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By IFAD Reporters: Mattia, Antonella, Silvia, Judith, Soma and Luisa

On 21 November in a small village 100km from Ahmedabad, over 200 pastoral women, men and children danced, clapped and banged tambourines to the accompaniment of their jingling jewels and lowing animals. This colourful pageant - a joyous celebration of the inseparable relationship between pastoralists, their animals and land - was a fittingly emotional opening ceremony for a truly historic gathering.

Over 130 pastoral women from 27 countries are gathered together in the gujerati village of Mera to discuss the challenges they face - and how they can become forces for change. MARAG leaders had the vision to organize the gathering in a genuine Indian pastoral setting, where pastoralists have lived for several generations. After the event the mobile and permanent huts and buildings built specially for the Gathering will be used as a research and cultural centre for the maldhari (pastoral) communities themselves, where MARAG and their wide network of volunteers can preserve and encourage the continuation of pastoralism as a unique and valuable way of life.

The commitment and mobilization of the communities here is palpable – opening speeches overflow with emotion and their efforts make this a unique event. Mattia Prayer Galletti highlighted the importance of pastoralist women’s knowledge, which is needed by the world, while Carlo Petrini from Slow Food/Terra Madre, who was determined from the start to be present at the event, said that he was overwhelmed by the energy and the sense of community of this event, which would remain in his heart for a long time. Many are volunteers, from the exhausted international interpreters, furiously connecting participants in heated discussions in 12 languages, to the freelance photographer, the artist and facilitators - but most especially the pastoral men and women themselves, who spontaneously contributed more than 300 beds and blankets, and the elder women, who decorated the traditional huts to welcome their fellow pastoralists.

As key agents of their communities’ livelihoods, pastoralist women have seized this opportunity to network with alacrity. It is a breathtaking sight to see so many of them from all over the world, sharing their experiences, and swapping stories about their daily life. A Jordanian woman stood, eagerly explaining to an Indian lady the secret to making the bread typical of her region, whilst a group of colourfully clad Gujerati women demonstrated to an audience of women from Africa how to use their hand looms. Over in another corner, a delegate from the Cameroon listened with interest to the story of how a woman pastoralist from Kenya became a Member of Parliament and worked to raise the voice of other women in her situation…the power of sharing knowledge! But behind the ebullience lies a serious desire to go home with something concrete, and the break-out sessions of the first day are lively with debate.

There is tremendous diversity in the situations facing the women here, with women from highly marginalized and patriarchal communities sharing experiences with relatively well-organized womens’ groups - but they also have much in common, from problems with land rights to marginalization as pastoralist and as women, to keeping their children fed and healthy. The Gathering is a small but concrete step towards enabling women to share experience and knowledge and plan ahead strategies to strengthen their roles in pastoral societies and within the wider community.

The world gathering of women pastoralists, sponsored by IFAD, will last till 26 November. We will keep you informed on the issues emerging from the reach discussions and thematic working groups.