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In rural Africa, climate work brings political power to women

In Mali, women have become central to efforts to adapt to climate change. Their work is gradually helping them increase their political clout too.

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    Two women walk between large puddles in Heremakono, Mali. Women are helping to measure rainfall in Mali as part of a program to understand how climate change is affecting agriculture.
    Joe Penney/Reuters/File
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At the end of every wet day, Sali Samake walks to a gauge a short distance from the mud brick houses in her village of Tamala in southwest Mali to measure how much rain has fallen.

It may seem like a modest activity, but the 58-year-old is contributing to essential knowledge for farmers.

In impoverished rural areas of this West African country, women have become central to efforts to adapt to climate change. Their work is gradually helping them increase their political clout, with more women standing in municipal elections.

Samake has been measuring rainfall for 15 years under an agro-meteorological aid program run from the capital Bamako.

"Every 10 days, I send the total of rainfall levels to the meteorological services," she explained. "I like doing that because it is important for our crop production."

Samake is one of 10,000 rural Malians, half of them women, trained by the government to help the agriculture sector adapt to tougher climate conditions and avoid crop losses.

In return for sending data to Bamako via mobile phone, participants like Samake receive weather forecasts and periodic advice to share with other local farmers.

"Times have changed," Samake said. "In the past, the arrival of migratory birds like the heron was known as the deadline to start sowing. Now farmers risk failing when they rely on those references."

According to Sekou Togola, a farmer from Tamala, migrating birds still visit the region around Ouélessébougou town, but their appearance no longer coincides with the rainfall needed to sow crops, which is coming later and later.

Experts have linked shifts in rainfall patterns across West Africa to climate change, and say farmers need assistance to adjust.

Togola said Mali's meteorological assistance program has helped farmers avoid having to plant seed several times over. Instead, they take their lead from the local data collectors.

Mali Météo, the national meteorological service, tells farmers to start sowing in May only if rainfall reaches 40 mm (1.57 inches).

Daouda Diarra, who works at the meteorological service, said data received from the trained farmers is processed by specialists to make forecasts for the whole country. The service then advises which seeds should be used according to each region's rainfall over a given period.

"Since the first rains drop, people rush to ask Sali how much it rained, even before she returns from the gauge," Togola said with a broad smile.

Samake is not the only woman in southern Mali with a higher community profile and greater influence thanks to her skills.

"Many women are involved in decision making in order to divert rural people [from cutting] firewood, which is contributing to desertification," said Ousmane Aly Berthe of Mali-Folkecenter, an NGO that runs a gender and leadership project.

It trains women to develop income-generating activities that do not harm natural resources, including forests. Instead of felling trees, the women organize cooperatives for gardening, baking, and processing other local products for commercial use.

"Some of the women working with us on climate adaptation programs are already on the governing boards of several municipalities, and they are committed to have more representation," Berthe said.

Sitan Samake, a 57-year-old woman living in Tamala who is unrelated to Sali, wants to be on the municipal council and is encouraging other women to support female candidates in local elections scheduled for October.

Sitan is convinced the involvement of women in politics as candidates or their allies is a victory in itself. For a long time, women were mobilized just to vote for the men dominating political parties.

"I'm poor, and I know that one has to get much money to be elected as mayor. But more women elected as members of the municipal council can influence decisionmaking," she said.

• Reporting by Soumaila T. Diarra; editing by James Baer and Megan Rowling. This article was originally published at Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption, and climate change.

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