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Sexual terror in agriculture

By Watipaso Mzungu, Contributor:

MWANGOMBA—There are few or no workers to bear witness

Form 4am to 5:30pm every day, Christina Filipo breaks her back as she tills the family’s only two-hectare farmland in her quest to produce enough for consumption and sale.

In a good year, Filipo – a mother of five in Mpulula Village, Traditional Authority (T/A) Nsamala in Balaka – produces 15 to 20 bags of maize each weighing 50 kilogrammes in an agricultural season and less than seven bags when there is drought.

“Usually, my husband sells five for his drink and other forms of entertainment. That is how we have been living since we got married in 2007,” she explains.

The husband does not help her in producing food for the family.

Women from diverse backgrounds have stepped forward to report the abuse they have experienced in different environments, including the workspace.

In recent months, stories of sexual harassment and assault have been reported from entertainment centres, tertiary institutions and workplaces.

However, the situation is different with smallholder female farmers.

Across the globe, women who work in agriculture and other informal sectors often have few options, but to put up with abuse in their pursuit for a decent living.

They have one thing in common: they have less access than men to productive resources and opportunities.

United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women) Country Representative, Clara Anyangwe, admits that rural women, particularly rural small-scale farmers, play a catalytic role towards achievement of transformational economic, environmental and social changes required for sustainable development.

However, their contribution goes unappreciated because of the many challenges they face, including limited access to credit, healthcare services and education.

“Women play a key role in food production and form a large proportion of the agricultural workforce globally. It is on this premise that UN Women in Malawi has been supporting the leadership and participation of rural women in shaping laws, policies and programmes on all issues that affect their lives,” Anyangwe states.

Self Help Africa Country Director, Ulemu Chiluzi, says challenges that female farmers face are further aggravated by the global food and economic crises and climate change.

Chiluzi believes that empowering them is essential, not only for the well-being of individuals, families and rural communities, but also for overall economic productivity, given women’s large presence in the agricultural workforce.

A consortium of civil society organisations (CSOs) comprising ActionAid Malawi, Concern Worldwide, Trócaire, Goal Malawi, Irish Rule of Law, Oxfam and Self-Help Africa and UN women recently partnered under the banner of Malawi Irish Consortium on Gender-Based Violence.

The consortium’s first joint initiative focused on Malawian women as agents of change in the reduction of violence against women and girls.

And to achieve this goal, they conducted a survey which revealed that Balaka is leading in sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) that take place in marketplaces and the agricultural sector.

Goal Malawi Deputy Head of Programmes, Janet Mwangomba, says, although Malawi has made strides in ending GBV in other sectors of the economy, there is need for the government and its development partners to tackle the vice in marketplaces where women have to sleep with authorities to be allocated a plot to sell their agricultural produce.

“Women perform tasks in farmlands and marketplaces and often in relative isolation from co-workers. In these settings, there are few or no workers to bear witness or intervene directly. Even if there are options for reporting, women may lack knowledge of reporting procedures or perceive reporting to be risky,” she states.

Irish Ambassador to Malawi, Gery Cunningham, says both in Ireland and Malawi, some 20 percent of women have experienced sexual violence.

“Gender-based violence occurs at all stages of a woman’s life, even before birth, from infanticide, to accusations of witchcraft against elderly women. And it occurs everywhere, particularly domestically with the home, but also in our offices, on public transport, in the marketplace, and when collecting firewood, water, or working in the fields,” Cunningham says.

The envoy says while the global media attention initially fell on celebrities in the Western world, the consortium moved the spotlight to focus on the celebrities behind the national and household economy in a Malawian context – smallholder women farmers.

He reiterates that women are the backbone of the rural economy in Malawi, as elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa, where they are responsible for 60-80 percent of food production.

They do this in addition to virtually all their unpaid workload at the household level: preparing meals; caring for children, the sick and the elderly; collecting firewood and water; and where they are empowered to do so, also making a full contribution to their local community.

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