Documentary “Common Strength,” exploring how empowering women farmers frees them to feed their families and flourish in their communities, debuted in Winnipeg on October 15.
“If we’re not talking about women in agriculture, we’re missing a huge swath of women,” said Carol Thiessen, senior policy adviser with the Canadian Foodgrains Bank, which sponsored the film.
Why it matters: Empowering women farmers decreases hunger and raises the profile of women in developing countries, the Canadian Foodgrains Bank says.
She said the current Canadian government has touted gender equality while reducing support for agricultural aid. “We need more support for agriculture if we’re going to support women.”
The documentary aims to win the hearts and minds of Canadians — especially women farmers — to use their voices to influence policy, Thiessen said.
The film is the fish out of water story of Manitoba farmer Colleen Dyck as she travels to Kenya and spends a week with farmer Lucy Anyango, an agriculture trainer through a Canadian Foodgrains Bank program.
Dyck owns a large grain and oilseed farm near Niverville with husband Grant and her four children. Anyango has five children, aged two to 16. Her husband works in Nairobi and is only able to visit a couple of times per year. Anyango farms less than two acres.
The film follows Dyck as she leaves Manitoba and travels to Anyango’s rural village. The two women meet with a warm embrace and before long, they’re pictured laughing heartily together. Dyck says they bonded quickly over motherhood and farming.
The next morning they rise early, and after sending Anyango’s children to school, go out to the fields. Dyck learns how to use hand tools to work the land, and expresses excitement over this.
Her excitement fades when walking to fetch water using two large jugs. Dyck takes the smaller vessel and watches as Anyango perches her own jug comfortably on her head and says she’s “relaxed.”
“I am not relaxed!” Dyck replies, which caused Anyango (and the theatre) to laugh.
Dyck muses that she would not be able to run her business if she had to haul water several times per day. Anyango’s day is filled with water, cooking and cleaning.
After it rains, Lucy’s “chama” (organized group of farmers working together) comes to her farm and they plant the field.
“I saw her be her powerful woman self and it was beautiful to watch,” says Dyck.
The group later meets for training, and to discuss business. The chama has a shared banking and loan system, in which each member pays into the fund and gets a turn to withdraw a small loan to invest in their farm or household.
Local chief Joseph Namudeche says the work has united the women. “Lucy has become a role model,” he says.
The film says that conservation agriculture techniques have increased Anyango’s crop yields, giving her financial leeway and time to get more training and become more involved in her community. Other women saw her flourishing farms and decided to try her methods.
“What do the men do?” an audience member asked during a panel Q and A following the film.
Meagan Silencieux, who travelled with the Kenyan film crew while Dyck was with Anyango, told the audience that many of the women in Anyango’s chama farm alone while their husbands travel for work.
Despite this, many women lack rights to make decisions with their land and money. Women in developing countries often struggle to implement new techniques, like conservation agriculture, because their husbands have final say on the farm, according to a Canadian Foodgrains Bank news release.
Research shows that if women farmers had the same access to production resources as male farmers, hunger around the world would decrease by 12 to 17 per cent, the release said.
Silencieux said that as women apply conservation agriculture techniques and their yields increase, the men take note and she has seen gender roles shift. Men take a more active role working at home.
“The gender issue is so deep, and there’s hurt on both sides,” said Dyck. She said that the men also struggled with what neighbours say when they give their wives more control over the farm.
She witnessed Anyango’s husband be called out by a community member after he went to the market to buy her spices. Dyck said this made her reconsider her own judgments and his struggles.
She added that witnessing Anyango and the other women’s restraint impressed her. The women would silently do what needed to be done to advance.
“If I could speak to Lucy in her mother tongue, I would tell her that her sacrifices are seen,” Dyck says near the end of the film. She said Anyango keeps silent when she could speak. She lets others lead. She doesn’t go after praise, but does what’s right.
“She’s a role model to me,” Dyck said.