By Francesca Earp
I am sitting in a small concrete hall in Savannakhet, Southern Laos. Its 35 degrees outside, although due to the humidity it feels more like 40. The hall is filled with a circle of wooden chairs, each chair filled with a new face; sixteen female farmers, one female member of the Department of Livestock and Fisheries, two female members of the Rural Development Agency and myself. It’s not the first time I’ve sat in this hall, and it’s definitely not the first time I’ve heard the familiar bustle of Lao farmers answering questions on their livestock or their livelihoods. However it is the first time I’ve sat in this room and not been the only female present.
The room is filled with joyful chaos, a symphony of giggles, responses and exclamation as the women discuss their answers in depth. Their nervous energy is infectious. These are the women who I’ve seen sit silent in village meetings, the women who I’ve seen answer on their husbands behalf in survey discussions and the women whose absence I have noticed at farmer training sessions. Now here they are, present and with a voice.
Since March 2019 I have had the pleasure of working with Chanthalangsy, better known as See and her team at the Rural Development Agency (RDA) based in Vientiane, Laos. The Mekong Livestock Research group joined with the RDA team earlier this year to conduct group focus discussions with the aim of collecting both male and female perspectives on current issues affecting their livestock and productivity, and ultimately their livelihoods. These are lessons they have learnt from the project and things they would like to learn more about. In April 2019 we began to formally plan the focus groups. I spent a week in Vientiane working with See and her team to design questions for both group and individual discussions, plan village observation days and children inclusion activities.
On the 21st of May 2019 we conducted the first day of our focus group discussions in Savannakhet. We dispatched three teams made up of RDA staff, provincial and district staff and Department of Livestock and Fisheries representatives. The teams were spread across Kaison and Songkon district. I had the pleasure of joining a team visiting Sabusai village in the Songkon district. The first day was spent conducting group discussion for the male and female farmers and their children whilst the second day was spent observing the farmers, their farms and their day-to-day practices as well as conducting individual interviews. The final day of the trip was then spent working with the district and provincial staff.
Important lessons were learnt from these three days working in the field. In particular the lessons learnt in the female group discussions were novel, based on the voice they represented. Financial impact statement questionnaires conducted over 2018 and 2019, have indicated it is likely that in most smallholder households it is the female who is the financial decision maker of the family. She is typically the one to decide where and when money is spent, while also appearing to manage the family accounts.
Despite her crucial role in the farms finances it is often rare for her to receive any formal training on disease mitigation or farm production. By missing these vital sessions she is often unable to understand the purpose of various commonly used disease mitigation techniques such as vaccination, foot baths or the quarantining of sick and new animals. Not only does this limit the villages’ overall success with half of its population having a less developed understanding of biosecurity controls, but it also limits the likelihood of financial investment into these controls.
The lack of previous female farmer training became more evident as the trip went on. When asked questions on biosecurity in the group discussion session the female farmers who had otherwise been outspoken fell silent. They either had not been taught about biosecurity or they were not confident enough in their understanding to answer. They said the only information they had was handed down from their mothers and was not representative of any formal training. When asked if they would like to learn more about biosecurity the room resumed to its normal uproar, with the woman positively reacting to the thought of more specific targeted training.
This is truly my favourite part of working in country, getting the opportunity to witness the desire for education and extension that these farmers have. It gives me hope for the future and allows me to better understand our previous successes. We are working with farmers who want to understand, who want to produce more and who want disease free stock.
Another important aspect of the focus groups was the afternoon we spent working with the children once they had finished school. Here we conducted a shorter more interactive session where we had 14 children in attendance, with twelve of the fourteen being female. Again the children were a source of new information outlining both their mother and fathers role on the farm as well as their own. They also discussed the social cost of disease outbreaks, explaining what happens to the family when a disease outbreak occurs. Just like the inclusion of the female farmer it is important to include the children if we wish to get a realistic understanding of smallholder farmers and their farms. Engaging children in these conversations early allows us to foster their curiosity and promotes farmer uptake of interventions later in life.
By taking a stand to understand the female experience we are able to ask her important questions to evaluate her understanding and enthusiasm to attend future training events, as well as discussing her role within the farming system. The information from these focus group discussions will provide a more realistic understanding of the smallholder farmer for cost-benefit analysis and other research projects. Importantly, it will enable us to develop training programs that are a better fit for their audience, using female focused sessions that teach the female farmers about topics she is interested in and wishes to have better understand. This week was the first step in harnessing a whole new voice of the Lao farmer, and I am proud that she will fill many more seats in farmer discussions and trainings to come.