Female Farmer Becomes a Role Model in Pakistani Cotton Community

In Pakistan, approximately 1.5 million smallholder farmers rely on cotton for a living. Cotton is the country’s most widely cultivated crop and an important raw material for its growing textiles industry, representing 8.5% of GDP.1 However, as cotton farmers contend with the effects of extreme weather and pest outbreaks damaging the crops, the future of Pakistan’s cotton production will depend on men and women playing an equal role in fighting climate change and promoting sustainable farming practices.

Female cotton farmers can set a powerful example in their communities, inspiring more women to take on greater responsibilities in their family businesses and inspiring girls to pursue leadership opportunities in their communities. In rural Pakistan, this means overcoming entrenched attitudes towards the roles of men and women in the home and in the field. In particular, women often have little opportunity to influence farming practices or business decisions, and female cotton workers are often restricted to low paid, manual tasks, with less job security than men.

Our six Implementing Partners* (IPs) in Pakistan are helping to empower women to take on greater responsibility in the fields, and even to become independent farmers. They hold educational events for female farmers, known as Rural Women’s Days, and run women’s Learning Groups among BCI PUs. Together, our IPs in Pakistan currently reach more than 117,500 female cotton workers and 140 female farmers in the Punjab and Sindh provinces. (Workers are defined as people who work on cotton farms but do not own the farm and are not the main decision makers.) In this way, they help women to overcome cultural, financial and practical challenges, and learn how to farm cotton more sustainably.

“BCI IPs bring women together so that female BCI Farmers can share their experiences,” says Afshan Sufyan, Senior Programme Officer, BCI Pakistan. “Through these events, they promote the message that women should be able to fulfil their dreams, and explain that as a BCI Farmer, they can access the tools, knowledge and opportunities they need to succeed.”

In the Vehari district of Punjab, our IP the Rural Education Economic and Education Development Society (REEDS) helped an ambitious, capable young woman called Almas Parveen to raise productivity on her own cotton smallholding and become a BCI Field Facilitator**. 27-year-old Almas is one of four siblings, and has been running her family’s nine-hectare farm since 2009, in place of her elderly father. Instead of deferring the management to a third party male farmer, as is often the custom in Pakistan, Almas was determined to run the farm herself, cultivate healthy crops and produce the best possible yields to sustain her family.

Almas’ farm was too small to qualify for REEDS’ BCI programme, which initially focused on medium-sized farms, but she was still offered the opportunity to join its BCI training sessions and learn sustainable farming techniques. As her interest and competence grew, Almas discovered that she wanted to do more than boost her own yields. She wanted to spread the word, and enable other farmers – both men and women – to benefit from the techniques she was learning. With support from REEDS, Almas completed the training and qualified to become a Field Facilitator and began a paid position training local BCI Farmers in March 2017.

Almas’ transition to a position of responsibility in her community did not run smoothly. She experienced opposition from community members, who did not agree with a young woman working on her own and providing training to male farmers. The farmers too, were wary of Almas and questioned her right to train them. But Almas stood strong. Undeterred and supported by her family and REEDS, she continued to deliver BCI training. In time, the farmers’ perceptions changed as her technical knowledge and sound advice resulted into tangible benefits on their farms. Anger turned into appreciation. She had won the community’s respect.

Today, Almas trains 400 BCI Farmers, as well as supporting other cotton farmers outside of the BCI programme. In particular, she trains men and women in the same location, which is unique in her region.

In her field demonstration plots, Almas takes a hands-on approach to teaching. She helps BCI Farmers to minimise the use of conventional pesticides by taking a more precise, scientific approach to pesticide application, and making their own biological pesticides from the leaves of neem trees and herbs. She encourages them to identify and count particular types of pests before applying pesticides, and maximise the positive effect of beneficial insects (insects that naturally prey on certain insects that damage crops). BCI Farmers in her Learning Groups*** learn to conduct soil tests to identify which fertiliser to apply when, and in what quantities, and often use local compost and manure for organic fertiliser. In Vehari, BCI Farmers can’t rely on water from canals to irrigate their crops and usually they need to pump up ground water, which can be expensive. Almas encourages BCI Farmers to adopt more efficient irrigation techniques such as laser-levelling (the precision-levelling of fields, in order to distribute water more efficiently) and irrigating alternate furrows.

Almas raised yields and profits by 18% and 23% respectively on her own farm in 2017-18 (compared to 2016-17), and achieved a 35% reduction in pesticide use. With the additional profit, she has been able to support her family and pay for her brother’s wedding. Importantly, Almas also wants to make a difference in her community, acting as a role model for female farmers and encouraging more girls and women into cotton farming. She gives talks to girls in schools letting them know it could be a viable future for them, and in 2017, she worked with Pakistan’s education authorities to help establish a new primary school in her village.

Beyond her community, Almas continues to reach more people with her empowering messages, including through BCI Regional Members Meetings, where farmers and other cotton stakeholders gather to share their experiences. In June 2018, Almas will travel to Europe and share her inspiring story at the BCI Global Cotton Conference.

Afshan concludes: “At our global conference, Almas will be the voice of Pakistan, the voice of empowerment and gender quality.”

Read more on BCI’s work in Pakistan here.

1 All Pakistan Textile Mills Association.

* Conducting training for millions of BCI Farmers worldwide is a major undertaking and relies on the support of trusted, like-minded partners on the ground in each country where Better Cotton is grown. We call these partners our Implementing Partners (IPs), and we take an inclusive approach to the types of organisation with whom we partner. They can be NGOs, co-operatives or companies within the cotton supply chain, and are responsible for helping BCI Farmers acquire the social and environmental knowledge they need to cultivate Better Cotton, and encourage uptake of Better Cotton in the cotton supply chain. 

** Our more than 4,000 Field Facilitators, employed by our IPs, form the backbone of the implementation system across the world. Often with backgrounds in agronomy, Field Facilitators deliver on-the-ground training (frequently through practical demonstrations in the field) and raise awareness of social issues.

*** Each Implementing Partner supports a series of Producer Units (PUs), a grouping of BCI Farmers (from smallholder or medium sized farms) from the same community or region. Their leader, the PU Manager, helps multiple, smaller groups, known as Learning Groups, to master best practice techniques, in line with the Better Cotton Principles and Criteria, our global definition of Better Cotton.