Empower women: improve lives

How women farmers in Nepal are improving their livelihoods and their rights.

Jeanne Spillane
World Food Programme Insight


WFP/Santosh Shahi

Although rural women in Nepal significantly contribute to agricultural activities, they are not often seen as farmers, and are rarely consulted by service providers. This project seeks to change that.

Rural women in Nepal have limited access to markets and to productive resources such as credit, water, seeds, fertilizer and technology. When they do agricultural labor, they are often paid less than their male counterparts, even when they do the same work. Stereotyping and discriminatory attitudes based on gender often limit women’s potential to harness their productivity. However in villages where the Rural Women Economic Empowerment (RWEE) programme — a joint project of WFP, FAO, IFAD and UNWOMEN, is operational, another narrative is unfolding.

A local farmer shows WFP, UN Women and FAO representatives her garden and its fresh produce. WFP/Santosh Shahi

Chanda Devi, a mother of three, is one of 175 women who worked on a recent irrigation project to bring fresh water closer to their remote village, Pratapur Paltuwa, in the Rautahat district of South-East Nepal. With temperatures reaching +40°C for up to seven months a year, the flat terrain of the Terai is often parched due to a lack of rain. Prior to the new project, Pratapur relied mainly on a nearby river for water to cook and clean, meaning villagers were forced to spend the best part of each day collecting and carrying water.

Irrigation systems improve land productivity in a region where farming is highly dependent on rainfall. Chanda Devi pictured on right. WFP/Santosh Shahi

“There was a severe scarcity of water here and that caused our crops to fail. Before this project came through, it was very difficult for us as we had to manually water our plants in the scorching heat”

“There was a severe scarcity of water here and that caused our crops to fail. Before this project came through, it was very difficult for us as we had to manually water our plants in the scorching heat” recalls Chanda, a mother of three who worked on the irrigation project and as site coordinator. With the money she earned from the project, Chanda was able to pay her children’s school fees, and the availability of fresh water means she and her neighbours can more easily grow fresh vegetables such as potatoes, cauliflowers, onions and other greens.

Sri Ram Kali Matahar watering her kitchen garden at Sarlahi village, Rautahat District, while her husband and youngest child watch. WFP/Santosh Shahi

“Before, my children used to have dry wheat for breakfast, now I can afford to feed them rice, vegetables that I’ve grown myself . I sometimes sell these vegetables in the market and with the money I can also feed my children meat occasionally”

The construction was carried out through a Cash for Assets project under the Rural Women Economic Empowerment (RWEE) programme. A joint programme implemented by four United Nations Agencies — UN Women, FAO, WFP and IFAD — RWEE aims to secure rural women’s livelihoods and rights, ensuring sustainable development in the post conflict context of Nepal. The joint programme, which is in line with the national Agricultural Development Strategy (ADS), was developed through a national consultative process involving women farmers and women leaders from across the country, gender equality advocates, academics, development partners including UN organizations and various Government entities.

WFP RWEE beneficiaries in their communal garden, checking on their produce in Sarlahi, Rautahat District. WFP/Santosh Shahi

“This RWEE project is revolutionary, in the sense it’s holistic,” says Meenu Hada, a policy officer for WFP’s Kathmandu office. “It is addressing women’s equal pay, access to infrastructure, skills and the technology needed to increase agricultural production, economic and social empowerment. And it is bringing rural women together and their leadership and representation at the local level is strengthened. Most importantly, competencies of the UN agencies have been blended to provide a consolidated package to the targeted rural women under the leadership of the government.”

Priorities of the RWEE programme include ensuring that rural Nepalese women and their families have improved food and nutrition security; that they have increased income to secure their livelihoods; that their representation and leadership is strengthened in local communities for gender responsive governance and that a gender responsive policy environment is secured for the economic empowerment of Nepalese rural women. Other activities supported by RWEE include poultry production and gardening.

A poultry production activity was implemented by RWEE which was aimed to improve the resilience of vulnerable households. WFP/Santosh Shahi

Rita Kumari Chaudary is from a village not far from Chanda Devi’s, Simara Bhawanipur. Rita is one of the Tharu people, a socially marginalized ethnic group among whom just 27 percent of women are economically active. As a teacher, Rita is one of the lucky few to have work. Despite her employment however, she and her husband, a farmer and part time construction worker, struggled to make ends meet.

“With the income I make as a teacher, I have leased a small piece of land right beside my home, which is enough space for me to grow some food to feed our family of six. However, we really struggled to educate the children and provide for them”

Thanks to another RWEE project which saw construction of a new Community Agriculture Extension Service Centre (CAESC), Rita was one of 130 women to earn an average of 12000NPR (USD120) in exchange for working on construction of the centre. As one of the more educated members of her community, Rita worked as a group leader on the project, which will provide agriculture service to the entire village community and will be fully owned and managed by the community.

WFP/Santosh Shahi

Thanks to their participation in the project, local women feel empowered.

“There is lots of motivation going around amongst us women, we feel we can also make a difference, we can also support our family and most importantly we feel our voices are being heard” said Rita.

Local women also formed their own support group which has helped them to become more active in the community. “This group has a lot of us running from one place to the other, getting work done or solving problems such as getting our center registered and signing up members. It has been keeping a lot of us on our toes”

A local farmer shows WFP, UN Women and FAO representatives her garden and its fresh produce. WFP/Santosh Shahi

Not only has the project seen a change for local women, it has also helped shift attitudes among their male counterparts. “Before male family members did not like the female members of their family leaving the home or going out of sight in general, now we see that male members are supporting us and even encouraging us to go out and work for RWEE. It is such a great change, especially since I have a daughter” said Rita.

For hundreds of women in rural Nepal like Chanda and Rita, RWEE is helping to deliver real, positive change in their lives and communities.

WFP staff member Samir Nepal, in conversation with local women from Sindhuli, Nepal. WFP/Santosh Shahi

The RWEE Project is supported through a multi-donor trust fund with donations from Sweden and Norway.

FOOTNOTES: Story by Kessang Lama, edited by Jeanne Spillane. All photos ©WFP/Santosh Shahi



Jeanne Spillane
World Food Programme Insight

Passionate about development, human rights, peace & social justice. SDGs evangelist! BKK Social Media @WFP @WFP_Asia