Published in The News, April 22, 2014

“I am so happy that my family has now finally recognized me as a “ Woman Farmer”, says Shareefan Mai standing proudly over her bumper wheat field in a small village ChakMohsin Khan, Union Council Thatta Qureshi of Tehsil Muzaffargarh. “Earlier only the men in the family were called farmers but now even the men in my family call me farmer because my wheat field is looking bigger than anyone, she said adding that she is expecting to harvest 25 mounds more wheat compared to her 2013 wheat harvest.

This change in Shareefan Mai’s life is made possible through the new techniques of wheat farming and seed preservation that she learnt at a women farmers’ training programme run by PODA NGO in Muzaffargarh. For two years, PODA ran a school for women farmers in her village. Shareefan Mai is one of the 500 women who have learned new ways of agriculture from PODA’s Women Farmers Schools set-up in 8 locations in Tehsil Muzzafargarh since October 2012. The two year programme comes to an end in July 2014 and the women farmers are already getting sad.” we do not want this programme to end. It has changed our life. We want to learn more”, they said. This is the first program in our area that has treated us like farmers and respected our local knowledge and taught us how to improve what we do, save money and raise income, said Shazia Akbar, of village AnayatPur, Union Council JaggatPur, Tehsil Muzaffargarh. I can now detect a disease in my strawberry plan and take timely action to save the plant”, she added. My income has increased two fold since I have started using PODA teachers’ techniques, she said.

This unique programme run by PODA with the support of USAID Pakistan is becoming a model in agricultural education due to its detailed training sessions in water conservation, tunnel farming, soil testing methods along with empowering women with basic literacy, financial literacy and citizenship rights. “Realizing that women have less than 20 per cent literacy in this region, PODA adopted a holistic approach to empower this group of 500 women farmers with economic and legal rights simultaneously,” said SameenaNazir, Executive Director of PODA.

PODA’s innovative project “Empowering Rural Women through Agricultural Innovation and Farm Management Skills” was funded by USAID. “We are thankful to USAID for supporting our innovative idea and for funding the project for two years because that allowed us to see the results,” said SameenaNazir and added that the project needs further support to make a greater impact. PODA started its Muzaffargarh project after five years of training of women farmers in District Chakwal. Many of the women trainers came from Chakwal to train women in Muzaffagarh. The presence of women agriculture trainers made a huge difference. “The agriculture department in Muzaffargarhorganises training in the Deras (male part of the house) of big male farmers and most women cannot go there to get training from male extension workers. “There is an urgent need to arrange more women agriculture extension workers,” said PODA director SameenaNazir.

Like all projects this project is not without challenges. While the strawberry grown by the woman farmers has increases in size and quantity with the support of PODA’s trainings, the women still face the problems of losing most of the fruit on the way to the market. “We need to take this project to the next level and teach the women how to package and market the strawberry fruit better”, said PODA director SameenaNazir. That is the only way to get maximum benefit for women if they can now to facilitate to learn the value chain process and get more income”.

We need more partners like USAID and agriculture department of Punjab to come forward to help take the women farmers work to the next level, she emphasized.