16 June 1995

Making female voices audible

IRELANDs farming leaders recognise that women have a vital role to play in the development of Irish agriculture.

Alongside the commodity committees that make up the structure of the countrys biggest farming union, the Irish Farmers Association, is the family farm committee chaired by Joan Fitzpatrick.

The committee was set up in 1976 to give farm women a voice within the organisation. Under her leadership it has proved that it is not only a platform for farm women but a source of practical support. This spring for the second year running Mrs Fitzpatrick and her team organised training seminars across the country.

The seminars covered everything from form filling and alternative enterprises to financial management and inheritance. Last year about 5000 women took part and this year was just as successful with more than 250 participants in some areas.

"We applied to the Department of Social Welfare and got a grant of £10,000," she explains. "We divided it between us on a county basis so that each county representative had £350 to spend on organising an information seminar or workshop."

The success of the seminars proves Mrs Fitzpatricks assertion that farm women are hungry for information. But the IFA alone cannot fill the demand and it wants government to recognise the education and training needs of farm women.

Teagasc, the governments farm advisory and training service, does provide short courses. But figures show that in 1993 women accounted for just 686 of the 5012 adults who took part.

Figures also show that women contribute more than 27% of total farm labour input. With continuing pressure on farm income Mrs Fitzpatrick says farm women are set to play an even bigger role and they need the necessary information and skills to help them adapt to change in the industry.

The IFA has spelt out how government can help in its blueprint for education and training. It calls on the government agencies responsible for farm training to supply relevant education services.

In particular it calls for the reintroduction of the 100-hour course on home and farm management. This course which was partly funded by the EC covered similar topics to the IFA seminars, but it ended in the early 1980s.

"We are the only group of women in Ireland who have actually looked at the whole area of education and training specifically for farm women," says Mrs Fitzpatrick.

She adds that Teagasc has told the IFA that it will run any course it wants. But the farm women will have to plan and organise the training themselves.

As a busy mother of three, she is well aware of the restrictions placed on women who care for children or elderly relatives. Many may not have access to cars or are unable to drive.

The IFA, through the farm family committee, has called for more support for carers in rural areas. It wants government to use EC funds to train child-care workers and supply creches. Home relief services to provide support for carers are another option and would help to overcome the isolation experienced by many.

But in the absence of such support the training blueprint points out that distance learning is an alternative way of delivering information and training to women at home. It asks for a fresh approach to the use of television and radio and calls on programme makers to look at broadcast education initiatives which target farmwomen.

"At least it would make women feel there is somebody thinking about them," says Mrs Fitzpatrick.

She believes Irish farm women are lucky in having a structure within the IFA to lobby effectively on their behalf. But it would be good to see more women on the IFAs commodity committees and other farming organisations.

She is confident that women will eventually be better represented within farming – but that in part depends on their willingness to become involved in organisations which ensure their voices are heard.

Liz Mason