International Women’s Day 2022: Insights from the Cotton Field with Narjis Fatima

Narjis Fatima, Field Facilitator, WWF-Pakistan

From an early age, Narjis developed a special love and affinity for agriculture and nature. Her mother, who was a cotton picker and a leader for women workers’ rights, inspired her to support women in the cotton sector. WWF-Pakistan appointed her as a Field Facilitator in 2018. Narjis has since trained countless women from the local villages and communities on better cotton-picking practices.  

What inspired you to work with women in the cotton sector? 

Agriculture being our family business, I loved it since childhood. My father was a farmer, and my mother was a cotton picker. After completing my studies, I used to go cotton picking with my mother. Along with cotton picking, my mother was also a leader for women workers’ rights. Some of the farmers either used to pay fewer wages or did not provide clean drinking water and she wanted to change this. I was inspired by my mother’s commitment to workers’ rights, and I wanted to do something for the workers too.  

What motivates you in your role as a Field Facilitator? 

The aim of our project is to promote Better Cotton cultivation to make cotton production better for the grower, better for the environment and better for the cotton industry. By training women workers on the principles of Better Cotton, I can play my role in producing sustainable cotton, and I can improve their social and economic resources. I can also contribute to the benefits of innovation in agriculture and play a role in saving nature. That’s why I wish to drive innovation in agriculture to provide a brighter future for my children. I love nature so much that I want to work for its survival. 

Can you tell us about one of the biggest challenges you’ve had to face as a woman in the cotton sector? 

When I started working for WWF-Pakistan, I faced a lot of problems because my family did not want me to work. No one from my family would take me to the field and there was no public transport facility in our area. I had to learn how to ride a motorbike by myself. I fell several times and suffered many injuries, but I did not give up. In the end, all my hard work paid off. I have been riding my motorbike for three years now and going to the field on my bike has inspired a lot of other women. 

Can you share any examples of new practices that have led to positive change? 

We train women workers on the benefits of using personal protective equipment when working in the field. We show them how to cover their head before picking, use face masks, cover their hands with gloves and use cotton cloth for cotton picking. I am very glad that so many women are now following safer practices. 

What are your hopes for the cotton communities you work in? 

I hope that our training will encourage more children to go to school and that our cotton growing society will grow their cotton in line with the Better Cotton Principles. I also hope that workers’ rights will be respected, and natural resources not misused. I hope that our cotton community will protect the environment and adopt water saving methods, protect biodiversity and pay equal wages. I hope that no one will ever be discriminated against based on their caste, colour, race, or religion. Finally, I hope that workers will have freedom of association and women will have equal rights with men. 

Read Q&A with Anjali Thakur, Ambuja Cement Foundation, India

Read Q&A with Gülan Oflaz, GAP UNDP, Turkey

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International Women’s Day 2022: Insights from the Cotton Field with Gülan Oflaz 

Gülan Oflaz, Field Facilitator, GAP UNDP, Turkey

Gülan’s desire to return to her farming roots led her to study to become an agricultural engineer. Combining her hands-on experiences and her expertise, she now works with cotton farmers in Sanliurfa, which sits at the heart of cotton production in Turkey. 

In her role as Field Facilitator for GAP UNDP, Gülan and her team are responsible for 150 farmers in 25 villages. They conduct field visits, assess the needs of the farmers in their project areas and deliver trainings on the Better Cotton Standard. Their goal is to support cotton farmers to adopt more sustainable farming techniques and continuously improve their practices.  

What led you to work in the cotton sector? 

I wanted to help develop and improve cotton production in line with sustainable cotton farming practices, support better working conditions for farmers and farm workers, and carry out activities without disturbing the natural balance of the ecosystem. I’m excited to work in sustainable cotton farming and contribute to this step of its production.  

What are the biggest challenges you see in the cotton communities where you work?  

There are numerous challenges in cotton production. First and foremost, it’s helpful to remember that it is difficult for any of us to change the habits that we learn from our ancestors, and in this context, farmers are used to growing cotton using the traditional agriculture methods they’ve become accustomed to. For example, we have seen farmers using water and pesticides excessively, regardless of the plants’ needs, and over fertilising the soil without conducting any soil analysis. Many are also unaware of their labour rights and the support they have access to. 

Can you share any examples of new practices that have led to positive change? 

When I started out, I saw farmers applying pesticides without considering the pest threshold level, which led to an over-use of pesticides, damaged the ecology of their farmland, increased farming costs and increased the resistance of the pest population. At GAP UNDP, we organise and deliver trainings to farmers on the importance of reducing pesticide applications, measuring pest populations before spraying pesticides, and encouraging beneficial insects, which act as natural pest control. We also work with farmers to address water use and prevent excessive water waste by measuring their usage and installing sprinkler systems and drip irrigation systems in their fields. We have seen practices and behaviours changing for the better over time. 

What specifically inspires you to work with women in cotton? 

In cotton farming, women constitute a large proportion of the work force. Many women in the cotton farming regions in Turkey have a lower level of education and often work on their families’ farms in order to contribute to the combined family income. I want to raise awareness of better working conditions and to encourage women by helping them to develop their technical skills and knowledge, helping them to contribute and play their role in sustainable cotton farming. 

What are your hopes for the cotton communities you work in? 

Together, we will continue to contribute to sustainable cotton farming in our country and improve the living and working conditions of all farmers and farm workers, particularly women.  

Read Q&A with Narjis Fatima, WWF-Pakistan

Read Q&A with Anjali Thakur, Ambuja Cement Foundation, India

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International Women’s Day 2022: Insights from the Cotton Field with Anjali Thakur 

Anjali Thakur, Producer Unit Manager, Ambuja Cement Foundation, India 

Anjali grew up in an agricultural family and went on to achieve an undergraduate degree in Horticulture and an MBA in Agribusiness Management. She has always had a desire to work with and support farming communities and families, and this inspired her to pursue a career in this sector.  

In her role as Producer Unit Manager at Ambuja Cement Foundation, Anjali works to build the capacity of the field-level staff who deliver trainings to Better Cotton Farmers. She works with them to develop demonstration plots where they can showcase best practice farming techniques, and she conducts research and baseline surveys to assess the effectiveness of the practices adopted by farmers. 

What key challenges do you see in cotton production in India? 

The use of pesticides is a challenge – we know that the excessive use of pesticides is harmful for the environment, to soil and water, and indirectly harmful to human health. I want to keep raising awareness among farming communities to use less and less pesticides and to find alternative natural methods of pest control. Achieving this motivates me in my role. 

Can you tell us about any positive changes that you have seen on the ground? 

I work with cotton communities on the ground, and I have seen lots of positive changes over the years. It’s easy to adopt new practices in the field, but positive changes in terms of long-term behavioural change is very important. For example, previously, farmers were not using personal protective equipment when applying pesticides, but now they are. And if I look 8 to 10 years back there was child labour, but in our project areas that has now been eliminated. The way the farmers want to learn and the way they are improving themselves inspires me. 

Can you share some examples of the more sustainable practices that farmers are implementing? 

There are lots of practices that contribute to sustainable agriculture. For example, to support better water conservation and harvesting, we work with farmers to install farm ponds and drip irrigation in their fields – we know that the efficiency of drip irrigation is 85% – 90% so this is contributing to reduced water usage and more sustainable practices overall. We also conduct soil and biodiversity mapping and then work with farmers to restore these resources on their farms. More broadly, I identify government schemes that may help to support farmers in implementing new practices and I look for opportunities to partner with universities and institutions to support relevant research studies into sustainable farming practices. 

Tell us more about how you are supporting women in cotton? 

When I started out in my role, I saw that many women were involved in farm labour, but they were not involved in any decision making. I wanted to share my knowledge with them to empower them. I started to deliver training sessions and raise awareness about the Better Cotton programme and other agronomical practices among female farmers and farm workers. The way they are learning new things inspires me. Before, they had limited knowledge of more sustainable practices, but now they know about pesticide labelling, how to encourage beneficial insects, and the benefits of wearing personal protective equipment, such as masks and gloves. 

Are there any thoughts you would like to leave us with?  

I live and work in a male dominated society – I see in the villages that many fathers do not let their daughters go and study higher education. My role is important in delivering training to women, as they then inspire and encourage one another, which opens up new opportunities for them. I see this driving change for future generations.  

Read Q&A with Gülan Oflaz, GAP UNDP, Turkey

Read Q&A with Narjis Fatima, WWF-Pakistan

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Meet the Women Leading the Change in Sustainable Cotton Farming: International Women’s Day 2022

This International Women’s Day 2022, we are placing the spotlight on the inspiring women who are using their expertise and passion to drive positive change in cotton farming.

Following this year’s IWD theme, this feature focuses on our aim to #breakthebias of agricultural extension services prioritising the needs of men and dominant groups over women and disadvantaged groups. One way we are progressing this aim is by actively supporting more women into field staff roles, where they can inspire cotton communities to adopt more sustainable practices.   

We spoke with representatives from three Better Cotton Implementing Partners: Anjali Thakur, Ambuja Cement Foundation in India; Gülan Oflaz, GAP UNDP in Turkey; and Narjis Fatima, WWF-Pakistan to learn more about their work, how they are supporting women in cotton, and the changes they are seeing on the ground. These three women joined our Implementing Partner Meeting in January 2022 during a spotlight panel. The below interviews and video clips are extracts from that event.

We believe that a transformed, sustainable cotton industry is one where all participants have equal opportunities to thrive. In our 2030 Strategy we recognise our opportunity to tackle systemic inequalities and unequal gender relations to promote shared power, control of resources, decision-making, and support for women’s empowerment. We are committed to convening, inspiring, and influencing the wider industry to also take transformative action. 

Our 2030 women’s empowerment impact target is focused on creating more opportunities for women like Anjali, Gülan, and Narjis. In collaboration with our partners, we are committed to increasing the proportion of women field staff, such as Producer Unit Managers and Field Facilitators, in our programmes. Field staff of all gender identities are critical to our mission. They are the people that make Better Cotton real for participating cotton communities. They travel long distances and work in challenging conditions to tackle difficult issues and inspire positive changes for the environment and local communities.  

Women field staff are often better placed to meet the particular needs of women in cotton. By setting a target to increase the proportion of women field staff who make Better Cotton a reality, and developing new initiatives to meet the particular needs of these women, we believe that our programmes will become more impactful and more inclusive.  

Learn more about Better Cotton’s approach to gender equality.

Learn more about Better Cotton’s 2030 Strategy.

In this year’s Better Cotton Council Election, we encourage women and those from underrepresented communities to apply for a leadership position on the Better Cotton Council. Better Cotton Members have until 15 March to submit their application. Learn more.

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