Yearly the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) brings together, apart from official UN delegations, thousands of women human rights defenders, activists and feminists, either online or in person. WO=MEN publishes the stories of some of these amazing women.
This is part 1: Mela Chiponda explaining the links of gender, extractives, climate and environment. Also read part 2: Lara Jesani: 'For those who fight this system, there are consequences'; part 3: UN Representative Enaam Ahmed Ali: ‘We All Want to Feel At Home’; part 4: Marianela Mejía: ‘Without Our Land, We Have No Culture’ and part 5: Kholi- Sisonke: 'Consent Should Not Be Illegal'.
Stories by Makena Ngito.
"Hello, my name is Mela Chiponda, and I hope the story that I’m telling will help you understand why us, the women, are angry about the land. I work as a consultant for different organizations, sharing the knowledge that I have gotten from women all my life. I am also a popular educator, teaching the people these lessons so that they can see the importance of our work and assist our methods, and I am also a university lecturer. Merging the information I have with what is in the books and helping the students see that ‘modern’ methods really just borrowed a leaf from traditional ones is important.
But I think the peak of my work, what I cherish the most, is getting to work with women from different places to co-create knowledge. Taking the knowledge we have learnt from our grandmothers, our friends, our neighbours, our co-wives, and sharing it with other women, has to be the most beautiful fountain of knowledge and generosity that I know, and I’m proud to be part of. This knowledge has fed our children, strengthened our communities… saved our lives.
If my life will be looked at, I want this to stand out.
The women saved my life.
Our lives are tied to the land. We depend on it for the food we give our children and the water we drink, and when these children of ours fall sick we turn to the same land for herbs that heal. This land gives us meaning. To lose it would mean, losing our lives.”
A little girl really has no business questioning systems and how things work, but it seemed that from when I could open my eyes and see, I had questions, and these questions have not been answered to date.
I should have been playing in the compound and running through fields with my brothers, but instead, I’d accompany my grandmother and other women to the farm at four in the morning, and come back at eleven am- when it was too hot to farm- to do household chores and cook for my brothers and uncles who would be seated the whole time. And maybe this wouldn’t have been so bad, if my brothers didn’t eat first and my grandmother and the other women last.
Maybe it wouldn’t be too bad, when even outside our compound, I would still find myself serving another group, which was the white missionaries and their children.
What’s laughable is that the missionaries would hold up this chunky book and ‘teach’ us about kindness and being neighborly to each other, then turn, with that same hand that had held the Bible a few minutes ago, and point accusing fingers at the nearest black face if a white child even so much as sniffled.
"Dear African child, the tears of a white child will always, unavoidably be your fault. No matter how far you are, the finger will point at you.”
And we thought, when the white people gave up their power back to us, and we attained this beautiful thing called independence, things would change.
We would go back to respecting our women. Remembering our values of equality and zero discrimination.
But, it became worse.
You may know from the news that my country, Zimbabwe, had one of the biggest diamond finds in history. And this should be a good thing, right? It should boost our economy and provide some stability for the community.
But the trucks came in and tore up our soil.
And the pesticides on our food crops.
And the chemicals in our rivers.
Then the diseases.
The desecration of our holy tree.
And the killings.
Then, hell came.
Let me take you back to my point about women, and land.
See, in most places, not just where I live, the women till the land. They tend to it so carefully, with so much dedication, and in turn the land gives them life. But this land that the women work on, singing, talking, supporting each other, creating safe spaces for communities, this land doesn’t belong to them.
Because to society, a woman is just like that land she tills, to be owned and used to give life, and only that. So she cannot own.
This land belongs to the men who don’t know anything about weather patterns, or planting and harvesting seasons. It would be surprising if they even knew how to dig a hole to plant the seeds in. And that means that when the land bears fruits, the profits belong to the man, and she would be lucky if she got even a crumb of it.
And you’d think that when it comes to time to fight for this land, these same men that get to drink and make merry on these profits, would stand up to defend it…
In every war, from the World Wars to community clashes to struggles for independence to election violence, it is women’s bodies that are always on the line.
From extremities like rape, kidnappings, forced into sexual slavery or early marriage, to what we saw when the government brought in the private developers all after shiny diamonds.
We bathe in the river. Which is also where we get the water that we drink and irrigate our land with.
So when we noticed that our cattle starting to lose their pregnancies, and our women starting to itch their private parts, then eventually our women having miscarriages, and communities getting sick from the water we had been drinking for centuries, we knew something was terribly wrong.
So we brought it up to our leaders, and they responded by telling us to be careful who we were sleeping with, because those were probably sexually transmitted diseases, and definitely not the high amounts of ferrosilicon they were depositing in our waters.
They were probably STDs, even after lab results came in and showed that the toxicity in the water couldn’t support any form of life.
It’s women’s lives on the line, when some of our relish disappears because the soil has become poisonous too. The land that would be grateful enough to give us vegetables even without being planted, now couldn’t give us a thing. Because they called them ‘weeds’ and came with pesticides and chemicals and killed our food.
And their response to that was to tell us to embrace development. To start investing in genetically modified seeds. Us, the women who would not buy or sell seeds but instead exchange them with each other and all have bountiful harvests.
And please, do not think that all they did was give sketchy responses to our requests then go about their business, no.
Because governments need to enforce their power, and make it clear to you that bringing your little concerns to them is annoying. So in they came with the guns, militarization, securitization.
Let’s not forget the heavy taxes they imposed on us, and the way even a small plant could no longer thrive on a poor person’s land.
We couldn’t even access the places where our leaders were located anymore.
We do not know how to use these new methods. And not because we are not smart enough to learn new things, but we can already see how destructive it will be. We can see that the end goal here is not for us to have easier methods or better harvests (and this really wasn’t needed, because we were never of the capitalist ideas of producing things in an absurd excess, but to have what is enough for us to survive on, and to trade for a few more things.)
The end goal is for them I for us to be dependent on their economic model. To depend on them, because the seeds become useless after one harvest, meaning we have to go buy more seed for them, at outrageous prices, and with the peanuts we have gotten from this unnatural harvest.
Our way of agriculture does not promote one crop growing at the expense of others. There isn’t any singularism with us. With the right care, everything can thrive, and everyone will eat.
So what happens when we destroy our food systems? What will we eat?
Women in Kenya have been fighting to farm their own way, the traditional way, and not how they were taught by their colonizers. Not to forget their food crops- the leafy vegetables and healthy peas that they can take at the end of the day and cook for their families- to focus solely on coffee and tea leaves. Because surely, will we eat coffee? And sure, cash crops are great, but to forsake our own daily routine, daily sustenance, to forget our crops and our ways is not us.
And I wish I could say this has gotten better. I mean. I could state that the government finally allowed women to sell the cotton they had harvested and not their male family members only. But after years of the men taking the profits from the harvests and drinking it all, only bringing home empty pockets and sexually transmitted diseases, thrusting their wives into cycles of poverty and desperation, with the only way out being drinking cotton pesticides and committing suicide, the women are not really eager to pocket the proceeds anymore. This could also be because the husbands are still threatening them, after all, most land legally belongs to men.
We need to start listening to women. Sure, school gives you tons of information, but nothing beats the knowledge that women have passed down generations, nothing beats the lived experiences they have. We need to stop dismissing this knowledge by saying it’s not scientific. Because we have repeatedly seen what happens when we do not listen to women and instead say, "They are just being emotional.”
We need, oh so desperately, to understand that climate change affects us all differently.
For you, it could just be hotter days, a bit of sunburn.
For us, the women in the farms, it’s kneeling in prayer and crying to the skies to open up and give us at least a day of rain, so that our plants don’t dry up, then watching in horror as the skies do open up, but in rage, because somewhere, maybe between the damaged ozone layer, our prayers got mixed up, and the heavens gave us cyclones that swept our crops away.
We need to look at the intersections of gender based injustices, because when you think about violence against women, you only visualize battered faces, and not the violence of poverty, the violence of misogynistic laws, where women work on land they do not own, and only get an almost nil share of the harvest.
It’s still, even today, seeing the effects of the drought from 1992 that swept through Northern Africa.
We aren’t affected the same, but you need to care just as much as we do.
Because when the farmers have no land to till, no crops to grow, no fruits to harvest, what will the rest of the world eat?
What will you eat?
About the author:
Being a writer is basically hearing the softest of words and noticing the little things that go unsaid. Because words for me exist outside of letters and speeches. They’re in the air we breathe and carried by the wind just like the songs that birds sing. Words are still words even when they get caught in our throats or trapped in our minds. They’re an escape when we need to create new realities and the fuel for uprisings and revolutions. I guess that’s why I write, because these little letters on a page hold more power than we could ever know, and I am honoured just to deliver their message.
Atria and WO=MEN are jointly responsible for the coordination of input from civil society to the governmental delegation during the 66th session of Commission on the Status of Women in New York. Follow us on Twitter: @AtriaNieuws and @genderplatform.