In Defence of Women on the Land: Voices from Rural Women in Uganda, India and Nicaragua

Last month I wrapped up my manuscript of “Women Who Dig – Female Farmers Struggling to Feed the World”, stories from 143 women from eight countries on three different continents. Over three years, I traveled to rural communities in the Americas, East Africa, and Southeast Asia, and met with women in their gardens and community gathering spaces. Their narratives were too many to include in just one book.

On March 8, 2016, International Women’s Day, I wanted to share a few of the narratives from Uganda, India, and Nicaragua.

Rural and indigenous women around the world continue to grow food, raise livestock, and forage for wild foods — feeding their communities — often defending land and lifestyle from visible and invisible forms of oppression. The forms of oppression facing female farmers, worldwide, range from economic injustice to the impingement of large-scale development projects, including dams, mining operations and corporate agriculture, to domestic abuse and gender-based violence in the home, fields and gardens, and wider communities.

The statistics vary, country to country, but the trends are largely the same: women tend to play major roles in labouring on farms, yet frequently lack access to their own land, equipment, farm credit, tools, and markets. In many communities, women are critical to growing food, but they themselves, are the least food secure.

Due to the violence that many rural female farmers and farmworkers face on a daily basis, I have changed the names of women quoted here. The recent murder of Berta Caceres, a Honduran land-rights defender, attests to grave reality of violence that women, particularly rural women, are facing worldwide for speaking out against patriarchy, climate change, and mega development projects.

I have been deeply inspired by women’s individual and collective efforts to cultivate food, feed their families, fight for gender parity, and defend their land and cultural practices. As my Ugandan friend and colleague, Lilian, often says:

Women are like the current in a wide river. At the surface, the water appears to move slowly. But underneath, the strength of the river is so great it can wear down any obstacle it encounters. The river, like women, can move mountains.

I hope these stories inspire you to act locally to support the efforts of rural and indigenous women in your own communities. La lucha sigue. The struggle continues.

Beatrice, 54 years old – Southwestern Uganda

Harvesting "empunica", a wild spinach in southwestern Uganda. (Photo - Trina Moyles)

Harvesting “empunica”, a wild spinach in southwestern Uganda. (Photo – Trina Moyles)

“What’s the difference between being a female farmer and a male farmer?”

There’s a very big difference. One, men will always do farming for market gain. They tend to grow cash-crops for sale, whereas women dig (grow food) directly to feed the family: sweet potatoes, beans, and maize. A man might only grow cauliflower and Irish potatoes to sell in the markets, but women go beyond markets. We forage for wild vegetables, like dodo (spinach). We’re looking at the holistic well-being of the family, home, and children.

“What are some of the biggest challenges faced by female farmers?”

Daily, we have the challenge of having to walk very, very far to our land. In this rainy season, the rain finds us there. Remember, we go with our children and babies. The child is on the back. The young children follow us because they are too young to stay at home. Then the rain finds us there, where we are digging far from home. There’s nothing waterproof: no raincoat, no umbrella. We are like that, digging with the rain on our back, the sun on our back.

“Do you own land?”

Yes, I am lucky to own land. I inherited land from my parents. I also left my husband because he was abusive. But it is rare for women to do both of those things here: own land and divorce their husbands. It has given me security as a farmer. Many of my friends have issues with their husbands concerning land. Often it originates from men who drink. They reach home, drunk, and make noise: “You are my wife! You are my property!”

But the biggest problem is faced by women who have no land at all. There are some women who have no land. They have to rent, or they go and dig (work) for others (wealthier farmers) and earn a daily wage. This is a major problem.

“What kinds wild plants do you harvest?”

Empunica. This plant is very important. Some farmers call it a “weed”, but I do not harass it so much, I do not pluck it from my garden. Empunica is a very useful plant. It’s a form of green manure. It rots fast, goes back to the soil, and makes manure. But I also can harvest empunica to add to my beans, or feed to my rabbits. Dodo, eswiga, and amaranth, these are all “weeds” that women do not destroy. We have seen their importance. We teach our daughters to give them space to grow.

Kamla, 32 years old – Northwestern India (Himalayan foothills)

A woman walks through a rice paddy in the Himalayan foothills of northern India. (Photo - Trina Moyles)

A woman walks through a rice paddy in the Himalayan foothills of northern India. (Photo – Trina Moyles)

“What foods do you cultivate?”

In my fields, I’m cultivating maize, rice, wheat, ginger, turmeric, garlic, onion, potatoes — all sorts of vegetables. Every morning, I milk my family’s three cows. Women do everything on the land, but not the tilling of the soil. That is men’s work. I cannot plough because it’s very fastidious to control the team of oxen. But it is my responsibility to plant the seeds. The most exhausting work that women must do is the weeding. It is all done by hand. It is very tedious, very time consuming. At times, I call the help of other women to weed the fields. We work together to quicken the task.

“How do you irrigate your crops?”

We depend on the rain, particularly for rice and maize which are very thirsty crops. But the rains have become very difficult to predict. Today the amount of rain which comes is like a big curtain of rain. It’s too much rain.

We are lacking jeriya, a drizzle of soft rain which saturates the soil and allows the crops to grow and do well. The heavy rain takes away the top soil. The drizzle nourishes the land evenly.

“Why is the forest important to you as a farmer?”

I visit the forest daily, searching for cattle fodder and for broken twigs and branches for firewood. I know to go looking for particular wild foods in different seasons. During a heavy rain, we can hear varieties of wild mushrooms popping, like pulpul!-pulpul! Women go searching for edible roots, fruits, and figs.

“Do you buy seeds, or fertilizer in the markets?”

No, I prefer to save our seeds. Our cows provide us with manure for our crops. It is expensive to buy seeds, fertilizers, and pesticides in the markets. But even if we could afford it, we would not risk losing our seeds. These seeds are part of who we are.

Miriam, 18 years old – Rio San Juan, Nicaragua 

Women's farming group in Rio San Juan, Nicaragua. (Photo - Trina Moyles)

Women’s farming group in Rio San Juan, Nicaragua. (Photo – Trina Moyles)

“You are the youngest member of the women’s farming group in your community. How did you come to join?”

I grew up here on my family’s farm with my father, mother and five siblings. My father grows rice, beans, and malanga (variety of root vegetable, similar to cassava) on five acres of land. My older sister used to help him in the fields, and she was a member of this group. The women come to learn about farming and support one another. You know, in our culture, men do most of the farming and women tend to stay in the casas (homes). But my father always encouraged my sister and I to work as the boys. But when she migrated to Costa Rica for work, her spot in the group opened up.

“Are many young people interested in farming these days?”

Look, sometimes the harvests of maize and beans aren’t good. You harvest enough to feed the family and save some seed, but not enough to sell much in the market – it can be very discouraging work. The market prices always drop when it’s our turn to sell, so we earn little.

What’s happened is that you find young people want to go over to the ‘other side’ in Costa Rica. In the Rio San Juan, apart from farming, there’s no work. So young people go in search of work on coffee and citrus plantations.

The plantations pay them 40 pesos for every pound of coffee they pick. Paga bien. They pay well.

“Is it easy to cross the San Juan River to enter Costa Rica?”

You have to go hidden from the immigration. Some [people] have papers and can cross with their passports but the majority go without. They go for six months, then they come back to Nicaragua. They come and go like that.

Do you want to work on the plantations in Costa Rica?”

Obviously. Asi es la vida. That’s life.


Trina Moyles is the author of Women Who Dig: Female Farmers Struggling to Feed the World, a forthcoming literary narrative about the lives of female farmers from eight countries around the world. Women Who Dig is represented by Marilyn Biderman Literary Management in Toronto.