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Women of the Sierra
WORLD FOOD PROGRAMME in PERU
"Nearly half of all people on earth live in the villages
and countryside of the developing world. The great
majority of these rural people have not shared
equally or at all in the fruits of progress. Most are
categorized in international statistics as 'poor' and
fully 800 million as 'destitute'. Moreover, their
situation is worsening... and the overall net effect of
the worsening situation of the rural population has
been to further marginalize rural women, even in
those countries which have legislation specifying
equality of men and women." 1
The aim of the United Nations Decade for Women
(1975-1985) is to spur governments and the
international community in general to action to
improve the status of women throughout the world,
enabling them to contribute on an equal basis with
men to the process of economic and social
The World Food Programme, established in 1962
under the joint sponsorship of the United Nations
and the Food and Agriculture Organization, channels
direct food aid in support of projects for social and
economic development and to feed victims of
emergencies. Since its inception it has supported
over 1 000 development projects in more than 110
countries and has given food to nearly 500
emergencies at a total cost of over US$4 000 million.
Among these projects some are aimed particularly at
improving women's health. About 17 percent of all
projects were for the feeding of vulnerable groups -
that is, pregnant and nursing mothers and preschool
children. Of the remaining 83 percent, which
included projects for the improvement of agricultural
production, community development and school
feeding, a proportion of the beneficiaries were
female, though it is difficult to identify their exact
The Programme, together with all the United Nations
bodies, has a mandate to contribute to the aims of
the UN Decade for Women, and has declared its
intention of making food a more effective aid for
women's advancement, primarily for improved
education, employment and health.
Practical ways in which this can be done have been
suggested. Food distribution at health centres brings
many poor women together, giving opportunities for
group learning and cooperative action. Women have
the responsibility for providing food for the family
and are therefore eager to earn food as volunteers in
community self-help projects and as part wages in
food for work. School feeding and food assistance to
vocational and literacy training can have enormous
benefits for women. Food aid can be a catalyst to
stimulate action by governments and can be
combined with financial and technical aid given by
There is, however, an uphill battle to be fought to
change attitudes both at the local, national and
international levels so that in the Programme's
future operations women are seen not as passive
receivers of food aid but as active participants in the
design and execution of projects.
This booklet deals with the example of rural women
in depressed mountain villages of Peru, but the
basic problems of poor rural women are very similar
the world over.
I FAO/WCARRD/INF. 3. World Conference on Agrarian Reform and Rural Development.
Title: Women of the Sierra
In the high valleys of the
Peruvian Andes, one of the
poorest areas of the world,
things haven't changed much
for women since the Spaniards
overthrew the Incan empire.
They do the strenuous farm
work together with their men.
Few concessions are made to
The land is poor and it is hard at
such altitudes to produce
enough to eat.
Many of the men leave the land
to become construction workers
and miners, or do seasonal
farmwork in other areas.
They still turn the stony earth
with heavy hand implements.
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They will perhaps come back to
do the ploughing and bring in
And for the annual festivals the
families will be reunited.
But all over the Third World
industrial development is
draining the able-bodied men
from poor rural areas.
And more and more women
temporarily become heads of
families; permanently so if their
men find other partners where
they work. Then the money
stops coming and the women
are left to struggle alone.
Women who migrate to the
. .- < cities find little for them there
.but poorly paid domestic work,
prostitution or begging.
An illiterate peasant woman left
to bring up her children as a
subsistence farmer on poor land
Shas the same basic problems in
'any country of the Third World.
The burdens she shoulders are
heavy even if her husband is
still there. The care of the
children, managing the
household and feeding the
family are her primary concern.
She cooks in her small dark
kitchen over a wood fire.
She fetches water often
rn-g up for hours at the spring
or well and carrying the heavy
containers home on her back.
She fetches wood for the fire,
walking further and further from
the village as the nearer trees
are cut down. Often dried
animal dung is the only fuel
She washes the family's clothes
in what water is available,
sometimes clean but always
On the land the tasks vary with
the seasons it may be
sowing the seed ...
Or weeding the young plants ...
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Or drying and storing the crop.
There are the animals to be fed
The cows have to be milked,
and the milk must be
She weaves to make warm
clothes for the family to protect
them from the bitter winds of
the Andes and maybe some
extra garments for sale.
The women are up before dawn
to make the bread and walk
long distances to sell it in the
-. They sell what little produce
,. they have left over after the
._--.. family's needs are met and
S their day's profits are small.
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While their mothers work the
little girls are burdened with the
care of younger brothers and
Girls learn from their mothers to
play a submissive and
subservient role. While boys are
encouraged to be masterful and
demanding, girls must please
and serve the needs of males.
Men make the decisions and
contract business. They hold the
titles to land and property.
Women are excluded from
business affairs. Three out of
every four illiterates are female.
If there is a possibility of
learning better farming methods,
it is the men who get the
instruction. New ideas and
methods rarely reach the
If cooperatives are formed to
improve conditions for the
farmers, the women can rarely
be members in their own right.
Women are conditioned to think
of their work outside the home
as "helping" the men and
therefore secondary and
unimportant. They rarely protest
or struggle to challenge male
Girls often become mothers in
their early teens. Economic
necessity forces them to seek a
partner who will maintain them,
even if the arrangement is only
a temporary one.
The babies will continue to
arrive over the next thirty years
or so and the women will
support them as best they can,
with or without permanent
Poor diet, continuous
childbearing, lack of knowledge
about their own bodies makes
young women into old ones
before their fertile years are
Little children suffer from lack of
attention, care and adequate
food when another baby comes
too soon. Their mother is
drained of energy.
The graves of babies and young
children outnumber those of
adults in the cemeteries.
What can be done to spare the
waste of poor rural women's
energy and lighten their loads?
How can outside aid stimulate
activities to improve their lot?
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The basic needs are obvious.
Better nutrition and health care,
fewer babies, better knowledge
of how to limit their number and
keep those that are born alive
Better education for women.
Learning to read and write is
only the beginning of new
self-respect and confidence.
Better training and work
opportunities. Women must
learn to lead and teach others.
Greater access to resources.
Since much of the burden of
food production falls on women,
they also must be taught
improved farming methods, new
work skills and the use of
Millions of mothers and babies
throughout the world have
benefited from supplementary
feeding schemes supported by
the World Food Programme.
WFP is a joint programme of the
United Nations and the Food
and Agriculture Organization
(FAO) which uses food donated
voluntarily by more than 100
countries to help economic and
social development and assist
emergencies in more than 100
The World Food Programme's
assistance has done much to
improve nutrition standards to
combat the draining effect of
pregnancy on women's health
and give their infants a better
start in life.
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The Programme has also been
trying to see what it can do for
women, besides helping them in
their role as mothers during the
period they are expecting or
nursing their babies. Projects
such as these reach directly
large numbers of poor women.
Distribution of food rations at
health centres can be an
opportunity for meeting, talking
and learning. Women in rural
areas are unorganized. They
have no time and little incentive
to think of changing or
improving their lives.
Coming together to collect
rations can lead to the formation
of women's clubs for self-help.
Solidarity in common hardship
and a desire to work for change
is likely to outlast their
entitlement to food aid.
Classes on nutrition, child care,
family planning and health can
be introduced through the
mothers to the whole
community and it is important
that men should also be
involved in them.
Literacy classes can bring new
confidence and open up a new
world .en-riraiir enthusiasm
Mothers who have discovered
the importance of literacy are
more likely to insist on their
children attending school
regularly. Their influence on the
new generation is of prime
In school-feeding projects more
importance must be given to
in.:lj.jirig girls and making sure
that future plans favour girls so
that they will eventually form
half of the school population.
Girls and their parents need to
be convinced that a girl's
education is worthwhile and that
her prospects in life will be
improved by the knowledge and
skills she acquires.
Government savings on school
feeding schemes can be used
to support these aims by
providing hostels or vocational
training centres for girls.
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In many food-aided projects
locally trained personnel such
as nurses, midwives, teachers
and administrative assistants are
lacking. This is where other
aid-giving agencies can play an
Much of the work of food
distribution and record keeping
can be done by local women if
they are given some training.
Indeed the involvement and
training of local women as
helpers can be one of the
additional benefits of WFP
Poor mothers receiving food aid
for a limited period of time
should be encouraged during
that time to prepare themselves
for when food aid ends.
Mothers' groups can grow and
sell food from their own plots,
buy food in bulk on a
cooperative basis and raise cash
for food by other group
Women should have a say in
village development priorities,
such as the siting of water
supplies, grain storage, .;llag-
Mothers' clubs helped by WFP
food, which can be sold to
members, can encourage group
savings activities and
investments. Little by little they
can buy equipment and
In the community, efforts must
be made to promote more
participation by women in the
decisions about what is to be
achieved by self-help
Food-for-work schemes can
encourage women to build what
they themselves need; creches
and nursery schools for
example. Given the chance,
women will willingly work to
reach targets they themselves
A fundamental achievement for
a poor woman is to be able to
make some money of her own.
Whether she is alone or has a
husband, her ability to
contribute to the family budget
is important for her own prestige
and her influence in the family.
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Women often have skills that
are either not recognized or are
exploited by others. Handicrafts
provide extra earning
opportunities to women and are
the most usual activities
encouraged by outside aid.
Training and quality control are
essential as markets are often
flooded with inferior work.
And unless women are trained
also to be managers and
book-keepers and to control the
business side as well, they will
not get a just return for their
Training in various aspects of
agriculture would enable women
to get better returns for their
labour. Instruction should be
given by people, especially
women, who really understand
The care and rearing of
livestock and poultry, how to
use fertilizers and insecticides,
how to lighten their workload
with simple technology these
are all vital to rural women.
',- They need to be able to deal
with business matters
themselves to reach wider
markets and to become full
members of cooperatives. This
would enable them to have
access to transport and to buy
seeds, fertilizers and equipment.
The processing of agricultural
products also offers income
earning possibilities for women.
Coffee sorting, preservation of
fruit and vegetables, processing
of milk, fibres, skins and so on.
"' -- Women should be assisted to
form their own cooperatives and
have small decentralized
workshops with flexible hours
for those who cannot leave their
village because of home
In traditional and patriarchal
societies a woman's work is
regarded as part of her duties
as daughter, wife or mother.
Since she rarely earns a wage
she becomes invisible to
economists and statisticians and
is not thoughtt of as part of the
economically active population.
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Project planners should explore
the many ways in which rural
women are already working and
producing to see how
development projects can
reduce their burdens and
improve their rewards.
Although in many parts of the
world women constitute the
majority of the rural poor, and in
some areas grow 80 percent of
local food supplies, the
development process has too
often ignored them.
There is plenty of evidence to
show that the oppression of
women and their exclusion from
the opportunities and rewards of
the development process is only
adding to the problems of
Il lhnla;" I
Aid programmes can do more
for poor women than they have
done up to now. Why, when
women form slightly more than
half of the world's population,
has so little thought been given
to their real needs?
The time has come for all those
concerned with development aid
to tackle the problem of making
food and other aid a more
flexible tool to help rural women
out of their backwardness and
poverty and give them and their
children a better chance of
survival in the harsh reality of
the World Food Programme
by the Information Division o
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,. World Food Programme by the
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