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Women's Work: Gender and the Global Food System

In the Mexican state of Chihuahua, Rarámuri women choose corn to save for next year’s planting. They just finished participating in a farmer-to-farmer workshop on seed selection. Photo © David Lauer.

By Tory Field and Beverly Bell

“We, women from more than 40 countries, from different indigenous peoples of Africa, the Americas, Europe, Asia and Oceania, have gathered together to participate in the creation of a new right: the right to food sovereignty. We reaffirm our will to act to change the capitalist and patriarchal world which puts the interests of the market before the rights of people. We will find the energy to establish our right to food sovereignty, carrier of hope in constructing another world. We will carry this message to women all over the world.”

- Women’s Declaration on Food Sovereignty (excerpted), Nyéléni, Mali, February 27, 2007

Women produce 60 to 80 percent of all food, both as subsistence farmers and as agricultural wage laborers. They are the primary providers for the majority of the world’s 925 million hungry people, obtaining food, collecting firewood and water, and cooking. And yet they have less access to land and the resources necessary to grow on it than their male counterparts. Inequitable distribution of land, labor, and resources leaves farming women triply burdened by work: in the fields, in the home, and in society.

How do the agricultural policies of powerful governments and international institutions affect women? They often exacerbate gender norms and force women globally to bear the brunt of harmful changes. In the US, a corporate agribusiness model leads to violations of women’s rights in all aspects of the food system. We have adapted the following from Gender Action’s 2011 report on gender and the food crisis:

• Local and domestic agricultural markets in many countries are often devastated by global trade policies engineered by governments like the United States and by international financial institutions (IFIs). In country after country, for instance, such policies make it possible for subsidized US agricultural products to flood domestic markets and undercut local producers. This dynamic often forces men to travel to other countries in search of work, leaving women behind to tend to family and work family farmland;

• The same dynamic often leads women to migrate alone or with children, undergoing dangerous border crossings, facing a fragile and transient existence as undocumented immigrants in the US, and dealing with the very real threat of deportation. All these circumstances put women at heightened risk of gender-based violence and give them a disproportionate burden of running (often singly) households in an unfamiliar and hostile environment;

• IFI pressure on many governments to abolish taxes on food imports and repay debts reduces governments’ ability to pay for healthcare and education. Spending cuts in these sectors inevitably cause the most harm to women and girls;

• Rising food prices put additional pressure on already strained household budgets. When women enter the formal work force to help support household consumption, girls are often forced to leave school to attend to household chores and care for younger siblings;

• Agricultural investments from large international aid agencies and IFIs usually support big businesses, not women farmers. IFI investments tend to focus on agroprocessing and commercial agriculture, which mainly utilize male laborers and focus on external markets. These investments tend to overlook women, who are often restricted to subsistence farming, and instead mainly benefit the transnational corporations that win IFI procurement contracts;

• Women workers in the US food system systematically receive lower wages and face harassment and gender-based violence.

Though facing difficult challenges, women around the world have been making strides both in changing national policy and land movements themselves. In some places, women are gaining greater access to arable land, technology, credit, markets, training, equipment, and control over agricultural knowledge. In certain countries, they have won the right for their name, not just their husband’s, to go on the land title, making them direct beneficiaries of land reform.

Food sovereignty movements explicitly recognize the importance of women in agriculture. Via Campesina, the 70-country coalition of farmers, other food producers, and land-based people, has made challenging gender inequity a central goal, both within the coalition and in the global food system. Via Campesina has hosted three international women’s assemblies, led campaigns challenging gender-based violence, hosted trainings and exchanges for women, and committed to integrating a gender analysis into each of its program areas. Internally, it now requires that one woman and one man from each region participate in the international coordinating committee. It has set a goal of having 50 percent of delegates in all committees and conferences be women. It challenges its member organizations to ensure that women play an equally significant role in all leadership structures.

Juana Ferrer is a member a member of the International Commission of Women of Via Campesina. She is also a member of the board of the National Confederation of Women Campesinas (CONAMUCA) in the Dominican Republic. Here she discusses women’s role as protagonists in changing the global food system as well as the food sovereignty movement itself.

“The contributions that women gave to constructing the international campesino [peasant farmer] movement, and to confronting the agricultural and economic model: it’s a contribution from below, from communities. We as women have a very spiritual and very political commitment that has been passed down to us by our ancestors – a commitment to better conditions for our families, our community, our people.

“One very important thing for us is valuing our responsibilities, because it’s not the same when a woman goes out to struggle: we have to make breakfast for the children, make coffee, clean the house, see if Grandmother is doing well. The men go out anywhere they want – around the community, outside the country.

“In the early 90’s, in the process of building the Via Campesina movement, women’s participation – especially at the international level – was almost invisible. Women came in with all their history of responsibility in [social] movements, but that wasn’t reflected in decision-making. A lot of the compañeras that started with the movement were pregnant – imagine that. A lot of us had to give the most we could in political work while nursing our children. It’s the double burden of raising family and doing political work. Some people might think that’s marvelous, but the level of sacrifice each of us had to make was very big. In the course of it, we women have gained more of a place in our houses, in our families, in our communities, and in our organizations.

“In some countries, like the Dominican Republic, our struggle, our debate, our alliances with other movements have achieved a reform of the agrarian code. Previously, women only had access to the land when the husband died, and then only if there wasn’t a brother in the family. Since passing this law, women are equal to men in access to land, credit, and other resources. Clearly there’s a problem in applying this law; generally speaking, campesinos and campesinas have little access to land, but women have least. One important statistic is that only 1% of productive land with access to water to grow food on is in the hands of campesinos and campesinas. The rest is in the hands of big producers, transnationals, politicians, government functionaries. But women are much more discriminated against in the application of the agrarian reform law in application.

“At the international level of Via Campesina, one achievement has been the recognition of women’s rights to access to land, to fight for an agrarian reform that benefits men and women, that respects our natural resources.

“Food sovereignty is another of the most important issues that we work on. We in Via Campesina assume that food sovereignty is our right as peoples. It involves access to resources, the ability to produce the food that we need to support our people, the ability to decide what we want to produce. The women are present in that struggle. Participation of women in the seed campaign of Via Campesina has been really important because we’ve historically been promoters of agriculture, the ones who saved seeds.

“We have an International Commission on Women, which shares responsibility with men to work toward gender equity. In the past, only women assumed that responsibility. We had a Commission on Gender, but all the rest of the commissions – agrarian reform, food sovereignty, human rights, and others – were comprised solely of men. Now on the coordinating committee of the Commission of Women, we are nine men and nine women. But what we have struggled for is not equality in numbers, but equality in participation and decision-making.

“You have to respect the people’s culture, but you also have to work so that that culture implies real possibilities of life. We have been able to unify our strengths as women, and also plant the struggle against machismo and other things that oppress us as a responsibility of the men and women of Via Campesina.”

To learn more about women and the global food system, see the following resources and groups:

• Nyéléni 2007, “Women’s Declaration on Food Sovereignty,” February 27, 2007, http://www.nyeleni.org/spip.php?article310.
• Alexandra Spieldoch, “A Row to Hoe: The Gender Impact of Trade Liberalization on our Food System, Agricultural Markets and Women’s Human Rights,” Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, March 2007.
• Alana Fook, “Gender, IFIs and Food Insecurity,” Gender Action, April 2011, www.genderaction.org/publications/fdsec/primer.pdf.
• World Food Programme, “Women Shoulder Heaviest Burden in Global Food Crisis,” March 5, 2009, http://www.wfp.org/stories/women-shoulder-heaviest-burden-global-food-cr....
• Mary Bauer and Mónica Ramírez, “Injustice on Our Plates: Immigrant Women in the U.S. Food Industry,” Southern Poverty Law Center, 2010, www.splcenter.org/get-informed/publications/injustice-on-our-plates.
• Women, Food, and Agricultural Network, www.wfan.org
• Via Campesina’s Food Sovereignty and Trade webpage, www.viacampesina.org/en
• Food Chain Workers Alliance, www.foodchainworkers.org

Download the Harvesting Justice pdf here, and find action items, resources, and a popular education curriculum on the Harvesting Justice website. Harvesting Justice was created for the US Food Sovereignty Alliance, check out their work here.

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Copyleft Other Worlds. You may reprint this article in whole or in part. Please credit any text or original research you use to Tory Field and Beverly Bell, Other Worlds.

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