Very early in the morning, three WFP colleagues and myself begin our journey to the mountains of northern Nicaragua on a winding, partially paved road. Our purpose is to participate in a celebration to mark International Women’s Day, an activity organized by women from 10 rural communities who also eager to share their achievements after participating in the Cash for Work programme.
Four hours later, Helmut W. Rauch (WFP Country Director), Marcela Mayorga (Programme Assistant), Edgar Velásquez (Driver), and I arrive in the small community of Apantillo. Under a leafy tree, the women meet us to share stories from two years of experience with WFP’s Cash for Work programme. Thanks to a contribution from the European Union, Cash for Work was the first programme of its kind to be implemented in Nicaragua.
What initially catches my eye is the extensive variety of fruits and vegetables that have been cultivated by the women in their gardens. I also notice the motto that they have chosen for today’s celebration. Printed on a banner hanging between two trees are these words: "We are empowered women with well-fed families".
It's Summer, But Home Gardens Thrive
It is summer here in Nicaragua, and the temperature reaches 37°C (99 F). Homes lack water, and the lakes and rivers are drying up. Still, the crops that the women have planted continue to thrive.
Covering two large tables we see yucca, arum root, plantains, bananas, beautiful cabbage, pumpkins too heavy to carry, onions, carrots, pineapples, mandarins and coconuts. There are approximately 60 people present, including the women, team members from the Foundation for the Development of Matagalpa--FUDEMAT, WFP's partner in this project--and our WFP's field colleagues.
Following the prayer that traditionally begins activities in rural Nicaragua (giving thanks for the blessings they have received), we listen to the words of welcome from Candida Maldonado, as well as the music, singing, dancing, and sharing of experiences that follow.
The Cash for Work programme supplied each one of the 541 female participants with approximately 100 dollars over a period of six months. In exchange, the participants attended workshops and received technical assistance (through FUDEMAT) with methods to improve their harvests. With the money, they then purchased additional food to complement their families’ diet. "I learned and gained so much," says Candida. "Part of what I was able to grow served as food for my family. I was able to sell the other part to earn money and purchase more food."
The Men Support their Women
Although all of the participants were women, they received the support of their husbands and partners with clearing the land, cutting the weeds, collecting the seedlings, and treating the plants with organic pesticides. Some of these men are also in attendance today, choosing mostly to stand quietly in the back. They clearly recognize that the women are taking a leadership role in the nutritional security of their families.
Jose Santos Lopez takes the opportunity to say that the programme has been beneficial for his entire family. "Before, we didn’t know how to take advantage of the garden," he says. "We only had corn husks and trash outside. Now it’s nice, because it’s full of edible plants". Lopez grows corn and beans and says he’s happy when he leaves for work and his wife stays home to care for the fruits and vegetables.
The crowd grows increasingly joyful as more and more women share their stories and experiences. Suddenly, Josefa Siles takes the microphone and begins to sing and dance. A few minutes later, everyone is singing and dancing, including my boss, who is overcome by the emotion that results from the warm welcome of the community and the satisfaction of their success.
While the group dances, Martha Adilia Garcia, a 23-year-old mother of four (ages 8, 6, 5, and 3), explains to me that with the money she received, she purchased sugar, rice, meat and cream for her children. For the poorest of these families, eating meat is a luxury in and of itself. "We would only eat meat once a month, if we were able to buy it. But we also had a limited amount of rice and sugar," she explains.
Eating Fruits and Vegetables Not a Local Custom
This is an area with large coffee plantations, where men and women earn very little money by working as seasonal laborers in the coffee harvest. Here, it isn’t customary to eat fruits and vegetables. Diets are limited to corn tortillas and beans, when they are available. "Families can’t purchase vegetables," affirms Edgard Matamoros, director of FUDEMAT. "They are very expensive because they aren’t produced in the area." Due to this lack of availability, there is little opportunity for local families to consume sufficient quantities of vitamins and minerals.
Martha and the other women also have eggs and milk for their kids, due to the fact that the government has provided them with cows and chickens through the Productive Food Programme. In this way, WFP has collaborated with the national initiatives to fill the gaps and reduce hunger and poverty in Nicaragua.
As the event comes to an end, WFP Country Director Helmut W. Rauch congratulates the women and their families for their determination and dedication. They bid us a friendly farewell and make us promise to return soon. We begin the four hour return to Managua with the satisfaction of knowing that these women are not only empowered, but also well-fed.