Above: Massah, 40, stands with her arms folded confidently.

Today is International Rural Women’s Day. Today, as any other day, millions of women will wake up and set to work on farms across the globe. Though their labour is crucial in sustaining billions of lives, many will suffer worse access to resources, lower pay and fewer rights than their male counterparts. Many are excluded from the decisions which affect their livelihood; many experience abuse and some fall victim to modern-day slavery. Those with their own business may obtain lower prices for their produce and face discrimination and exploitation in accessing resources. And yet, without their labour, global food production would come to a standstill.

Social inclusion and economic independence go hand in hand. When women have the means to support themselves, they are better placed to attain equality, stand up for their rights and have their voice heard.

By the same token, when women have the same income-earning opportunities as men, it increases opportunities for the whole community to overcome poverty, as families where women have independent earnings often have better wellbeing, better nutrition and better school attendance. The FAO estimates that greater equality in access to agricultural opportunities and resources could see the amount of undernourished people reduced by 12-17 per cent.

In Sierra Leone, many women struggle to earn their own income—almost half of Sierra Leonean women have to survive on less than £1.45 a day and discrimination and social barriers can prevent them from changing this situation.

At Action on Poverty we know that despite the challenges they face, these women have the ability and confidence to overcome barriers, discover new skills and grow their incomes. We share this belief with more than two hundred women taking part in our Women Changemakers programme. Massah, who is the leader of one of the community groups we are working with, puts it succinctly: ‘if the women are strong in the home, that home will progress. It all depends on the women.’

What does progress look like?

International Rural Women’s Day is about celebrating women’s strength. One way we are working to enable their strength is by providing soap-making training and vegetable farming training, with Massah taking the lead in her village. Currently, Massah’s only source of income is farming and, as a single mother to six children, there is a lot of responsibility on her shoulders, which she cites as a motivation for getting involved. By boosting her ability to produce more vegetables and different varieties of seasonal produce, she’ll be able to sell the excess to increase her income, which she hopes will help her ‘be able to take care of her home.’

50 women from the surrounding areas will also be taught soap-making, so that they can start soap businesses, as well as helping others with handwashing and hygiene, something which is particularly important in light of Covid-19.

Training has already commenced across 8 villages in Sierra Leone, giving 210 women, including women with disabilities, the opportunity to access new means of income generation. Though it is her first time leading the women’s group in her village, Massah is unfazed by the added responsibility: she ‘knows how to talk to people.’ Our goal at Action on Poverty is to support the natural strength and confidence of people like Massah so that they can continue to be changemakers, spearheading progress in their communities for themselves and for those around them.

Though rural women like Massah make up 70% of the agricultural labour force in Sierra Leone, many suffer from a lack of labour rights and protections (UN Women, 2017). Agricultural employment often falls within the informal economy and farm workers who are women remain particularly exposed to abuses of power, lower wages and poor working conditions.

But by coming together, groups like Massah’s can grow and strengthen their incomes. Others from her village will receive literacy and numeracy training, helping address Sierra Leone’s educational gap between men and women, a gap which is wider in rural areas.

Other women will also be equipped with seedbanks and tools to start backyard vegetable gardening. This is an important step. Worldwide, women make up less than 15% of agricultural land ownership: they may work the land, but it isn’t theirs. By growing vegetables in their back garden though, these women are able to sustainably support themselves and become less reliant on the potentially exploitative practices of working on other people’s farms.

This International Rural Women’s Day we are celebrating rural women by continuing to believe in their ability to shape and realise their futures and working with them to apply that belief to the present.

Your donations are vital in helping us achieve our goals. When you donate, you allow us to fund initiatives like the Women Changemakers’ programme, which make a real difference to the lives of those involved.