Listen to women

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

We know from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) that women and girls make up 60 per cent of the hungry people in the world, and in parallel we know that women produce between 60 and 80 per cent of the food we eat. This situation where women shoulder the burden of hunger at the time of crisis, and yet provide the solutions that could boost production is being almost entirely ignored. There is no specific mention of women in the final declaration for the recent high-level conference on the food crisis held in Rome. The Elders group — which includes Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Kofi Annan, Mary Robinson and myself —is working with non-governmental organisations this month to highlight the right to food as part of its response to the global food crisis. When it comes to the crux of the matter, food is a women’s issue. So why, with hunger so prevalent, are we not asking our mothers, grandmothers, wives, sisters, daughters — who have put food on our tables for centuries — how to solve the problem? We rely so much on women’s labour but the FAO has estimated that women farmers benefit from less than 15 per cent of agricultural support, including technology, seeds and other inputs, or training. Women are mainly responsible for subsistence farming to feed families and this is considered a domestic or household activity rather than an economic activity. As a result, the majority of public agricultural support goes towards cash crop farming. Surely governments can see that this is one of the contributory factors to the food crisis. Women also farm on the family cash crop plots, even where this means less time for subsistence farming, to help increase the family incomes. However, revenues from that produce might not find their way to women’s purses to buy food for their families. If policymakers were to look more closely at women’s needs and contribution, and take measures to ensure they enjoy all their rights without exception, then many of the world’s poor would not be so poor, the hungry would be fewer and vulnerable groups would be less vulnerable. Rural women regard some level of food self-sufficiency as critical to livelihoods. They would rather grow food and sell the surplus than have to buy food when there are cash requirements for so many other needs. But for this they need to have land and other productive resources and must be able to control these to suit their interests. Governments must ensure that women are empowered to influence how the land in the family or community is used. Of course, there are thousands of communities where rural women and women farmers and producers are organising collectively to claim their land rights and gain greater control over their lives. Fortunately too, there are some examples where governments have undertaken affirmative action to support better access to and control over land by women. These must be held up as best practices in food security and women’s rights. In Namibia, 30 per cent of land redistribution beneficiaries are women, most of them single. But it is time that this became the rule rather than the exception. It is time that the world woke up to the contradictions, hypocrisies and fallacies surrounding women’s land ownership. The truth is that women work hard for little recompense, they are knowledgeable about their environment but are not given control over its resources, they are financially prudent but are not given credit, they are good farmers and entrepreneurs but cannot access markets, they unite communities and build social capital but they suffer the worst violence in their homes and elsewhere, they raise children but are treated as minors. The voices of rural women would tell us all these things and more, giving us stories of hope, struggle and achievement, and more importantly blessing us with their wisdom. If we are really looking for solutions to world hunger, we should start by listening to them.


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