New opportunities and challenges are opening up for more women across the country as economic and social changes in rural areas take place.
It is becoming widely recognised that the full involvement of women is vital in maintaining the social fabric of rural communities and revitalising local economies.
The NI Rural Development Programme is supporting that effort, encouraging and inspiring new projects by women in rural areas. From production of organic food for children, and hand-made Celtic soaps, to hosting traditional craft courses, local women are pushing the boundaries to support their families as well as boosting the local economy.
In increasing numbers, rural women are being encouraged in their personal and professional development and are receiving more support in their bid to achieve financial independence.
Upwards of 100 female entrepreneurs have been supported by the Rural Development Programme right across the country.
Surveys show that, in general, rural women have a strong desire to stay in their community and contribute to its development.
Creating employment through entrepreneurship and developing economic infrastructure in rural areas is what the Rural Development Programme is all about.
I am encouraged that it is delivering on the ground and that businesses are receiving money specifically set aside to help them prosper and secure a successful future. To date over £41m has been committed to 1,100 projects across the north.
Partnership working is critical to the continued success of this programme.
My department will continue to work with the seven Local Action Groups, who are responsible for the delivery of the programme Axis 3, to ensure rural businesses get the help they need to make their contribution to economic recovery.
Michelle O'Neill is the Minister for Agriculture and Rural Development
Since launching Heavenly Tasty Organics Ltd in 2006, Shauna McCarney's baby food company has become a major award winner with her products now selling to an export market.
It was always her dream to run her own business and with an interest in healthy eating and after discovering a massive gap in the market for fresh organic baby food, it all happened very quickly. "The idea for Heavenly Tasty Organics Ltd came soon after I started feeding my son almost eight years ago. Like all new mums I wanted to provide the best for my baby, so I tried to make all my own organic baby food from scratch.
"I scoured the shops for pure, fresh, nutritious and tasty baby food, just like what I made at home, but it just wasn't available anywhere. All of the baby foods I found were, 'on-the-shelf' jars, which were dated for years in some cases, and contained a multitude of un-pronounceable ingredients.
"It has meant a lot of research and hard work in recent years but with the support of the Rural Development Programme, I'm delighted to say Heavenly Tasty Organics Ltd is now a thriving rural business.
"We're just about to move our production from Loughry College to a food manufacturing company which will allow us to grow the company even more. We are now listed with Costcutter and the Henderson Group which have over 400 stores in Northern Ireland, and we are also about to begin exporting to the south of Ireland.
"There has been major recognition too of our product and business. Last year we won the Omagh Business Award for 'Best New Start-up', the Women in Business Award for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, the Maternity and Infant Award's 'Business Parent of the Year' for All Ireland, and we were one of the top three businesses in Northern Ireland in the Business Accelerators competition which was promoted by Prime Minister David Cameron and Dragon's Den star Deborah Meaden."
Farmer's wife and mother-of-three Gayle Hegarty began Homecraft Revival when her interest in crafts was stymied by the lack of local courses.
From her home she now offers one-day courses in crochet, knitting, bag-making, sewing machine skills, patchwork, easy gifts and cupcake decorating.
"The emerging 'make-do and mend' ethos of recent years has led to increased interest in crafts. I was really into crafting myself and wanted to learn some more, but there was nothing on offer. My husband suggested I run the courses myself and get others to teach some subjects," said Gayle.
"What used to be taught at the fireside and in the classroom has lost its traditional place. Skills used to be passed down but there is now a whole generation of people who either never learned to sew or knit; or learned at school and then promptly turned away from it as it wasn't cool.
"The number of times I heard people say, 'I wish I could learn how to sew, knit, crochet, even decorate cupcakes'. I felt the same but I didn't have time for a six-week evening course which set me to thinking about my own business. I believed you didn't need long term courses to get you up and going.
"I turned to the Rural Development Fund when I realised I needed help with the setting up costs. I was able to buy equipment such as sewing machines, and get help towards the cost of the website. I don't think I could have started Homecraft Revival without their financial support. The website is fantastic, it really has helped spread the word.
"Homecraft Revival provides one day courses in craft skills to anyone who wants to learn. The emphasis is on fun, good food and company. Some fireside traditional crafts, some not so traditional, are taught by enthusiastic facilitators in our newly refurbished farmhouse in Omagh. There's a log on the fire, coffee brewing, and plenty of craic.
"People just love the fact that they can learn a new skill, and go away knowing how to continue it."
Orla Hamilton launched Organic Celtic Soaps at her home in the village of Moira just a year ago.
"I became interested in creating my soaps when my regular hand soap began drying out my skin and I was constantly reaching for the moisturiser after every wash.
"I was keen to use materials which were sensibly sourced and kind to the environment.
"With a high moisturising organic soap base I was able to create a variety of soaps using high quality ingredients.
"At first I began making the soaps for home use and for presents for friends and family but they proved so popular that I decided to turn my hobby into a business.
"I combined my love of organic soap with my interest in Celtic design and launched Organic Celtic Soaps.
"The soaps I create are highly moisturising and made with luxurious glycerine and fragranced with essential oils.
"Currently I am creating five types of soap in a variety of Celtic designs.
"I like to produce natural, earthy colours in my soaps so I use a combination of coloured clays, botanicals or ultramarines to do this.
"I have also created three soaps inspired by the folklore of fairies, mermaids and dolphins in Ireland.
"Each soap comes packaged with a little piece of folklore included.
"I sell all my soaps at St. George's Market every Sunday.
"Without the support and encouragement of the Rural Development Programme which has been amazing, none of this would have been possible.
"The funding I received from them helped me to invest in some much-needed equipment, without which I could not have moved my business forward."
A number of Northern Ireland women will share their experiences and achievements in developing their business at a special seminar to be held in the Glenavon House Hotel, Cookstown on June 7.
'Yes We're Worth It!' is the theme of the one-day event organised by the Rural Network NI, which will feature a range of inspirational speakers and showcase projects set up by rural women who have been supported by the Rural Development Programme.
The seminar is designed to bring together women who have grasped opportunities to create sustainable jobs and make a real and tangible difference to themselves and the rural areas where they live and work.
Among those taking part will be Shauna McCarney who runs her own business producing organic baby foods and Orla Hamilton who makes Organic Celtic Soaps at her home.
Farmer's wife and mother-of-three Gayle Hegarty will reveal how she began Homecraft Revial after realising the emerging 'make-do-and-mend' ethos of the past few years had led to increased interest in the whole craft area. She now runs one day courses in crochet, knitting, bag-making, sewing machine skills, easy gifts and cupcake decorating.
Other local businesses taking part are Lady Hat Bag, established by Laura-Jayne McCrea and Rebecca Jackson; WhatsonNI run by Jacqueline McGonigle, and Ciara Tiernan, who runs Willow Tree Timber Products which manufactures timber poultry houses, children's timber castles and play boats.
If you would like to find out more about the Rural Network event or the Rural Development Programme in general, contact Aileen Donnelly, NI Rural Development Council (RDC), Tel: 028 8676 6980 or Mobile: 077 477 74363; Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.