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Interview with a development worker: GROW's Karen Walsh
Katie West: Let’s start with something easy. What is GROW?
Karen Walsh: GROW is a food security program that is looking at changing the lives of over 20,000 women and their families. The goal is to provide consistent access to food throughout the year – in every season.Katie: How does GROW provide food security?
Karen: We are providing food security through soybeans.
Currently, women farmers in the project are growing over 400 kilos of soybeans. We take 200 kilos for food and nutrition and the other 200 kilos to sell. The women use 200 kilos to feed their children, and with the income that they generate from selling the other 200, they pay for health care and education.
Katie: Why soybeans?
Karen: Soybeans are full of nutrients and a great source of protein. As we look to the future of agriculture and what is good for our planet, we have to look towards more plant proteins. Protein is an essential nutrient for all people, but especially for children as they grow and develop. Having protein in the diet improves a child’s physical and mental development, allowing them to lead healthier lives.
Katie: What else are you growing?
Karen: We have also been growing moringa trees. The leaves are a great source of vitamins B, C, K, manganese, iron, protein and other essential nutrients. Not only is it great for pregnant and lactating women, it also stimulates brain growth. Right now, we have a small forest of moringa trees and they will continue to grow into a little ecosystem.
Katie: Have you noticed the impact of climate change in Ghana?
Karen: Yes. Ghana is facing a desertification crisis like many other countries in West Africa because of deforestation. Ghana’s forests are quickly being turned into charcoal one by one. This is having a devastating effect on the local environment. It is becoming increasingly difficult to grow healthy crops because the soil quality has disintegrated, and what is left of the fertile soil is being blown or washed away by the harsh rainy season.
The demand for charcoal is incredible. That’s what people use here for everything. In West Africa, we actually want people to move from charcoal to gas because deforestation is creating an agricultural crisis.
Katie: How are you addressing this issue through GROW?
Karen: One of the reasons why we chose the moringa tree is for its ability to combat desertification and soil erosion. It also grows rapidly, is drought-resistant and hardy.
Katie: Why is it important to invest in women and their communities?
Karen: In rural areas, women bear the largest burden, and in more traditional societies, the work women do is not considered to be work at all. Even though the work women do represents a huge part of the local economy, it is undervalued.
Katie: Can you give me an example of how GROW is shifting mindsets?
Karen: In conservative upper western Ghana, the common notion is that women don’t work. Yet, women do almost everything. The man is considered important because he is the farmer who owns the land. Although he uses the tractor, the women till the soil, seed, weed, water and sometimes apply pesticides.
Through gender sensitization, the men begin to realize how much work their wives do. After their eyes are opened, they usually feel quite ashamed of their behavior. Many can’t believe that what they were taught to think and act was good enough.
Katie: Is there a difference between generations?
Karen: The younger generation is very different. They have seen how their mothers have been treated and they want change. They are demanding to be treated differently.
Katie: Have you seen a difference in how women perceive themselves?
Karen: Yes, absolutely! Before, the women used to have to ask their husbands for money to take care of the health and educational needs of their children. Now, they don’t need to because they are earning money for themselves to do with as they please. It has given them a sense of power and agency – that they can take care of their own needs and rely on themselves. The confidence that these women exhibit has led to a decrease in domestic violence and an increase in healthy, educated children.
Katie: Why do we want to partner with women?
Karen: We partner with women because when women succeed, everyone does. You want to partner with women because you know that they are going to positively impact their families and communities. It is great to see the partnerships that have arisen between wives and husbands now that men see them as viable business partners.
Katie: What inspired you to become a development worker?
Karen: I have always wanted to help people ever since I was little. I always knew that I wanted to do the hardest job out there – and aid work is one of them. I am privileged to be in a position where I get to help people for a living.
Katie: What is your favorite thing about being a development worker?
Karen: I like addressing ingrained behavioral issues, because that’s what it is. Challenging men to see women differently and encouraging women to see themselves differently is a never-ending challenge. But it’s a challenge that I love.
Katie: Why is it hard to bring about change?
Karen: Change is hard. Think about it. How many families in Canada or the US want their personal relationships hung out to dry and rifled through? None. Going through cultural and personal history is messy and difficult and not many people want to do it. What we are asking them to do is very personal. What are your roles in the family? Is there women’s work and men’s work? What are the habits of behavior in your home? How do you treat each other? Can you imagine having that conversation here? It is tough to unpack beliefs and perceptions of others. When we are shifting mindsets and ingrained behavior, we must remember to be gracious, kind and respectful.
Katie: The general public always asks, why is development and progress taking so long? What is your answer to that?
Karen: Development takes a long time. It is easier to see the results of agricultural technology than the changes in behavior and mindset. That’s why development takes so long. It is more a mental, rather than a physical change. And that is difficult to do. Men are also worried about losing their position and power – they feel threatened and vulnerable – which is not an easy place to be. There are a lot of emotions and a lot of history to sift through. And that takes time.
Katie: Why do you love working for MEDA?
Karen: Working for MEDA is great. And that is because of the people. The people who work at MEDA are wonderful. I have not worked for anyone that has such a strong constituency. Your donors have such connection to the various projects. That is really special. It was great to see this demonstrated through Women Walking to GROW. The women I work with can’t believe there are women across the world who care about them and are doing something for them. It is a very meaningful thing for them – the fact that these strangers across the world are supporting them.
As field project manager for MEDA’s Greater Rural Opportunities for Women (GROW) project in Ghana, Karen Walsh is responsible for the successful management of the project in the field. GROW is a 6-year, $20 million GAC-funded project to help 20,000 women farmers improve food security for their families in Northern Ghana.
As Communications Coordinator for MEDA, Katie West is responsible for sharing MEDA stories and impact through digital content creation.
This project is funded by Global Affairs Canada.