A Journey from a Small-Scale Farm to International Stage

Ogbonge Women Lagos Chapter in Agege

By Chinasa Asonye
LAGOS, Nigeria, Jun 10 2019 – As a wife and mother in Nigeria who wanted to support my family and my community, I began my own farm in 2006. When I began, I never could have dreamed that just cultivating the earth would someday lead to my meeting government leaders, and traveling to meet other women from around the world doing their part to make a difference in their own communities.

Years of hard work, learning and women’s solidarity built to my recent trip to New York City, where I participated in the Commission on the Status of Women. I was there to talk about my work in Nigeria, and my journey from being one individual small-scale farmer, to this international stage.

It was an amazing opportunity that was all new, yet also brought me full-circle and made me realize I am on the right track. Now, as I head home after further travels, my time in New York feels monumental and my passion for this work is stronger than ever.

THE BEGINNING

What brought me is Chileofarms, my farming company that produces, processes and packages rice, fish, poultry, and vegetables like tomatoes, peppers, spinach, pumpkin. To help build up my farm, and the good it could grow, I entered a competition and development program in 2014 called Oxfam’s Female Food Heroes, which gives resources, training and exposure to female farmers.

I was given an award as a Female Food Hero in a ceremony attended by the Governor, Commissioner, Permanent Secretaries and other guests. It was the first time I started to realize how much impact I could really have as a Small Scale Farmer and it was the assistance of Oxfam that made it possible.

During the award presentation, the Director of the Gender Desk from the Federal Ministry of Agriculture in Nigeria, Mrs. Karima Babaginda, asked me what they could expect to see as my achievements in the next 5 years. l told her that in five years, Nigerian female farmers’ voices will he heard both locally and internationally. I knew I had to get to work to live up to my promise.

Asonye Chinasa presenting her paper “Economic Empowerment as a Means for Social Protection for Women in Agriculture” at United Nations during The Commission on Status of Women

l went back to my community to see how l can contribute to helping other women and l formed a Cooperative called Ogbonge Women Multipurpose Association, where women with like minds came together to discuss the progress of our farms and how we can help each other.

l constructed a smoking kiln with my Female Food Hero award money in my community where my fellow women could come to smoke their fish, package and sell it. This simple equipment was important, especially when we are having post-harvest losses, because with the smoking kiln, the shelf life of dry fish is extended to 6 months.

We also started farming mushrooms together, and donated a portion of the profit to help widows, displaced and other vulnerable people living in our community. There are many women who cannot go to their farms because of the fear of been raped or killed, or their farms were destroyed with nothing to fall back on. We are lucky we are even safe and able to farm in the first place – not everyone is that lucky.

We then started to tackle the issue of loans because our women are always having problem accessing loans through banks. With Oxfam’s help, 42 women from around our state were trained in Village Savings and Loans (VSL), which is when 25 to 30 women come together to save, give each other loans, and share the interest.

This not only brought extra and more reliable income, but it brought so much happiness to our women. l started a VSL group with 25 members in 2017 and today we are 500 women with more still waiting to join. Because of this program, our women can now feed their children and send them to school, without have to wait for the money they make in harvest season.

We also advocated for farmers all over Nigeria – all women farmers decided to come together to present a Farmers Manifesto to the Gubernatorial Candidates before the Concluded Nigeria Election.

We asked candidates to sign this manifesto that agreed that farmers be recognized, and our demands must be met if they want us to vote for them. We have also pushed to change land ownership laws that have not allowed women to own and inherit land.

COMING FULL CIRCLE IN NEW YORK

During the Commission on the Status of Women it was an unbelievable honor to see the experiences and knowledge from women from different countries together in one room.

We shared ideas and what we wanted most, with one issue of common interest being the issue of women being denied American visas to attend the conference., l was overwhelmed with joy discussing issues like land rights for women, challenges facing displaced women and families and more.

l told myself that l have to go back to my country and pass the knowledge to my women and also see how we can get more women from Nigeria to have this amazing opportunity to join this conversation with women from around the world.

I was overwhelmed and honored to be included as a panelist representing Oxfam as the Female Food Hero to discuss economic empowerment as a means for social protection for women in agriculture. Here I was, a woman from a rural area in Nigeria, now having the chance to speak at this global forum in New York.

I gave my presentation in the United Nations building, and to my surprise, there was the same Director of the Gender Desk from the Federal Ministry of Agriculture in Nigeria, Mrs. Karima Babaginda. l was able to ask her: “Have l fulfilled what l have promised to achieve over five years?” and she laughed and said “Well done, Ogbonge Woman.” I was right on schedule, five years later with my voice at an international forum sharing the stories of my Nigerian female farmers.

WHAT’S NEXT

My time in New York motivated me to do more and keep pushing. As an Ogbonge woman trying to contribute my part towards the growth and development of my community, I would like to work more to bring in more women to the Village Savings and Loans groups, and will also remind women that we need to work on ourselves, because the government can’t do it all for us.

We need to face the problems as they come and that we can jointly speak with one voice. Women’s collective efforts and solidarity are key to make the changes we want to see, in partnership with our leaders.

We are also pleading for more donors and NGOs to come to our aid, because even with a strong, united group, the women farmers really need help. I will continue to advocate for my fellow female farmers, because we each deserve a chance to work hard, feel safe, make promises and fulfill them.

UN Says Kyrgyz Journalist Should be Freed

Kyrgyzstan journalist Azimjon Askarov and his wife, Khadicha, pictured during a family vacation in Arslanbob in the summer of 2009. ‘This was Azimjon’s last summer of freedom,’ Khadicha told CPJ. (Askarov family)

By Gulnoza Said
NEW YORK, Jun 10 2019 – On a recent morning in Bazar-Korgon, southern Kyrgyzstan, Khadicha Askarova was giving hasty instructions to her daughter about what needed to be packed.

They were about to set off: first for the capital Bishkek, some 600km from where they live, and then another 70km to a prison colony where her husband, Azimjon Askarov, was transferred in March.

But Askarov, a 68-year-old independent journalist and rights activist, shouldn’t be in jail at all. The U.N. Human Rights Committee ruled in 2016 that Askarov was subject to torture and mistreatment from the moment of his detention on June 15, 2010 to his speedy trial and subsequent imprisonment, and that he should be released immediately.

CPJ’s research into his case found that the original trial was marred by irregularities and allegations of torture, mistreatment and harassment of defendants, including Askarov, and their witnesses. But Kyrgyz authorities defied the U.N. resolution and in 2017, amid international outcry, upheld his life sentence.

Conditions in the new prison are harsh. In letters home, the journalist wrote that he had run ins with the guards and that prison officials punish detainees after visiting days. His health is also deteriorating and he has limited access to medication, the journalist’s wife, Askarova, said.

“What breaks my heart is to see how much he aged since being imprisoned. He used to be a man full of energy and vigor. Now, he is old, sickly, skinny, and there’s no way out of this situation for him,” she said, fighting back the tears when we spoke via a video messaging app earlier this month.

The couple, who have been married for over 40 years, now have limited contact: just six family visits and two phone calls a year. As Askarov wrote in a recent letter to his wife, “They like keeping us under a tight lid here. Communication with the outside world is banned.”

The letter, which his wife shared with CPJ, also gave a glimpse of the harsh prison conditions: “After family visits, inmates are punished by being forced to eat raw onions and carrots for several days.”

“On regular days, they give us pea soup that contains nothing but watery peas. On public holidays, we get what the prison administration calls plov [pilaf] but it is not more than 150g of rice cooked with some carrots, per person.”

Since Askarov’s transfer to a prison outside Bishkek in March, he wrote that he has had three “incidents” with prison guards. The journalist did not specify the nature of incidents, but wrote that guards were known for their mistreatment of and conflicts with inmates.

“There are few good ones among them”, he added, almost as if he was preventing possible punishment should the content of the letter became known to the guards.

One of the incidents was connected to the journalist’s poor health. He has the heart condition tachycardia, hypotension, and gets dizzy and nauseated if he stands for too long.

Under prison rules, if a guard enters a cell, the inmate must stand. “That’s the rule. Twice a day, guards enter cells. An inmate has to cite his full name and an article of the criminal code he was convicted of violating. But Azimjon was not able to stand straight for too long. His knees bend, he had to sit down. That was the ‘incident’,” the journalist’s wife, Askarova, told me.

Soon after the transfer, Askarov complained about his health to prison administration, and said that low blood pressure and a cold was diagnosed. “But they did not have any medication to give me,” he wrote.

Askarova told CPJ that doctors at the prison ask families to bring medication. “They rely on us for something that they ought to provide,” she said.

She added that the few visits they are allowed are emotional, and the travel hard and costly. She makes sure that one visit falls on her husband’s birthday, May 17. This year, the couple’s daughter and their three grandchildren also visited on his birthday, their first visit to a new jail.

‘I’m afraid they will forget how he looks’ Askarov’s wife says

Azimjon Askarov, pictured with his daughter Navruza and grandchildren, during a May 2018 visit in Bishek prison. The journalist was moved to a new prison in 2019 that bans families from taking photographs during visits. (Askarova family)

“The new prison is much farther from Bishkek. After a nearly 14-hour drive to Bishkek, we took another taxi to the prison, but then had to walk about seven kilometers in the heat and dust. It was especially hard for the little ones, although they were excited to see their grandfather. They are still little, and I am afraid they can forget how he looks like, how he sounds,” Askarova said.

Adding to that concern is a rule at the prison banning families from taking photographs during visits. “Now, I have to look at old pictures of Azimjon. They deprived me even of the photos of my husband,” she said.

Askarova said she would move to Bishkek to be closer to the prison, but she cannot sell the house that her husband has owned for decades. The authorities seized the journalist’s property after he was charged in 2010.

In 2015, the journalist’s lawyer successfully appealed against the seizure, but before Askarova had overcome a legal quagmire of changing the ownership, authorities placed a new lien on the house in February. She said she has started another appeal process.

Askarova said that before they visit each year on his birthday, the couple’s daughter Navruza, who lives in Uzbekistan, usually comes to Bazar-Korgon to help pack personal items, food, medicine and books. But it is Askarova who picks flowers from her garden and buys bouquets at a florist for her husband.

“He is an artist, you know. He loves flowers. I get the most beautiful ones for him. Many kinds, sometimes several bouquets,” she said.

Azimjon and Khadicha met at art college in the Uzbek capital Tashkent in 1974. They have been married for 42 years and raised four children, who live in Uzbekistan. He used to work as an artist. But every time he heard a neighbor complain of injustice, he felt the urge to help, Askarova said.

In the late 1990s, he started documenting the cases, mediating between his community members and law enforcement, and researching legal books. He eventually became a go-to person in Bazar-Korgon if the rights of a member of his community had been violated.

He was known for taking up the cases on police brutality. It was this reputation that led many people to come to him for help when violence against ethnic Uzbeks erupted in June 2010, she said.

In prison, Askarov started to paint again. In 2014, international and local activists organized an exhibition of Askarov’s work to raise awareness of his case. In 2018, he wrote a book, “I am happy,” which includes a dedication to his late mother, “who lost me, her son, during her and my life, and left this world, shocked by the greatest injustice.” Copies of the book are still available online.

During his imprisonment, Askarov studied English and is able to read the many cards sent to him from around the world, his wife said. She added that he has been studying Japanese from the books and dictionaries she brought him, and that he has become interested in herbal medicine because conventional medication was not available in prison.

Askarov has also kept a diary since 2010. “He writes down everything. I keep reading them in between prison visits. One word that he uses most frequently is freedom. When he sees rain through the cell window, he writes ‘I wish I was free to feel rain drops on my skin. When he sees snow, he writes ‘I wish I was free to be outside and enjoy the snow now’. Freedom is his main wish and goal. He lives for it,” Askarova said.

* Gulnoza Said is a journalist and communications professional with over 15 years of experience in New York, Prague, Bratislava, and Tashkent. She has covered issues including politics, media, religion, and human rights with a focus on Central Asia, Russia, and Turkey.