On 15 October 2023, International Day of Rural Women is celebrated in recognition of rural women’s critical role in and contribution to sustainable food systems around the world. In celebration of this day, we would like to introduce you to Thoko, a woman living in rural Central Malawi.
Thoko wakes up every morning at 4 am to go and fetch water. She may have to queue for up to two hours before she gets her turn. When the water levels are low, she may find she misses out on getting water for her family and has to return later in the day to try her luck.
When she returns home, she begins preparing breakfast for the children and getting them ready for school.
She then goes to the family farm with her husband. This is where they produce crops for commercial purposes.
At midday, Thoko returns home to prepare lunch.
She may spend some time boiling water to purify it for household consumption.
She may also tend to small animals they have on the homestead.
In the afternoon, Thoko will spend some time with other women from her community kernelling maize. This is not for consumption, but rather to extract the cobs for fuel for cooking.
She might also pound groundnuts or process other food products, which is added to vegetables to increase the nutritional value of the meal.
She will then wash dishes and clothes, and do some general cleaning around the homestead.
She might spend some time watering the homestead garden, pick some vegetables, and begin preparing the evening meal.
Throughout the day, Thoko is also breastfeeding. She finishes the day by ensuring the house is clean and her family has been taken care of.
Although Thoko’s story has been created for illustration purposes, the information is drawn from the lived experiences of women who participated in a study by CARE Malawi. Thoko’s story shows us that women play multiple roles in food production, food preparation, food processing, income generation, water health and sanitation, and household and child nutrition. From Thoko’s example, we see that women are involved in almost every aspect of the food system from production to consumption and beyond.
The connection that rural women have to the land is profound, forged through generations of tradition and knowledge. This hands-on relationship with the earth ensures the sustenance of her family and, by extension, her community.
Despite the immense value they bring to both their immediate community and the broader economy, rural women often go unrecognised and underappreciated. The challenges that rural women face are exacerbated by a lack of infrastructure. For example, women often have to walk long distances to fetch water or firewood for cooking. The physical strain that women bear is compounded by the unique challenges they face due to their gender and societal position. Women carry a disproportionate amount of the workload at home and have less economic and decision-making power within households, which has implications for their health and nutrition. In many communities around the world, women also have limited access to education, healthcare, and financial resources, which all hinder the fulfillment of their potential. Yet, women are innovative, using indigenous knowledge and practices to adapt to challenges – be they environmental, like changing weather patterns, or societal.
In essence, the rural woman exemplifies resilience, strength, and a deep-rooted connection to her land. Recognising and supporting her role is not just a matter of gender equality but also essential for sustainable agricultural growth and food security. In celebrating International Rural Women’s Day, we celebrate the contributions made by rural women to the many communities they sustain across the world.