My day started on the 11th floor of The Church Center for the United Nations, in a packed room full of women (and a few men) ready to discuss the challenges facing rural women in the United States, Africa, and Haiti. All of the speakers were passionate, and the audience participated by sharing their own stories during the question and answer period. It was great to see so many involved women that cared about the issues being presented.
The discussion started with a rousing presentation by Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro of the Third District in Connecticut. Along with Congresswoman Anna Eshoo, Representative DeLauro has co-sponsored the Equality for Women Farmers Act. She discussed systematic discrimination facing female famers in the United States, telling stories of loan applications denied and abuses of power by USDA officers. One woman, in applying for a small farm loan, was denied and told to return with her father or husband. In another case, a woman was asked to perform sexual favors in exchange for approval of her assistance application. Aside from the obvious erosion of dignity, these actions have led to woman holding smaller farms, and to women-run farms failing at a higher rate than the national average. Rep. DeLauro is calling for damages compensation similar to those announced for to African-American farmers in 2010. She noted that current compensation schemes in use by USDA for women farmers carry a higher burden of proof, and women are expected to file complaints with their local USDA office. Often this means filing with the same person that performed the abuse in the first place! The abuses of power and deep prejudice described by DeLauro was shocking, although judging from the audience reaction many of the women in the crowd could share similar stories.
The next speaker, Shirley Williams McClain, spoke on behalf of the Rural Development Leadership Network (RDLN), describing her own experiences growing up in poverty. According to their website, the RLDN is "a national multicultural social change organization founded in 1983, supports community-based development in poor rural areas through hands-on projects, education and skills building, leadership development and networking." McClain told of her own work in North Carolina, which involves legislative advocacy. Rural women are far from the centers of power, and many are even unaware that they have the right to attend local political meetings. She described African-American farmers being surprised that they could say their peace at a town council. One very cool activity performed by McClain and the RDLN is taking rural men and women to Washington D.C. to meet their Senators and Representatives face-to-face. Some of the participants have never spoken for themselves in public forum, and now they are expressing their grievances directly to their Federal representatives!
McClain, in discussing, the latest rounds of cuts to social programs said that rural women needed "A fair handshake, not a handout, but a hand up." In many ways this could serve as a theme for the entire NGO conference. (Here are some additional words written by McClain from last year's CSW.)
More on this session and other sessions later!