This month is Rural Women’s month on the GFAR blog – and today, we look to the inspiring achievements of Lydia Sasu, a pioneering advocate from Ghana who has dedicated her career to empowering rural women in agriculture.
Lydia was awarded the ‘World Women Foundation Award’ in 2011, the ‘World Food Prize’ in 2015, the ‘FAO 40th Celebration Award’ in 2016 and was the recipient of the US Embassy in Ghana’s ‘Women of Courage Award’ in 2020.
Born into a farming family in Ghana, Lydia Sasu has worked in farming since early childhood. But even at a young age, Lydia was troubled by something. Her father, a leader within the local agricultural community, regularly held meetings with other farmers to address key issues affecting the local community and to trouble-shoot problems – but women farmers were never involved in these discussions.
So it was here that Lydia’s life mission became clear: she needed to find a way to better support women farmers in her community and to involve them in agricultural innovation and development.
Nearly 50 percent of rural Ghanaian women work within the agricultural sector,” explains Lydia. “But they face multiple disadvantages – in particular, they tend to have access to far fewer resources than males and have typically been excluded from decision-making. So when the time came, I chose to study agriculture before working for several years at the Ministry of Agriculture’s Women in Agricultural Development division.~ Lydia Sasu
But this was just the beginning of a career that would see her transform the lives of countless women working within the rural agricultural sector.
In 1984, while participating in a conference marking World Food Day, she and several other women who were there observed just how little attention was given to women’s voices. “It cemented my desire to change things,” Lydia explains. “Women have valuable advice to share and must be part of all solutions. This was the moment I really started to campaign for women’s voices to be heard within the agricultural sector.”
Before long, Lydia’s work advocating for the rights of rural agricultural women saw her invited to coordinate a UN Food and Agriculture (FAO) project – the ‘Freedom from Hunger Campaign/ Action for Development.’ Here, she dedicated herself to improving women’s living standards within the Greater Accra region and to achieving food security by helping them to develop their skills and capacity. “This role was the seed that really enabled me to make a tangible difference to the lives of rural agricultural women.”
Under her instructions, for example, Lydia helped women in the fisheries sector learn to use the “Chorkor smoker” – a more efficient method for smoking fish than the traditional ovens that many had previously been using. Elsewhere, she trained women in crop farming and livestock rearing to improve their farming methods – and even facilitated capacity-building exchange visits. Looking ahead to future generations, she also worked hard to encourage children to attend school.
“This work was hugely rewarding,” she says, “and I was constantly motivated to come up with new programmes that would transform rural women’s lives. I think it was particularly successful because I never hesitated to meet with higher-level officers if I needed support.”
The importance of collective action
Lydia’s experience working with FAO gave her a range of invaluable skills, as well as the confidence to deepen her advocacy and lobbying efforts. In particular, she recognized the importance of women working together – so she has encouraged, and taught, many to form associations so that they can make their voices heard and advocate for their own causes.
She describes one particularly successful group effort. “A group of women came together to purchase land, build an office space and lobby for the establishment of a training centre. This centre is now available for everyone in the area – and was solely made possible because of the efforts of these women, even though they were illiterate. They also hold monthly, quarterly and annual meetings where they can discuss new ideas and find solutions to problems. It is a great example of women working together to create change.”
So committed is Lydia to the power of collective action that she also initiated and organized Rural Women’s Day celebrations in Ghana to encourage rural women to collaborate and share their best practices and lessons learned for food security, and to ensure that their voices are heard.
Does Lydia have any pointers for others keen to transform the lives of rural women? “Through both education and teamwork, women can achieve anything,” she says. “We should also be encouraging youth to volunteer and assist rural women in improving their living standards.”