Rural Women’s Assembly: the movement empowering women farmers in Southern Africa

Image Credit: Rural Women's Assemblys fotoutställning

The Rural Women’s Assembly (RWA) is an African group working for the rights of female farmers and advocating for climate justice. The RWA is committed to environmental protection, promoting food sovereignty, defending human rights, and combating gender-based violence.

Flaide Macheze from Mozambique, Rejoice Chikauda from Malawi and Reinette Heunis from South Africa—members of the RWA—agreed to participate in an interview for The Perspective Webzine. They shared their perspectives on the movement, discussed their experiences, and highlighted crucial insights they hope to spread.


Can you give us a general overview of the missions and objectives of the RWA?

Rejoice:

This assembly is a movement and its mission is to bring women together to articulate the issues of rural women of the Southern African region. 

RWA is present in 11 countries and its mission is to make sure these women—in their own countries’ chapters—are able to mobilise other women and articulate the issues. For example, the issues of climate justice, gender-based violence, food sovereignty, seeds and also the issue of lands. Rural women must know about these issues and must stand to fight for their own rights as rural women.

Reinette:

I think what’s also important, what is key for us, is that we want to be the voice for the rural. We want to empower women and communicate women’s cases. This is what RWA is standing for, to make sure that women are educated. […]

Rejoice:

We do this in 11 countries, different cultures influence the rights of women differently. So the strategy that you will use or the policy that you will advocate for each and every of these countries will be different. […]

Does what we advocate fit that particular country?

For example, if it’s South Africa and it’s an issue of land: what is the land issue and what are the land laws within that particular country vis-à-vis Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique? And how do we ensure that? Does what we advocate fit that particular country?

Most of the women are not educated so we have to come to a level where you explain to them so that they get to understand the issues of seeds, of lands, in a way that they will be able to speak.

From left to right: Reinette, Flaide, Rejoice (Image Credit: Jonatan Strandqvist)

How and why was the organisation born?

Reinette:

So I think RWA was established in 2008. The vision of the RWA was to be a strong movement that is addressing the issues that are affecting us as women. I think that is why the RWA journey started. 

We connected with my sisters and thought, “Now is the time to start a movement”. It started with very few members but it has been growing and growing because we are really doing advocacy work and making sure that the voice of women out there is being heard. […] All of them [the chapters] are growing, we can see the growth, we can see how the RWA is life-changing.

Flaide:

Maybe to explain, there are quite a few women’s organisations that support women. Some are local organisations, some are international. We wanted something genuine, something that really represents the rural women, the local communities and we also wanted a women’s movement. 

Of course, they say that men are also fighting for women’s issues but we wanted the women to stand up and speak on their own issues. This was also one of the reasons why we had this dream of having this movement. 

It started small, we didn’t even know where we were going. But we wanted something that could represent rural women. Today, we are talking about 16,000 members. 

For you to be able to be a member, you must belong to your country’s chapter. Individual members affiliate themselves with these country chapters and their country chapters are members of the regional chapter. 

We are happy that we have walked a long road, but we are still building because movements always have challenges, new issues coming up. Issues that you didn’t even expect when you started. 

Now, there are members from the Southern African region who like the movement and want to join so we will have to analyse case by case to see if you can really be part of this movement. Because we do have our identity. We’re a loose movement, but we have our identity. There are issues that we stand for and we don’t want members to join who won’t identify themselves with these issues.

Why did you choose to work regionally in Southern Africa?

Flaide:

Southern Africa has its own issues. Of course, gender-based violence is a global issue, but the way things are happening in Southern Africa may differ from how things happen in Northern Africa for example, where there is the influence of Europe. 

When you talk about the issue of land for example, in Southern Africa, there are similarities about access to land: women are not allowed to access land. You cannot talk about the same issues in Uganda. Most Ugandan women have land. They are not restricted from it.

We understood that we share these issues. So let us not amplify, let us not go too far. Let us start small, and maybe later on we can admit other members.

For example, we accepted Tanzania which is not a Southern African country but because of the issue they brought to the table. Congo is trying to apply, but we’re quite sceptical because they have many issues that are different from those we have in our region. 

But we also want to have allies, you don’t have to be necessarily a member of WRA, you can still be our ally. […]

Rejoice:

I think with the movement, it’s easier when you are advocating for similar issues. As you said, Southern Africa has similarities when it comes to hardships women encounter. It’s easier because we know how to fight. If you have more diversity, it’s more complicated. For now, I think this works as a movement. We are talking about issues of land, we know about it.

South Africa is one of the countries where people don’t talk about the issue of land. But in RWA, we talk about it and we put pressure on our government. The name of the campaign is “one woman, one hectare”.

Can you tell us about the main thematic areas you address: SRHR (Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights), food and land rights, natural resources, business and human rights?

Reinette:

We believe that women are the guardians of seeds and we are trying to give them access to good nutritious food. Not having land is very critical because you can’t produce, you can’t feed families.

South Africa is one of the countries where people don’t talk about the issue of land. But in RWA, we talk about it and we put pressure on our government. The name of the campaign is “one woman, one hectare”. […]

This issue is also related to gender-based violence because in many cases, women are dependent on men. They don’t have permanent jobs, the unemployment rate is very high. […] 

Rejoice:

10-15 years ago, we were not really talking about climate change issues. Then it was a topic. So talking about lands and food security and sovereignty, we also have to look at the impact of climate change on the rural. […]

For example, in our 3 countries, we’ve had cyclones in the past years and it has affected a lot of families, especially the women who are actually the ones looking after the lands.

“Often, women are not consulted when it comes to climate justice.”

When it comes to gender-based violence, it comes to the fact that the man thinks he is the owner of the land—but he only comes when the products have to go to the market to get the money. […] 

When we had trouble in Malawi, we had women from other Southern African countries coming to bring indigenous seeds to Malawi, to the women of RWA.

We are looking at sustainability. We want the small woman farmer to have a voice on the issue of climate resilience or climate justice. Often, women are not consulted when it comes to climate justice. It’s a bottom-up approach. When the government wants to make changes it has to go to the ground and consult us, women. […]

Flaide:

Most people ask us: “Why about bodies?”. And we say: “We are suffering from all types of violence”. It’s not only about gender-based violence. When they steal our lands, they are violating us. When we don’t have access to resources like water, which are exploited not for the benefit of rural women, it violates us. 

It is also important to highlight our nature. Mother nature is suffering and since we are connected to nature as rural women—it [nature] is so important. Southern African countries are suffering very much from the consequences of climate change. […] We are afraid that it’s going to be even worse.

By Esther Alves

December 19, 2023

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