In 2017 the United Nations General Assembly declared 15 October International Day of Rural Women as a day to recognise 'the critical role and contribution of rural women, including indigenous women, in enhancing agriculture and rural development, improving food security and eradicating rural poverty.'
I am reminded of this at field days, seminars and events in my local community. Rural women are often the drivers of change, the innovative thinkers and the leaders who take on board research and development to make farms and communities more productive, profitable and sustainable. Research by Charles Sturt University (CSU) Emeritus Professor Jim Pratley in 2016 has shown that since 2003 women studying agriculture at university outnumber men and that agriculture gender percentages are now on par with the average enrolments across all areas. Rural women also play a huge role in our agriculture systems beyond the farm gate, from banking, extension, through to product development and marketing.
I also see the contribution that women scientists are making to develop knowledge and tools to set our farming systems up for the future. More than half the Graham Centre's 43 PhD students are also women and it's a privilege to see them develop their own research careers. Many of them are undertaking projects that will benefit rural women in Australia and overseas.
The United Nations says that women make up 43 per cent of the agricultural labour force in developing countries, responsible for producing, processing and preparing much of the food available. So it's no surprise that when Graham Centre researchers are working in developing countries to improve the productivity and sustainability of agriculture to enhance food security, much of the focus is on engaging and empowering women. The Centre has projects in Cambodia, Vietnam, Pakistan and Laos PDR to name just a few of the countries where our scientists are working with local rural women to identify research priorities, provide information and facilitate change. Our experience has shown this delivers a social benefit too, improving the status and self-esteem of women through involvement in successful on-farm research.
One of the projects that springs to mind is a collaboration with one of our farming systems group partners, Central West Farming Systems. The aim of this project is to build conversations and connections between women farmers from two very different agricultural systems using internet-based communication tools. Last year researchers and farmers from the Central West of NSW met with women from 'self-help groups' in two small rural villages in West Bengal in India. As they laughed, looked at photographs and shared experiences it quickly became apparent that although they lived half a world away these rural women have far more in common than you might first think. Since then those connections have strengthened and I believe it just goes to show there is enormous value in research to build the capacity of rural women, both at home and globally. Something to think about on the International Day of Rural Women.
Professor Michael Friend is the Director of the Graham Centre for Agricultural Innovation based at CSU Wagga Wagga Campus