A desperate and largely unknown humanitarian crisis is deteriorating in the Lake Chad Basin region of West Africa, forcing millions of people to flee their homes and leaving millions more in need of humanitarian assistance. Oxfam is providing life-saving support but help is urgently needed to prevent the crisis turning into a catastrophe.
In spite of the old adage “don’t count your chickens,” these days we take chickens for granted. Walk into any supermarket in European and North American cities and increasingly across the developing world and you will find them in serried ranks in their plastic packaging. A generation or two ago, chickens were a luxury item; nowadays, a chicken costs less than an hours’ minimum wage of a UK worker ($9.52).
For rural women in many parts of Africa, three quarters of whom survive on less than $1 a day, chickens cannot be taken for granted; they are a vital source of livelihood. Chickens are low maintenance and can be reared at home where women are juggling a multitude of other tasks and responsibilities: looking after small children, pounding and sifting grains, cooking, vegetable growing, collecting water and fuel wood... Chickens can be sold easily for cash when needed to cover basic household needs such as medicines or school fees. They are one of few household possessions over which women can easily keep control so that it is harder for errant husbands to drink away the proceeds. They provide eggs as well as meat: vital sources of protein for the family.
Demand for chicken is increasing
Dr. Sheila Ommeh, a ‘chicken geneticist’ (!) from Kenya visiting the UK on International Women’s Day, well understands the importance of chickens to rural women. When disease wiped out the chickens in her natal village, it usually meant no school. Having managed against the odds to secure a good education herself and – still sadly exceptionally for an African woman – gone on to be a highly trained scientist, she is now working with African women farmers to promote chicken breeds that are resistant to disease and more productive. She is among the 250 beneficiaries of the AWARD program which trains African women agricultural scientists with the dual aim of promoting women’s empowerment and improving food security in Africa.
Oxfam understands the importance of chickens to rural women but also that, as urban populations grow in Africa, the demand for chickens is increasing. In Tanzania we support women alongside men to organize to produce and market chickens. We provide support to access vaccinations, build marketing centers and training. Sales of poultry are increasing and so are incomes. One outstanding success story is Mama Hulda Petro in Bariadi district of Shinyanga region. She started out as a small-scale chicken farmer and now sells up to 100 chickens a week. There are wider benefits: school attendance is increasing and women report a decline in violence as their contribution to the family is recognized.
Promoting women's economic leadership
As well as supporting poor women chicken farmers in Tanzania, we are also promoting women’s involvement in marketing vegetables and rice. And honey in Ethiopia. And milk in Colombia. And Shea butter in Mali... Through Oxfam’s Enterprise Development Programme and other initiatives – we are promoting ‘women’s economic leadership’. Sometimes this means organizing women only activities; at others striving for women to have more say in more decisions and more benefits from activities carried out alongside men.
For Oxfam, ‘women’s economic leadership’ means supporting women to identify where there are growing market opportunities. It means women farmers selling the produce they grow on their own terms, for a reasonable price. It means women farmers playing a leading role in organizations which help them market their produce, and deciding how the money earned is used. And having access to new technologies which enable them to reduce their workload, learn new skills, or move into more profitable activities. And being able to secure finance to invest in their farms and businesses, without fear that their land, or equipment will be taken away. And, ultimately, being recognized in their communities on equal terms with men. Chickens are an important starting point but they are just the beginning...
Across our programs Oxfam is assessing progress to ensure we are doing all we can to promote the empowerment of poor rural women. But wider systemic change is also needed. In the GROW campaign we are working with farmers and women’s networks to ensure that governments and companies invest in small scale agriculture in ways that benefit women. And that the rights of rural women are strengthened, including their rights to land, basic services, and their rights to have a say in their own future. But ultimately it is the vision and perseverance of African rural women – like Sheila and Mama Hulda Petro – and the collective efforts of organized rural women which will ensure lasting change.