By Francesca Earp, Edited by Peter Windsor
Fifteen years ago at the age of seven I sat at my dining room table in Sydney and confidently told my parents “I don’t think I’m a feminist”. The comment was in reaction to dinnertime conversation about female activism, and at the time I think my answer was due to the comfort of my own upbringing. I was lucky to attend an all girls’ school, have a fair and understanding family and be brought up in a society that saw both men and women as equals. I remember the conversation well because it was the first time my parents actively disagreed with one of my beliefs. My father an academic gave a very clear response. He simply told me that if I cared about equal opportunity I was a feminist. If I thought I deserved to be considered on my merit and not my gender I was a feminist. He went on to explain that as a male in academia he saw that there was a gender imbalance, explaining that he saw men taking roles as professors, project leaders and other leadership roles while women generally were less likely to be given such opportunities. At the time I didn’t think too much about it, because I still lived in the world of equal education and equal opportunity.
Now fifteen years on I see a very different world. As a twenty-two year old female and a graduate animal scientist working in Laos with the University of Sydney and Department of Livestock and Fisheries research team, I consider myself a feminist, with strong beliefs on female farmer inclusion. The world I am part of here in Laos is different to the one my father had described. Here not all girls get the opportunity to attend school, females are not engaged in community conversations and women are not always viewed as equals. As I’ve grown up I have noticed that this is not only the situation in Laos it is a global problem. Despite conscious movements towards gender equality, we still live in a world where men dominate political parties, dictate laws on female anatomy and freedom and hold a strong majority of the leadership positions.
Worldwide men and women, some just like me, are realizing the fight for equality is not yet over. ‘Seeds of change’ have been planted and a movement is underway. Importantly this movement is also occurring in agriculture with many groups now understanding the best way to achieve food security is to educate, train and engage both male and female farmers. In farming communities men and women often hold different responsibilities and duties. In Laos financial studies have indicated that the women’s role often revolves around financial decision-making, small ruminant care and the education of children. These are all important roles and she too requires consideration in training and project engagement. Another important lesson learned in community visits is that the woman is often likely to be the one to pass on new information. This means that training of the female farmer will also contribute to improved community outreach and extension.
As part of this positive movement the Mekong Livestock Research group has initiated focus group discussions in project villages. These discussions enable us to engage with the female farmer, an individual who is often left out of the training and decision making process. The progress of these focus groups to date has been astounding with the first round occurring in Savannakhet province this week. The reception from both male and female farmers has shown that this sort of work is long overdue.
Female farmers in both group and individual discussions have been accessed, harnessing their voice and demonstrating the importance of their opinion. Based on the information gathered from these discussions we hope to develop targeted female training and continued female inclusion. Not only have we communicated with the female farmer but we have also engaged the family, especially the children. We asked them to share their views of the roles of their parents within the farming system. As well contributing to research, the answers to these questions ensure children can reflect on their family. Fostering an understanding of the important roles both their mothers and fathers have in the smallholder farm.
I am fortunate to have been brought up with parents who understood the inequality women still face, and am lucky to work with a research team passionate about making positive change. A movement is happening and gender equality is on its way. I look forward to living in a world where women are enabled to help manage the challenges of creating a better world.