Driving change from field to fashion at the 2019 Global Cotton Sustainability Conference

By Hardeep Desai, Senior Director Farm Innovations, CottonConnect South Asia

Improving the lives of women in agriculture has long been a focus for CottonConnect, so I am delighted to be taking part in the Field Level Group discussion ‘Women in Agriculture’ on 13th June at the 2019 Global Cotton Sustainability Conference in Shanghai. It will be a chance to discuss with peers the challenges women in agriculture face, as well as sharing the positive impacts we have seen from specific gender training for women in cotton communities.

Women play key roles as workers in cotton farming, undertaking up to 70% of cotton planting and 90% of hand picking, yet their role is often unrecognised. Women generally report having little or no training in agricultural best practice. In fact, CottonConnect’s research found that without specific outreach efforts, just four percent of women join any form of training programme that can assist them in their roles as farmers and champions within their communities. [Source: Planting the Seed: A Journey to Gender Equality in the Cotton Industry.]

Having identified a need for gender-specific training, we were motivated to develop a Women in Cotton programme, taking a holistic approach to improving health awareness and livelihoods throughout the cotton growing community. This training is delivered alongside agronomic programmes which have taken some families above the poverty line.

When developing the training, we wanted to make sure it would be relevant for the women and genuinely make a difference. CottonConnect’s approach is ‘bottom’s up’, focusing on community needs by listening to local expertise.  We started with a social training programme developed and conducted with local partner YKM, working with 500 women and 150 adolescent girls in Gujarat, India from 2015 to 2018.

Delivering health and hygiene training provides benefits for the whole community. I have conducted several hand washing sessions myself, and I am always thrilled to see how engaged the children are, having fun and learning lifelong healthy habits.

Following the training, a 33% improvement was seen in the prevalence of anaemia and 37% of beneficiaries had started their own business. Fourteen self-help groups were formed to continue the benefits from the programme.

Encouraged by these results, we developed the Women in Cotton programme, which has been incorporated into projects with Primark, Kering, SuperDry and C&A Foundation, and has been adapted to different countries.

I’ve also seen great benefits in our work training farmers in the Better Cotton management practices. After joining the BCI Programme, women farmers become more confident and adopt low-cost sustainable agriculture practices like natural pesticides, using leaves of certain locally available trees and plants. This has helped them in pest control and reducing the usage of hazardous chemical pesticides, reducing the harmful effects of chemicals on humans and environment, as well as saving money.

Adopting many sustainable practices of cotton cultivation has improved the women farmers’ livelihoods and created a better environment for their future generations. Being a part of the initiative and working towards bringing this social change has been very satisfying both personally and professionally. It’s a delight to watch women farmers who are motivated and empowered to work to improve their lives. I look forward to sharing my experience of working with women farmers and the opportunities that we can foster as a global community to overcome them.

Taking a holistic view of women in agriculture also means considering the opportunities and risks of several factors, for example how technology is increasingly being used to advance agricultural practices. In particular, mobile phones are used to provide farmers with agricultural and market information. While technology can be a force for good, improving knowledge and creating greater connectivity, there is a risk of a technology gender gap. To avoid this, women must have equitable access to and use of technology, as well as influence over how it evolves.

There is, therefore, a need to focus on women when designing programmes to increase the use of technology. By closing the gender gap in the use of technology, women gain more information and knowledge to help with decision making and contributing to cotton production.

There is still much to do in these rural communities, and I look forward to further sector collaboration to shape a more sustainable future for cotton.

For more information on 2019 Global Cotton Sustainability Conference in Shanghai please visit the conference website using this link.

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