Mali: Farmers’ group helps women break down social barriers (LEISA Magazine – Low External Input and Sustainable Agriculture)

| November 10, 2008

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It used to be uncommon to hear a woman speak at a village meeting in Zamblara, southwest Mali. In this part of Mali, women are rarely considered equal to men. Women did not participate in many village activities. But now, thanks to the empowering experience of forming an effective farmers’ group, the women are receiving respect and playing a larger role in village life.

The women’s journey began more than fifteen years ago. During the rainy season of 1991, like every year, village men carried out their traditional responsibility of growing maize, sorghum, and groundnuts on high ground. Women fulfilled their traditional role of growing rice in low-lying areas. But in 1991, 27 women took the bold step of forming a farmers group with the goal of increasing their yields and income. They called their group “Kotognogontala,” meaning “mutual respect.”

Through the years, they exchanged knowledge of good agricultural practices among themselves. In 2002, the group decided to contact WARDA – the Africa Rice Center – to learn about their training activities. With WARDA’s help, the group gathered once a week from the time that they prepared the field to the end of the harvest. They experimented with various approaches to soil fertilization and pest management, and determined some of the best approaches for their land. For example, the women found that a mixture of compost and small amounts of urea and rock phosphate is a more effective fertilizer than chemical fertilizer or pure compost. They also experimented with pest control, finding that both neem powder and a mixture of laundry detergent and kerosene are effective for managing stem borers.

There are now more than 100 members of Kotognogontala. The group has met its objective of increasing rice production. In fact, many of the women’s neighbours have shown interest in their farming techniques. The women have incorporated some of their knowledge into songs and poems which they perform in the village.

The group’s success has earned it respect within the village. In fact, the village chief is now the honourary president of Kotognogontala. The women also feel that the group has helped to improve relations between men and women.

The group gives them a place to talk about their problems with men, and to give each other advice. It has also helped to erode a traditional caste system that categorizes some families as “nobles” and others as “the descendants of slaves.” One member noted that women of all castes are equal in the group.

Over time, the group has carved out a new position for women within the village. Women have participated in key village activities such as developing infrastructure and establishing a mill. And when it’s time for a village decision to be made, their voices are now heard.
Click here to see the notes on women farmers’ group