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Helping women help themselves

A little assistance can go a long way. That’s the lesson learned from multiple trips by CALS dairy experts to the state of Uttar Pradesh in northern India, one of the poorest parts of the world.

Many farmers there keep only a few cows or very small herds that, for the most part, produce enough milk for a family’s own use. Caring for livestock is work that falls almost exclusively to women.

By teaching the women better dairy practices—such as proper hygiene in milking and milk storage, providing adequate water, shelter and vaccinations for livestock, the basics of improvements in breeding—CALS experts and their partners in India are helping women dramatically increase their cows’ milk yields. Not only does that improve their families’ nutrition, it allows women to sell excess milk, adding to the family income.

Dairy science instructor Jerry Guenther has been to India three times over the past three years. “Most of the women are unable to read and write. But they are very attentive and very hungry for information,” says Guenther, who interacts with the women through an interpreter. “With every point you talk about, they are making notes and thinking about it. And they come up with very interesting questions.”

Since CALS teams began going over in 2009—besides Guenther, instructors have included Bob Kaiser and Ken Bolton—they have trained some 1,400 women.

But the team’s reach goes much wider. The women come from all over Uttar Pradesh—and when they return to their villages, they teach other women what they’ve learned. USAID, the program’s main funder, a few years ago reported that by adopting the new dairy practices, 32,000 women dairy farmers had seen a 25 percent increase in milk production, earning on average $11 more every month. The CALS team reports that since then the number of farmers helped has surpassed 50,000.

The initiative began as part of the Khorana Program run by agricultural economics professor Ken Shapiro and biochemistry professor Aseem Ansari, who was born and raised in India. It is conducted in partnership with the Babcock Institute for International Dairy Research and Development and the India-based Rajiv Gandhi Charitable Trust.

The dairy know-how provided by CALS fits into a bigger program of establishing women’s self-help groups throughout Uttar Pradesh. Guenther attended training sessions where women were taught how to pool their money to make loans to support each other’s growing dairy businesses or even cover each other’s emergency family health care needs.

Such a comprehensive approach is needed, says Ansari. “Women in this part of India are traditionally forbidden from making even the simplest decisions. While dairy work is assigned to women, for them to be truly empowered they need to be educated in the basics of how to interface with the world that lies beyond their front door—let alone the marketplace, banks and other financial institutions,” he says.

Women are seizing the opportunity to take part in that bigger world, Ansari says.

“Most of the rural, semi-literate women I met turned out to be incredibly bright and entrepreneurial,” says Ansari. “Once they figured out the system, they nimbly melded dairy management with the traditional constraints and then slowly pushed the constraints to gain new freedoms and develop long-term plans for their children and families.”