OPINION EDITORIAL by Ambassador Eric P. Whitaker
Since 2008, the international community celebrates International Day of Rural Women every October 15th. The holiday honors the critical role and contribution of rural women in enhancing agricultural and rural development, improving food security, and eradicating rural poverty. In Niger, just over half of the population is female and approximately 85% of all Nigeriens live outside of the major cities. Therefore, this day honors about 10 million Nigerien women in places as diverse as Yatakala in the West to Bilma in the East and from Magaria in the South to Djado in the North and everywhere in between. Likewise, it honors more than 35 million American women.
Since the United Nations launched this holiday, there has been a growing consensus recognizing the important and beneficial impact rural women have on society. More and more researchers are realizing that empowering women is central to ensuring the sustainability of rural households and communities and improving rural livelihoods. For example, rural women in the United States and Niger make significant contributions to agricultural production, food security, land and natural resource management, and building climate resilience.
The U.S. Embassy is committed to working with Niger. We share common goals, including elevating the role of rural women, encouraging economic development, and enhancing stability in the Sahel. A major highlight in this regard is our Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) Compact, the $437 million, 5-year agricultural productivity program with Niger, which has introduced reforms that will improve access to water for crop and livestock production and access to important farming inputs such as fertilizer and veterinary services. In November 2019, I presided over the commissioning of the rehabilitated Konni irrigation system with the President of Niger. The MCC has since launched a literacy program for the farmers who will use the system: more than 4,600 farmers have signed up, including 2,070 who are women under the age of 35. MCC’s efforts will have a positive impact on the livelihoods of an estimated 3.9 million Nigeriens, including millions of rural women and the households they manage.
Another goal is to create a positive outlook for rural women in Niger. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) invests nearly $150 million annually in Niger, including $18 million for the U.S. President’s Malaria Initiative (PMI). USAID programs focus on agriculture, food security, democracy, education, health, and conflict management, all of which contribute to Niger’s development. The PMI program supports the Ministry of Public Health for malaria control and prevention, to combat this terrible and deadly disease which infects thousands of rural Nigerien women every year. USAID’s programs have ensured water at health care centers, therefore encouraging rural women to deliver their babies in safe, hygienic centers. USAID has also trained community health care workers, ensuring availability of quality services closer to rural women and their families. USAID tackles gender-specific barriers that limit the potential of rural women to effectively contribute to household food security by working to improve community gender dynamics and young women’s needs. Functional literacy and numeracy programming better prepare rural women to serve in leadership roles and to combat child marriage, which disproportionately affects rural girls. USAID’s food security activities help to lessen the impact of the gender-based violence and security restrictions placed on rural women and girls.
Additionally, as we announced on September 28, the U.S. government, through the U.S. Department of State and USAID, is providing $7.1 million in humanitarian assistance to help Nigerien people who have lost their homes and/or livelihoods to recent historic flooding. Much of this assistance will end up helping rural families recover from this devastating natural disaster.
Promoting gender equality is an important aspect of U.S. diplomacy and elevating rural women as well. To this end the United States government enabled our exchange alumnae to mentor and support the next generation of Nigerien women entrepreneurs through our “Pay It Forward” micro grant program. Similarly, we have assisted hundreds of Nigerien women entrepreneurs and journalists through professional training, and we have promoted soccer and basketball for hundreds of girls and their coaches.
In closing I would like to offer a warm thank you to the millions of rural Nigerien women who toil every day to provide and care for their families and who make their communities better places to live. We honor you today. And while we are working closely with the government of Niger and Nigerien civil society organizations to provide opportunities for rural women to succeed, there is still more to be done for rural women here and everywhere throughout the world. Security, stability, and prosperity will come to fruition when rural women become more financially stable, educated, food secure, and have access to means to grow their businesses. Then, as rural Nigerien women become more empowered to create a secure, stable, and prosperous Niger, we can all say, “Le Niger se lève.”