Poverty eradication starts with the women…
When I’m working in a poor community or a disaster zone I first focus on helping the women. Women bare an enormous workload in most countries in the developing world. Their daily must-do responsibilities, on top of looking after their children, usually are obtaining water, food, firewood and money, if it can be found. They must also, in many cases, look after older or sick relatives. Women may also have to carry many more responsibilities too numerous to mention here.
In the villages where people survive hand to mouth, the women typically have to get up before dawn and carry a jerry can several kilometres to a bore pump for water (try walking with 20kg on your head). If they live in a conflict zone, just getting water can get them killed, robbed or raped. With 20 litres of water on their head they walk back and arrive exhausted and malnourished in time to prepare the families meal. That meal may be the only one the family gets for the day. In the afternoon they may have to return for more water as they only have 1 jerry can for the family and no place to store water.
A walk to gather fire wood may take the whole day. Deforestation in many places means they have to travel far and wide looking for fuel for their cooking fires. In Ethiopia I saw women trek 10 kms to gather firewood and return with 25 kg of sticks. I could hear them grunting with each step up the steep slopes. At the end of their exhausting journey more family responsibilities await them…
When food is scarce and must be scavenged, the family eats what it can get. This could be cooked wild weeds, rodents, or if they are lucky, aid food…sometimes nothing. This lack of nutrition compromises the family health and with depleted immune systems, disease can take down a family rapidly. Contaminated water, poor hygiene, no toilets and mosquitoes make it difficult to stay healthy in a poverty stricken community. Sickness is a way of life for many of these families. Any money the family has is spent on medicines for the ill. The lucky ones may survive but with no medicines many people perish. These people have no energy for work or the capacity to think of a way out of poverty. Its day-to-day survival. They’re in the poverty rut and they could use a hand up. It’s best to start with the basics.
Water is the backbone of any development project. All over Africa each day millions of women are using their time and energy up carrying water. Water has the highest priority. Some simple projects can ease the burden of women and give them time for other activities, like growing food…When planning a project, I aim to increase the water storage and reduce the workload as well as ensuring their water is safe to drink. A first phase of a sustainability project may include the following actions:
- Provide extra jerry cans
- Provide wheelbarrows or handcarts (for transporting full jerry cans).
- Provide modified bicycles that carry 5 jerry cans.
- Install clay pot cisterns in the house for cool water storage
- Drill bore-pump wells in the village (if possible)
- Build a community windmill piping water to the village.
- Construct rainwater storage cisterns catching runoff from suitable buildings.
- Build brick and cement rainwater tanks.
- Construct community dams and weirs.
- Teach water conservation techniques to women’s groups
Water is life and can also be death. Contaminated water can spread disease rapidly if not dealt with effectively. We must treat sewage and grey water as well as remove any mosquito habitat. Bad water can kill but used wisely, can also irrigate tree crop. There are a myriad of ways to achieve water security in a community. I once drained a mosquito-ridden puddle near a well in East Timor and used it to irrigate 75 meters of swales with fruit trees planted in it turning the problem into the solution.
If an aid project is providing any or all of the above strategies, it means the women have more time and energy to learn and begin to implement sustainability practices where they live. Start with the water.
Food for the family can be produced in home gardens or collective community gardens. If every household in a village has a productive vegetable garden, many benefits unfold. Firstly hunger has been eliminated. Health improves, taking the pressure on the family’s purse and providing more vitality for work.
A garden that produces more than the family can consume, will provide some income when sold or traded at the markets. I like training a women’s group by building some productive gardens in their homes. As much as possible I help them to build their gardens using local resources so other women can copy them.
Using non-hybrid vegetable seed and organic gardening practices they have no need to spend their limited funds on dangerous chemicals and artificial fertilizers. They learn on the job. At the end of my part of the project, the village has several productive home gardens and the women begin working together to spread food gardens to everybody’s homes. The idea is to train the women to be trainers using their own gardens as working models to inspire their trainees to action.
I have a checklist for a home or community vegetable garden. I’m big on checklists as they help people organize their project and gather resources. When I worked in Uganda, the Karamajong people had never heard of a checklist and they could recite them from memory. They thought it was a brilliant concept! Home gardens work best with:
- A solid animal and poultry proof fence. This can be made with local resources from sticks to earth bricks. If there is no fence, something’s going to eat the garden.
- A water source is needed nearby. If it’s too far, the women may not have the energy to water the plants. Sometimes I help them build a garden at the bore-pump to make use of the wastewater.
- Its important to obtain non-hybrid open pollinated vegetable seed. Hybrid seeds are weak and require chemicals. Non-hybrid seeds, especially if indigenous to the area, are more resilient to pests and local conditions. Using hybrid commercial seed from conventional agriculture stores will in all probability cause the project to fail miserably. I’m speaking from experience.
- Dig flat topped raised beds as wide as two arms length. This allows the gardener to reach the centre of the bed without having to step on the bed and compact the soil.
- Mulch all soils. The harsh sun damages open soils. Mulch turns into nutrients in the soil. Mulched soils are more productive and plants in those soils are more pest resistant. Mulched soils are protected from erosion in heavy downpours. Mulch conserves moisture in the soil in the dry periods.
- Use local animal manures to make compost and liquid fertilizers. Fertilize gardens weekly.
- Mulch crops can be grown nearby to cut and refurbish the gardens mulch.
- Grow food everywhere. Every microclimate is an opportunity for food production. A fence is an opportunity to grow a climbing vine. Shade tolerant plants can grow under tree canopies. Wastewater can irrigate a pumpkin patch, etc…
- Train the women in integrated pest management (IPM). Ask the elders how they managed pests before chemicals were introduced.
- Train the women how to keep their gardens supplying food all year long in all conditions.
- Create emergency food crops like sweet potato, cassava, sago palm, etc… These crops are used in times of drought, famine or pestilence.
- Include local medicinal plants in the gardens, especially medicinals used in combating stomach problems and dysentery.
- Include tree crops and vines in the system.
One concept that is hard to impart with some cultures is the concept of surplus production. Many cultures don’t have a word in their language for surplus so I help them understand by getting them to “grow too much”. Too much beats not enough!
Tools are an important part of any project, as many families have no tools or very poor tools. I’ve seen women digging up a new garden using sharpened sticks in many poor countries. Choose the tools you give out wisely. Low quality hand tools only last a few days and turn into no tools. I sometimes have metal handles welded onto the shovel or hoe heads to create long lasting “super tools”.
Super tools can also be used to entice people into a project. In many projects I will organize a set of village tools to be set up as a tool bank that the chief can lend out for projects. This eliminates jealousy where tools can’t be supplied for everybody.
Many communities are in the poverty trap because their environment has been stripped. Where the forest once was has been turned into semi-desert. The animals they once hunted are long gone. The rivers have dried up. Overgrazing, continuous burning, and deforestation create an environment plagued by soil erosion, dust storms, wet season flooding, landslides, and erratic weather. Gathering firewood in these types of places is difficult, especially if the area is populated. The answer here is to create firewood lots close to communities.
Many species of trees can produce firewood constantly without the need to kill the tree. These trees can be coppiced. A third of the trees branches can be cut twice a year without harming the tree. A plantation of firewood trees close to the community can save time and hardship for local women. All the roads and tracks around a village can be planted with fuel trees and provide shade as an added benefit.
Firewood plantations can have multiple functions. As the trees grow, grazing animals can be introduced once the trees grow large enough. A community firewood lot must be planned with the whole community participating. The plantation must be managed and protected. A mixture of fast and slow growing trees can be planted. The more diverse the mix of trees, the stronger the forest system. Trees can supply animal fodder as well as fire wood. Trees can provide bee fodder for a women’s honey project. Bees pollinate vegetable crops and increase production.
Seedlings can be grown at schools using the children as free labour. School nurseries can produce useful trees for a wide range of sustainability projects in a community. Children can be an effective labour force for planting a forest. Politically, children are neutral. When adults plant trees in some cultures, it’s seen as a land grab and trouble can brew! Children are the answer in these situations I’ve found.
Work smart and only plant tree seedlings at the beginning of a wet season. Place animal proof tree guards around every tree planted. Mulch and care for each tree so it survives to maturity. Fence off the woodlots from domestic and feral animals. Help the community to design a management plan to protect the lot from fire, animals, people and weather conditions. Protect it or lose it is the rule.
This is just a taste of the simple common-sense methods any aid worker can use to lift a group of women out of poverty. Ask the organization you donate to what they do for the women in their projects. How many trained sustainability field specialists do they employ? Maybe you could ask what is the ratio between field staff and admin staff? How much money actually hits the ground and many other questions to prove their effectiveness. Some of these questions may be difficult for them to answer…