Note: this blog post originally appeared on Care2 Causes.
I met Yvette Cissé a year ago today. The farmer from Yanfollila, Mali, traveled to the US for the first time for Oxfam America’s 2011 International Women’s Day celebration. In the midst of an East Coast speaking tour, Cissé told me about the biggest challenge facing her community: hunger.
“When I was young, we’d eat three meals a day, but that’s not the case anymore,” said the soft-spoken mother of six. She said unpredictable rainfall, combined with chemicals used to grow cotton—Mali’s biggest commercial crop—has weakened the soil and made it hard for farmers to produce enough to earn a living.
As treasurer of an organization called the Malian Organic Movement, Cissé is working toward a solution. Her group trains 8,000 local farmers to use organic growing methods. Going organic improves both the soil and farmers’ incomes, since organic cotton and other products fetch higher prices on the international market.
About a third of the farmers in Cissé’s organization are women. Many are defying gender roles by growing cash crops like cotton, which is traditionally considered men’s work. With support from Oxfam, women members also learn reading, writing, accounting, and entrepreneurial skills. (Mali has a 31 percent literacy rate for women, compared with 47 percent for men.)
“Education has worked wonders,” said Cissé, who said the knowledge gives women confidence to become leaders in their communities. And because women farmers often use their earnings to pay school fees or put food on the table, their children also benefit.
A year later, Oxfam America is celebrating International Women’s Day, March 8, by honoring women who make a difference. Our supporters are giving awards, sending e-cards, and hosting events in recognition of the inspiring women in their lives.
If I could honor anyone this year, it would be Cissé and other women leaders I’ve met through my work at Oxfam. Their stories taught me something important: Although gender inequalities make women and girls more vulnerable to poverty and hunger, it’s a mistake to think of women as victims. In the US and worldwide, women are leading organizations, building networks, and working tirelessly against injustice. We can’t solve the world’s problems without an investment in their efforts.
For example, if women farmers had the same level of access to resources that men have, they could increase yields on their farms by 20 to 30 percent—vital gains at a time when about one in seven people goes hungry. No wonder the UN declared the theme of International Women’s Day 2012 “Empower rural women—end hunger and poverty.”
Today, with Mali among the West African countries at risk of a serious food crisis, Cissé’s work seems more essential than ever. No doubt she and other women will play an important role in helping families weather tough times ahead. After all, as Cissé put it: “If women are successful in their efforts, everyone benefits. It brings about development for the whole household and the whole community.”