Swaziland recently announced a 'Woman Farmer of the Year' competition, acknowledging the contribution of women to the nation's food production. Until last year, women were regarded as minors in terms of the law, unable to own property or open a bank account without the permission of a male relative or husband.
But the world's highest HIV/AIDS infection rate has left many farms in the hands of women. "More and more, women are taking over the running of family farms. Society is realising that women are out in the fields as much as in the cooking hut, but they need training and support," said Sempiwe Dlamini, an extension officer for the Ministry of Agriculture and Co-operatives.
The southern Shiselweni region, where Dlamini works, has been hit hard by drought and HIV/AIDS. Most farm-owners are either widows whose husbands had previously planted, weeded and harvested, or children who have lost their parents to AIDS. About a third of all adults in Swaziland are infected with HIV.
"The country's new farmers are able-bodied women in their twenties through fifties, though some may be teenagers, and some even older," said Dlamini, who has worked with subsistence farmers for years.
She said it was unfortunate that the patriarchal Swazi traditions kept women away from the fields, which were considered the province of men. "They were only a few metres away, cooking and cleaning, but they never learned to farm," she commented.
"A woman's hand on the plough was considered bad luck," said Nelsiwe Nhlabatsi, 25, a primary school teacher in the rural Luve area, north of the commercial centre, Manzini. "Now many of the children in my class have their school fees paid by women who literally plough the land."
Necessity is changing tradition
One such woman who left the cooking hut to cultivate the family farm was Thabsile Hlope, 36, a resident of Mliba village, 30km north of Manzini. She was forced to manage the farm when her husband died of a "wasting illness" last year. "He was never tested for HIV, so you cannot say he died of AIDS," she said.
Though her farm is small, there were many neighbours who would have gladly incorporated it into their own holdings. About 80 percent of Swazis reside on communal Swazi Nation Land, where permission to work an agricultural plot, and the possibility of passing this on to their children, depends on their ability to keep land granted to them by area chiefs.
"One of the dangers of parents dying of AIDS is that their children are robbed of their heritage. The farms may be taken over by relatives, or the community elders give the fields to other adults: the children grow up to inherit nothing," said Doo Apane, an attorney and advocate for women's rights.
The Swaziland branch of Women in Law for Southern Africa has been advocating for the customary mourning period for women to be revisited. By tradition, widows must retire from public view and productive work for up to two years after the death of their husbands. With AIDS deaths mounting, the mourning period prohibits widows from returning to work in town or farms to support their families.
Hlope's maize crop, like many others, has failed mainly because of the drought, but she could also do with some training in farming. "My 14-year-old son worked the plough with my husband - he planted the seeds in the ground. I know how to weed from my garden; I raise tomato and cabbage there. The whole family used to help with the harvest," she said.
But the use of fertiliser and hybrid seeds, crop rotation and alternative drought-tolerant crops, are new to her. "Instruction for these women is key," said Dlamini, who advises farmers of both genders in the south, where the rain is fickle.
The Woman Farmer of the Year can win cash prizes as well as farming implements, and comes with an instruction course for women. "This type of tutoring is essential for all women farmers, coupled with donated implements," said Dlamini.
Wilma Maziya, a widow and subsistence farmer in the eastern Lubombo region, said the authorities should provide them with access to markets for their surplus production, with additional support for ventures into commercial farming.
Maziya beat the region's usual lack of rainfall by planting sorghum next to her maize this year. There is a dramatic difference between the section of her field that is brown with withered maize stalks and the row upon row of green and upright sorghum plants, each topped with a large inverted cone of brown grain. "We will cook this [sorghum] or trade it with neighbours. But where can I sell it? There are no markets here," she said.
She has never been visited by a representative of the National Agricultural Marketing Board, which was set up to encourage farmers to raise their standard of living by growing cash crops, and helps by trucking their crops to central wholesalers. "If I could sell my surplus sorghum, I would grow more," Maziya said.
Agriculture Ministry workers like Dlamini are encouraged that women farmers like Maziya have the experience, capacity and willingness to do more to increase national food production.
"Swaziland used to be self-sufficient in food," she said. "I have no doubt that if the women are given the assistance they need - because the nation needs them now more than ever - we will go a long way to making the most of our national potential."