Vanastree: Empowering women

Vanastree: Empowering women

Vanastree: Empowering women

SEEDS OF EMPOWERMENT: The seeds that women exchanged as part of the Malnad Mela, that was organised by Vanastree, a network of women, in Sirsi recently. Photos by the author.

“I never thought that such a strong network can be created around indigenous seeds. It is amazing that hundreds of farmer women exchange experiences along with seeds in this gathering,” an ecstatic Veda Hegde says about the success of Malnad Mela in Sirsi.

She is a member of Vanastree near Sirsi.

Distributing seeds is a tradition in this region. Come monsoon, women start searching for new vegetable and flower varieties. But the search was limited to their neighbourhood, friends and relatives, so far. Over their last seven years, their reach has increased. The Malnad Mela has given momentum to the tradition of preserving seeds and utilising skills among women in 14 villages around Sirsi.

Development activist Sunita Rao initiated a network among women in Uttara Kannada in 2001.

The immediate attention was on conservation and exchange of seeds. The motto was, “A few small seeds have the power within them to feed a family; a fistful of seeds, the whole community. Our future depends on saving the traditional diversity of seeds around us.” This helped women preserve the food habits of Malnad. Like any other region, Malnad also has its own taste, evolved over generation.

Each house here has a homestead garden. Women are the caretakers of their kitchen’s support system.

Betta land which supplies mulching raw materials for the areca farms is also a treasure house of native biodiversity. Malnad food gets its flavour and strength from these forest species.

An initiative that emphasised on conservation of seeds naturally attracted women from across the villages. The organisation was named ‘Vanastree’ which translates as ‘Women of the Forest’ in Kannada. Exchange of experiences and ideas helped these women understand their strengths.

Tapping the resources
“I had a craving to be engaged in some activity soon after my children grew up. After joining Vanastree, I have done it,” says Manorama who is a successful farm entrepreneur.

She leads a group of women in Sonda village in preparing natural colours for holi celebrations. Her entire family is engaged in preparing dry banana and jackfruit.

This has not only earned additional income but also satisfaction of providing healthy products to people.

For Veda Hegde, this is a next step in achieving food sovereignty, while Shreemati of Golikoppa looks at it from another angle.

“Now we know how to tap our resources and utilise our skills. Forming a group definitely helps in many ways.  By working collectively, we have gained social status and also economic independence,” she says.

They have also proved themselves by getting certain schemes - like roads- sanctioned for their village. Shreemati recalls that those who ignored them initially now have acknowledged their approach.

Vanastree has facilitated these women to identify their strengths and groom them accordingly. Kusuma Hegde, another member of Vanastree says that she gets good feedback for her products in such gatherings.

She has been crafting new designs using raw materials from the farm like seeds, areca leaves, and banana fibre. After joining Vanastree she was able to expand her market.

Sharing knowledge
Custodians of food, tradition and culture now know how to share their knowledge.  Members of Vanastree participate in several fairs and also organise melas in three different seasons. There they exhibit a range of flower and vegetable species.

While members of Vanastree share items in their possession, they sell it for outsiders at nominal rates. Seed based jewellery, patchwork quilts, natural holi colours, amla products, dry fruits and jaggery, areca plates are some of the items that this all-women network sells.

In the last seven years, Vanastree has reached over hundred home gardens and has been able to create a positive outlook among women in the 14 villages of Uttara Kannada.

If we begin to consider the indirect influence, the number may double. Be it creating awareness on forest conservation, maintaining ecological balance, water harvesting, enhancing seed diversity and enhancing their own skills, these women are contributing whole-heartedly towards the betterment of society.

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