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  • Women farmers can influence policy through theatre

Theatre is a powerful tool to mobilise women farmers in Africa, say agriculture specialists Lindiwe Majele Sibanda and Sithembile Mwamakamba.

Women farmers produce more than 90 per cent of the food on the African continent, yet they are largely excluded from decision-making: their needs are rarely reflected in local and national agricultural policies and they have limited access to credit, fertiliser, labour, seeds and other production inputs.

In 2009 the Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network (FANRPAN) embarked on a journey to strengthen the capacity of women farmers to influence agricultural policy through the Women Accessing Realigned Markets (WARM) programme. One of the programme's aims was to carry voices from the villages to the government through community theatre.

The programme used Theatre for Policy Advocacy (TPA), a culturally appropriate medium of communication, to explain agricultural policy to women farmers in rural areas of Malawi and Mozambique. It sought to empower, inform and mobilise them to express their needs and engage their communities in developing solutions to their problems.

Africa has a long history of sending messages through theatrical performances, particularly when the messages challenge the status quo. Community theatre is a way of levelling the field, breaking social barriers and addressing topics deemed taboo. It is especially powerful in areas where literacy rates are low and roles are shaped by cultural norms.

What is clear from WARM's experience is that, with the right support, women farmers can identify their needs, package relevant messages and effectively communicate them to policymakers.  

Mobilising a solution

FANRPAN worked with local partners to identify women farmers at rural sites — 14 women in Malawi and 12 in Mozambique. They had to be literate in order to grasp key concepts of policy development; part of established farmer groups so that activities could be sustained beyond the project; and in a position to mobilise fellow women farmers.

Through community theatre, these farmers were equipped with information and training to develop evidence-based messages to advocate for policies and institutional arrangements that help women access agricultural input markets.

The initial community theatre performances, developed in collaboration with theatre professionals and university partners, were held in Sokelele village in the Lilongwe district, Malawi, in October 2010. With little training, women farmers took to the stage and shared stories about their livelihood, delivering sterling performances and mobilising their communities towards a solution.

By the end of the project in May 2012, six community theatre groups had been formed and trained, three each in Malawi's Kasungu and Lilongwe districts, consisting of 79 women and 54 men. In Mozambique, two district theatre groups were formed and trained, consisting of 24 women farmers in Boane and Marracuane districts of Maputo province.

The project recognised that in wider society, the leaders are mostly male. So it was important that men were part of the process to endorse the work of the women actors.

Articulated needs

Clear recommendations came out of both countries through the performances and post-performance dialogues. Among these were the promotion of farming as a business; the need to improve women's access to rural finance and inputs; and the need to enhance extension service delivery.  

The development of infrastructure such as roads linking rural areas to markets and storage facilities to avert post-harvest losses was suggested as a priority. Another message that emerged is that policymakers must go beyond simply addressing agricultural constraints. Equal attention must be paid to sociocultural dynamics — such as gender-based violence — which continue to limit the productivity of women farmers.

FANRPAN and its local partners supported community champions to communicate these solutions to decision-makers and service providers.

In Malawi the performances were attended by more than ten thousand people. Participants included officers from the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security, district representatives, members of parliament and representatives from farmers' organisations, community-based organisations, and non-governmental organisations.

In Mnduka village in the Kasungu district of Malawi, the parliament representative for the area, Ken Kandodo Banda — then the country's Minister of Finance — participated in the performances and the dialogue that followed. Banda was able to respond to questions — an opportunity that women farmers would not otherwise have had.

The project has provided the right environment for dialogue, and in so doing has strengthened the links between development practitioners, farmers and researchers. For example, researchers from Bunda College, which is part of the University of Malawi, have become a reference point for parliamentarians on agricultural issues. And the college now has a working relationship with the National Smallholder Farmers Association of Malawi and the non-profit organisation Story Workshop.

As a result of its success, TPA has been endorsed by researchers, policy makers in the public sector, in civil society, including the private sector.  

Something to emulate

Both Malawi and Mozambique have a strong history of using theatre for development — applying theatre for policy advocacy was the innovation. And this history made the project easier to implement.

The project empowered women farmers, ensuring they gained the confidence and credibility to articulate their needs and call for policy change. In at least some of the villages, women farmers are now able to regularly engage policymakers. And the capacity built through this process can be applied to other policy issues in the future.

Initiatives that use theatre for policy advocacy need continued technical and financial support. Agricultural programmes designed without full regard for the concerns of women farmers will rarely succeed.

Lindiwe Majele Sibanda is chief executive officer and Head of Diplomatic Mission at the Food Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network (FANRPAN) based in Pretoria, South Africa. Sithembile Mwamakamba is project manager of the Women Accessing Realigned Markets (WARM) programme. The authors can be contacted at policy@fanrpan.org.