In Nepal, there is a predominant belief that not pursuing higher education leads to a life of agricultural work, often associated with poverty. This has piqued the curiosity of Sharmila Pun, a graduate in organic agriculture and agroecology from Wageningen University and Isara Lyon Research Center. Since August 2023, she has joined the Karuna-Shechen teams in Nepal as the head of food security and economic development programs.

Sharmila reflects on why agricultural workers paradoxically benefit the least from food security: “I sought to understand the complex relationships between nature, community, and food resilience, drawn by the challenge of contributing significantly to a complex system.

This relationship is embodied by Mishra Khadka, a farmer living in Solpathana in the Sindhuli district. She has been participating in Karuna-Shechen’s food security programs for several years. 

Today, these two actresses talk about their relationship as women in the world of agriculture and traditional conceptions of the agricultural profession. Their experiences, both as programmers and farmers, demonstrate the importance of including women in guaranteeing food security.

Modernity Supporting Tradition

As Sharmila explains, “One of the major challenges I encounter in my role is the need to unlearn. This involves recognizing and appreciating the value of traditional skills and knowledge. Balancing these with modern solutions becomes essential.”

For Mishra, agricultural techniques are passed down from generation to generation, sometimes leading to fruitless results and physical and moral exhaustion: “From sunrise to sunset, I work the land, taking care of the crops that feed us. We used to rely on homegrown food, just like previous generations. Every day, I change what I do according to the weather. Even though it’s not always easy, my family hasn’t needed to buy vegetables or legumes from the market for a long time. We grow enough food, not only for ourselves but also to share with other villagers.”

The transmission of knowledge is essential in the development of strong communities. But in occupations imagined as masculine, learning can sometimes be difficult for a woman.

Women at the Heart of Agricultural Programs

Mishra witnesses the difficulties her gender faces in this work: “I first came across Karuna-Shechen through a local neighborhood leader who mentioned that they were organizing a series of training sessions tailored to farmers in our region. Eager to improve my skills and explore new methodologies, I enrolled enthusiastically. I didn’t expect this program to mark such a significant turning point in my journey.”

As a woman in agriculture, the obstacles seem greater to me. I was hindered by a lack of education and wanted to develop skills. I must persist, so that my resilience is reflected in the land I cultivate.

Mishra Khadka, farmer in Sindhuli

As program manager, Sharmila also witnesses the particular difficulties for female farmers: “One of the challenges is to combat the stereotype that being a woman limits opportunities and growth. Recognizing women as essential actors in sustainable agriculture is crucial. Despite their vital role in agriculture, they often face obstacles such as limited resources and restricted decision-making power. This arouses sadness and frustration. However, rather than succumbing to these emotions, I try to channel them into my work to bring about positive changes in people’s lives. This serves as a driving force to combat inequalities, promote sustainable development, and contribute to improving the living conditions of those facing greater challenges.

The initiatives we have launched aim to empower women through education, training, and access to resources. This enables them to take on leadership roles and significantly contribute to food security. We address gender-based inequalities, ensuring that women participate equally in decision-making processes related to agriculture.

Mishra then shares a new vision of the impact of women in agriculture: “I have learned to appreciate the profound significance of women’s contributions to agriculture. Navigating through training sessions and implementing new techniques, I couldn’t help but observe the inherent passion and dedication that women bring to agriculture. Their multifaceted roles as producers, caregivers, and nurturers permeate the communities they nourish.”

In this light, the celebration of International Women’s Day takes on increased significance. It serves as a poignant reminder of the invaluable contributions of women to agriculture and society as a whole. It provides a platform to amplify their voices, advocate for gender equality, and foster unity among individuals of all genders.

Mishra Khadka

Practical Skills

Mishra shares the significant change this experience had on her work : “Attending workshops at Karuna-Shechen has proven to be a transformative experience. Delving into the intricacies of post-harvest care to master the art of cultivating a dynamic garden, each session revealed a wealth of knowledge that I eagerly absorbed. The dedicated agricultural technicians of Karuna-Shechen imparted invaluable ideas and techniques to me, giving me newfound confidence and agricultural skills.

What struck me the most were the practical applications of the lessons learned. Learning to concoct natural pesticides, understanding the nuances of effective manure production, and adopting best practices for plant production were just a few of the skills I acquired. These new techniques have not only revolutionized my approach to agriculture, but they have also breathed new life into my crops.”

“Reflecting on my journey, I can’t help but marvel at the profound impact these training sessions have had. The knowledge gained has allowed for healthier yields and greater agricultural sustainability. For example, previously, my attempts to grow coriander had been unsuccessful, but I succeeded in growing abundant coriander by properly using manure and employing the techniques learned during the training.”

The food security programs provided by Karuna-Shechen aim to provide practical and concrete tools to communities. Each session encourages women to push social barriers and discover effective ways to develop their crops.

Equality and Development Through Culture

With her academic background, Sharmila is aware of the treasure trove of knowledge and inherent capabilities within the communities she works with. As such, she testifies to collaborative efforts with local communities: “They have resulted in innovative solutions. Promoting agroecological practices, in line with local contexts, involves integrating ecological principles, enhancing biodiversity, and developing resilience to climate change

“An inspiring example concerns a participant in our beekeeping training who, after the program, expressed never having traveled outside her district. Simply going out to train was a crazy idea for her. Her motivation to venture out, learn, and act reflects the transformative power of such initiatives. Another story that touched me concerns a woman who participated in nursery management training, then starting her own. She not only diversified her production, but she also saved money, investing in her children’s education.”

Empowering a woman goes beyond the individual level; it uplifts her entire family, community, and nation. The impact of this empowerment significantly contributes to building resilient and sustainable food systems.

Sharmila Pun, head of food security and economic development programs, Karuna-Shechen Nepal
Together, let’s continue to nourish inclusive communities