Climate smart Ramkali Mahato

38-year-old Ramkali Mahato from Babargunj, Sarlahi district has a keen interest in learning climate sensitive farming techniques. She has leased 1.33-hectare land for commercial vegetable farming. Photo: NISHANT GURUNG/UN WOMEN

Ramkali Mahato from Sarlahi in Nepal’s southern plains was only 12 when she got married. “As a daughter-in-law, I quickly learned to cover my face, stay indoors and not speak with the neighbours,” says Mahato.

Going to school was no longer an option and she dropped out of seventh grade. Within the first year of her marriage, Mahato had given birth to a daughter and in the next few years, she was a mother of three. With her husband away in India working as a rickshaw driver, Mahato had the responsibility of caring for her three children and in-laws.

Says Mahato: “With limited income, it was a struggle to ensure all of us had adequate food to eat. That is when I decided to take matters into my own hands, no matter what the community thought about it.”

Ramkali Mahato uses climate sensitive, modern farming techniques for better produce. She has built a climate sensitive plastic tunnel to grow off-seasonal vegetables and protect her produce from unexpected rainfalls and harsh cold.  Photo: NISHANT GURUNG/UN WOMEN

Mahato first bought a buffalo and started selling the milk to earn extra money, which she used to invest in more cattle. She also planted crops in a small piece of family land. “While farming added food for my family, most of my produce would go bad, I didn’t understand why. There was never a surplus to sell,” she recalls.

In 2016, after learning about agriculture training being provided in her village, she joined with hopes of also receiving seeds and equipment for her farm. The training Accelerating Progress towards Rural Women’s Economic Empowerment (JP RWEE) was a UN Women-led joint program in collaboration with FAO, WFP and IFAD.

The training program focused on strengthening the leadership capacity of rural women farmers at home and their respective communities and included climate-sensitive techniques like plastic tunnel farming that allowed people to grow off-seasonal vegetables.

“The weather is so unpredictable in Terai these days. We have unexpected floods during summer and harsh winters when we do not see the sun for a month during the cold waves,” says Mahato, who now grows not only grains but also cauliflowers, spinach, chilies, gourds, okras, long beans and more in 14 tunnels she built in her farm.

Ramkali Mahato installs bamboo as a form of support for her climber crops. Photo: NISHANT GURUNG/UN WOMEN

The produce from her farm is more than enough for her family and there is even surplus to sell in the market. Says Mahato: "My husband and I take the vegetables in an auto and sell them in the market in Lalbandi, the nearest city from our village.”

In the training, Mahato also learned to make organic fertilisers at home using vegetable and other kitchen waste. “This is the best way to save the quality of the soil. I only buy it from the market when I am running short of it,” she adds.

At present 38-year-old Mahato has leased 1.33-hectare land for commercial vegetable farming. But she had observed a sharp increase in her income from a mere Rs30,000 a year to Ts750,000 after she started implementing climate-resilient farming.

Read more: Women and water, Editorial 

Rachana Bhattarai, Programme Analyst at UN Women says, “Women and girls are taking climate and environment action at all levels, but their voice, agency, and participation are under-supported, under-resourced, under-valued and under-recognized. Within women, it is also important to ensure how this is impacting women based on their caste, ethnicity, class, and geographical location.”

Outmigration of working-age men from Nepal’s villages has added to the burden of women but it has also allowed them to step into more meaningful leadership roles in their families and communities. They also play an important but often unrecognised role in agriculture that sustains nearly 80% of Nepalis.

Ramkali Mahato with her family which she supports with income from her commercial farming. Photo: NISHANT GURUNG/UN WOMEN 

The empowerment of women in agriculture is key to overall economic productivity, given the majority, 84.3% percent of women with any form of employment work in the agriculture sector.

Since her commercial farming took off, Mahato has noticed a change in how her neighbours perceive her. “The same people who once spoke badly of me because I went out to collect fodder now ask my help to make plastic tunnels for their farms,” she says. “Many more people are also willing to trust me with financial loans now.”

Earlier, Mahato was not confident about taking loans and many refused to lend her money. But she now comfortably manages her accounts and transactions. Her income, in fact, pays for her children’s tuition, the medical expense of her husband and rent of the leased farm.

Ramkali Mahato wants her daughter to pursue higher studies and become economically independent. Photo: NISHANT GURUNG/UN WOMEN

Mahato is also the chair of Laxmi Rural Women Farmer’s Group and Hariyali Women Multipurpose Cooperative. Through these networks, she supports other women in her community to generate income through agriculture. In the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic, the network also served as a close-knit support group for women who are living in vulnerable situations or are victims of gender-based violence.

During the lockdowns in 2020 and 2021, most people in the village let their sons study online but daughters had to help their mothers with household chores, but I didn’t differentiate between my children, says Mahato whose daughter just completed high school and the duo is keen about her college prospects.

Adds Mahato: “I do not want my daughter or the daughters in my community to face the same challenges as I did.”

The first phase of the project was conducted in Rautahat and Sarlahi in Madhes from 2016-2021 and the second phase will be implemented from May 2022 in Siraha and Saptari districts under the leadership of the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock Development and with support from Multi Partner Trust Fund. Nepal is implementing the Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development and the empowerment of rural women is vital to the success of the SDGs.

*While outlawed, child marriages and teenage birth continue to be culturally prevalent in areas of Nepal. Studies have shown that in disasters or crises, as families lose homes and livelihoods, parents are more likely to marry off their children in a bid to protect them and secure their futures.

Subeksha Poudel is the communication officer with the UN Women Nepal.

Read also: Nepali women doubly burdened by climate change, Sewa Bhattarai