Accelerating gender equality with innovations: the MSSRF experience
March 8 is celebrated across the world as International Women’s Day, and M S Swaminathan Research Foundation observed IWD2023 by inviting women from rural and fishing backgrounds to give first-hand accounts of how technological innovations have improved their livelihoods and lives. The event was organised to align with the UN theme for 2023 — DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality –– priority theme for the upcoming 67th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW-67) on ‘Innovation and technological change, and education in the digital age for achieving gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls’.
Since inception, MSSRF has been working to accelerate gender equality among rural and tribal populations in India. The wellbeing of farm and fisher women have always been central to research and development work, and several digital and technological innovations have been introduced to lessen the burden on these women. Gender economic and social empowerment, resilience-building to reduce losses arising from environmental damage, finding pioneering solutions to reduce drudgery for women, and empowering women to hold leadership positions are some examples of how MSSRF has intervened over the years.
Ten women champions from Kerala, Odisha, Puducherry, and Tamil Nadu spoke about their experiences with digital tools and how these technologies have helped them feel empowered in their homes and communities.
Bindhu Sanilkumar, a fisherwomen who hails from Nayarabalam village in Ernakulam district, revealed that despite her willingness and enthusiasm to expand her fishing business, she continued to struggle to make ends meet only because she lacked the business and technical skills to improve her livelihood. With a meagre income, she could not afford better fishing equipment. MSSRF facilitated entrepreneurial and technical trainings from Central Institute of Fisheries Technology (CIFT), Kochi. “We were given a 20kg solar and electric fish dryer, sealing machine, weighing machine, freezer, vessels, and other materials, and these items helped us start a dry fish and fish pickle business, and soon we began securing regular orders for our products.”
From Vanduvanchery village, Vedaranyam, Ms Rani Muniyakkanu related how the MSSRF-developed Pest-disease Advance Notification and Need-based Agriculture Information (PANNAI) mobile application changed the way she cultivated crops. “The training I received on how to identify and manage pest infestations, also on soil testing, helped me make informed decisions for farming,” she acknowledged. Ms C Nithya from Vilangudi village resource centre at Thiruvaiyaru also spoke about the PANNAI app along similar lines. Muthulakshmi Marimuthu from Thriumalairayasamuthiram village talked about the benefits she received from the Village Resource Centre (VRC) in Pudukkotai district training sessions. “I couldn’t not even handle a mobile phone, today I can manage using a computer and am also able to communicate agriculture-related messages to others in my village,” she shared. She also mentioned how mobile and computer technologies played a huge part during COVID times when they felt left abandoned because there was no one to guide the farmers. Speaking from Alathuranpatti village in Kannivadi, M Kalarani expressed that the plant clinic intervention in her village helped the farmers tremendously. She gained much new knowledge about farming, water and pest management, etc., only because of the advisories. “I shared the information I received with other FPO members as well,” she added.
Akila is a knowledge worker at the Panithittu Village Knowledge Centre (VKC) and also a FFMA Ambassador for the MSSRF Fish For All Centre at Poompuhar, TamilNadu. Grateful for the trainings received on how to use electronic devices like mobile phones and computers, Akila proudly admits that she has been able to understand and use apps. These new skills have given her the capacity to share her knowledge with other women. Joining the forum from Embalam village is Girija, who was forced to take up farming after her husband passed away. “If I was not exposed to the plant clinic programme, I wouldn’t have been able to do any agriculture on my land,” she acknowledges, adding that through the VKC she discovered how to sow, manage pests and plant diseases, as well as harvesting techniques.
Three farmers from Odisha – Rukmani Khillo, Champa Santa, and Sabita Behera – explained how they felt empowered from the several capacity strengthening efforts provided by MSSRF. While Rukmani and Champa are from Koraput district, Sabita is from Ganjam. All three women reflected on the trainings and workshops organised to raise awareness on nutrition and health. “We had no idea what nutrition was until the exposure to the trainings and demonstrations to show us what foods are healthy,” Champa explained. She is also a Community Hunger Fighter and has taken several initiatives to draw attention to the good nutrition from various food groups in Gaipadar village. Rukmani explained how her family began cultivating and eating more Ragi after they understood its nutritional value. Sabita spoke of how she gets more respect especially from male members in her household. “After I went for the training programmes, my family started to listen to my ideas; they include me while making farming decisions.”
The chief guest for the day was Dr Basheerhamad Shadrach, Director, Commonwealth Educational Media Centre for Asia CEMCA, New Delhi, and he spoke about MSSRF interventions with key stakeholders at grassroots and how technology innovations over the last three decades have shifted the way agricultural decision-making is done. “Sharing knowledge as always been an integral part of MSSRF work, and the grassroots knowledge movement beginning with the VRCs created a cascading effect for all communities MSSRF work with – coastal, tribal and rural populations.”
Dr Soumya Swaminathan, Chairperson MSSRF, appreciated the women who spoke out sharing their experiences on how technological innovations developed by MSSRF have improved their lives and livelihoods, and also given them a voice within their families and communities.
Prof Nitya Rao, Gender and Development & Director – NISD, University of East Anglia, UK, set the content for IWD2023 by iterating the role of women in agriculture, and society, and the missing recognition that is overdue. She stressed on the importance of gender equality, and the critical need to move towards gender equity.
Dr GN Hariharan, Executive Director, MSSRF, welcomed the gathering and introduced the guests and women speakers from Odisha, Puducherry, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, wishing everyone a memorable International Women’s Day 2023.
It was a hybrid event attended by almost 100 people joining in-person and remotely across several states in India. Several MSSRF staff were interpreters for the programme – they were: Ms Priyangha, Ms Surajita, Mr Rabindra, Dr Gopinath, Ms Girija, and Dr Shakeela. Ms Sangeetha Rajeesh, Director Communications for MSSRF, offered the vote of thanks
M S Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) established in 1988 is a not-for-profit trust. MSSRF was envisioned and founded by Professor M S Swaminathan, agriculture scientist with proceeds from the First World Food Prize that he received in 1987.