1 August 1997

A strong voice for the worlds country women

Meetings, committees and the occasional trip abroad are integral parts of Hilda Stewarts life and all because of her concerns for farm and family. Ann Rogers reports

HILDA STEWART speaks up for her fellow farm women both at home and abroad.

So much so that she received an MBE for her services to rural women in the 1996 New Years Honours list. The timing of the investiture she remembers particularly clearly: "I was in Buckingham Palace the day before the BSE crisis broke," she explains.

Hilda, of Randalstown, Co Antrim, works beside her husband John and son Roy farming three different holdings and a separate parcel of land, a total of 142ha (350 acres) on which they run sheep and cattle "and a few horses," as Hilda puts it. "We have three brood mares so they tend to accumulate," she says.

While Roy is not keen on them, horses are a special interest, for John and for Roys two sisters, though the girls have long left home and are no longer directly involved in farming these days.

Hilda, however, is deeply involved with farming both at home and far beyond their farm gate.

Last autumn she represented Northern Irelands women farmers in Brussels as part of the UK delegation to the COPA European Women Farmers Days. That was shortly after the launch of the Ulster Farmers Unions Farm Family Committee, which she chairs.

Much in common

The Brussels trip – meeting and comparing experiences with farm women from 15 countries – gave her some ideas for the Farm Family Committee, she said at the end of the three-day gathering that had shown farm women across the EU to have so much in common.

The Ulster Farmers Union set up the Farm Family Committee to help give Northern Irelands farm women an opportunity to be heard, acknowledging that farming is not simply a job but an activity that shapes the familys way of life. The social and economic issues need attention from all concerned and not just from those heading the businesses.

"Although the structure was there and women should have been involved in the UFU they were not involved. Women didnt feel they wanted to go to the union," says Hilda who is not phased by being the one woman sitting among 79 men on the UFU executive.

"In July 95 a group of eight women from across the province formed a working party to see if there was a role within the union and to see if we could get involved," she says.

This led to the setting up of the Farm Family Committee, the aims of which include improving understanding between rural and urban dwellers, furthering education and training for the farm family and promoting Northern Irelands produce.

At this time, Hilda had also been encouraging eastern European women to get involved in decision making through her involvement with the Associated Country Women of the World. "It was ironic promoting that within the European sphere and wanting it at home in agricultural politics at the same time," she recalls.

Her role with ACWW is a progression from her role with the Womens Institute.

Meeting neighbours

When, back in 1970, she went along to a formation meeting of Randalstown WI it was to get to know her neighbours – little did she realise what an impact WI membership would have on her life.

By the early 1980s Hilda had become chairman of Northern Irelands Federation of Womens Institutes and represented the federation on the world organisation, the Associated Country Women of the World. She went on to serve as area president in Europe for six years. She is currently deputy president of the world organisation and has been nominated for president. Elections will be held in April 1998.

ACWW continues WIs role of improving the lives of rural women and some of the projects in which Hilda has been involved over the years illustrate this well.

In Eastern Europe ACWW came to the aid of border farming families, displaced by war and the break up of Yugoslavia, who for years had been living in refugee camps – wooden workmens huts on a building site and ex-army camps – making do with communal washing facilities and limited electricity. These forgotten people long to go back to their roots.

Help was given to them in the form of embroidery materials, enabling them to do craft work again, and by providing sponsorship for a choir which went on to give concerts and perform on television. Both activities helped improve the quality of their lives and gave them hope.

A week long ACWW seminar in Antrim gave another group of 22 eastern European women from 11 countries the chance to learn about rural development and small business skills, and about life in Northern Ireland.

As well as going to Brussels last autumn Hilda went to South America, to Columbia for two weeks, to see a project ACWW had financed there. "Forty per cent of the people live in wooden shacks with no running water or sanitation. We would not keep animals in these conditions," she says: "20% of the babies die at birth and 14% of the mothers die in childbirth.

"Five years ago ACWW gave money to a womens group to help these people through education and training, ie better nutrition, standards of living, and for water projects."

ACWW paid for 100 communal wash houses in the southern area. These comprise a sink, shower and toilet. A local mayor was so impressed by the way these installations improved the peoples lives that he found funding for a further 900.

Treacherous journey

Hilda went to visit the communities, travelling in an overladen Land Rover through a mountainous area near Bogata. It was a treacherous journey, she recalls: "Three times I thought Id never see home again."

Her most recent trip abroad was far more comfortable. She went to Canada with three other representatives of Northern Irelands WI to join in the centenary celebrations for the Womens Institute.

And back in Ulster she collected another honour. She was made an Associate of the Royal Agricultural Society, again for her work on behalf of rural women.

Hilda Stewart at home at Drumcullen, Randalstown: The aims of the Ulster Farmers Unions Farm Family Committee, which she chairs, include promoting the role of the farm family as custodians of the countryside.

Hilda adds a stitch to her latest piece of Carrickmacross lace in which organdie is appliqued onto net following a hand-drawn design which must include a continuous line. She learnt to make Carrickmacross lace in the Young Farmers Club and now teaches it to fellow WI members during craft taster days. She worked the lace in the firescreen (shown above) and the lace she made for her daughters wedding dress was of the same design as that she made for her Christening robe.