9 October 1998

Reminder to the world

OCTOBER 15 is World Rural Womens Day. It is a day for raising the profile of the rural women who contribute so much to food production around the world. It is a day for making governments and the public aware of their crucial role and for generating support for them.

World Rural Womens Day has its roots in the 1995 UN World Conference on Women held in Beijing, and the Associated Country Women of the World is one of the organisations responsible for promoting the idea.

ACWW has 9m members in 365 societies in 71 countries around the world. The Womens Institute and the Farm Womens Club are among its affiliated societies. It works to achieve friendship and understanding, and to raise standards of living and education for women and their families through community development projects and training.

In the Third World practical help is ACWWs priority. It is working to provide rural communities with clean drinking water and sanitation. Projects include bore wells in India, solar pumps in the Sudan and a safe water supply for a village in Peru. It is also working with self-reliant womens groups on food production projects. Examples include gardening co-operatives in the Gambia, a dairy project in Kenya and a poultry project in Lesotho.

In the West leadership and the empowerment of women are the leading concerns. For example, ACWWs 1995 Moscow conference, Women in Decision-Making, which focused on obstacles to womens empowerment and produced an action plan to integrate women into decision making processes.

The Eastern European programme ranges from a peace choir for women refugees in Croatia to health seminars in Slovakia and is an area of work in which world president Hilda Stewart has played a major part.

Hilda is from Northern Ireland and farms with her husband John and son Roy near Randalstown in Co Antrim. She is a past chairman of the Federation of Womens Institutes of Northern Ireland and in 1996 received the MBE for services to rural women.

It was through her commitment to the WI that she became involved with ACWW, eventually serving as area president for Europe and then deputy world president. She was elected ACWW world president this spring at the organisations 22nd Triennial Conference which was held in South Africa and will serve for a term of three years.

While deputy president Hilda co-ordinated the ACWW/UK National Lotteries Board four-year project in Mali, West Africa, which is typical of ACWWs programmes of practical help. In Mali the work included establishing literacy centres, renovating and equipping a communal health centre, training traditional birth attendants, developing two market gardens as income generating schemes and setting up a savings/loan credit scheme for women.

At home in Northern Ireland Hilda has significant roles within the Ulster Farmers Union. She is a member of its executive and chairs its Farm Family Committee, which works, among other things, to promote Northern Irelands produce and involve women in farm decision making. Most of the committee members are women and two of them are representatives of the Young Farmers Clubs of Ulster.

UFFC is only two years old but has already made its mark through such activities as British beef campaigns and setting up a rural stress initiative.

This autumn it has been making even greater strides. First there was the Ulster food promotion to encourage consumers to support their local farmers and feed their families on locally produced food, and canvassing the supermarkets to stock Ulster produce. They have all promised to do so, says Hilda, who has also been putting a lot of effort into setting up a Women into Farm Management course.

"It has been two years of hard work," she says, pointing out that the UFU has put up a quarter of the money and the rest has come from the Training for Women Network.

Application forms are now available for the 15 places on a pilot course open to women of all ages who live on farms. It will run for six months and comprise day-long workshops once a fortnight. These will include sessions on various aspects of financial management, how to seek employment outside the home and how to establish farm diversifications.

An achievement to celebrate on World Rural Womens Day.