap between women and men can be as high as 40 percent. This occurs because of entrenched inequalities and discrimination that results in women having less access to capital, infrastructure and services, decent work, and social protection. As a result, women are also left more vulnerable to the effects of climate change (UN Women).
With support from WUSC, rural women in Guyana are making important strides toward gender equality, reducing many of the barriers that preclude women’s access to more equitable economic prosperity.This International Women’s Day, WUSC is celebrating women like Ayodele Sampson, whose leadership and commitment to equality is helping to transform the lives of women in Guyana. As we celebrate International Women’s Day, we join with women around the world to say THE TIME IS NOW.
For more information on the Government of Canada’s International Women’s Day activities, check out: #myfeminism.
For more information on the UN Women theme for International Women’s Day, please visit: “Time is Now: Rural and urban activists transforming women’s lives”.