Developing strategies to end hunger

Agriculture and "Gender Issues": Separate But Equal?

Photo for gender and agriculture bigger 







Farmers such as this Zambian worker feed most people in the developing world. Photo by Margaret W. Nea for Bread for the World.

 International Women's Day is coming right up: this Friday, March 8. 

Of course, every other day of the year is also women's day, just as every day is men's day and children's day. Yet sometimes even seasoned advocates who approach hunger holistically -- recognizing it as the multidimensional problem it is -- are guilty of putting "gender" or "women's issues" in a separate box from other development sectors.

Granted, it's an important box, increasingly stuffed with worthwhile things -- the 1,000 Days campaign to prevent malnutrition among pregnant women and young children, literacy and bookkeeping classes for small business owners, campaigns against child marriage and maternal mortality, and many more. But nonetheless, it's a box.

Female farmers produce well over half of all the food grown in the world, and worldwide, the major responsibility for providing for families falls to women. But few female farmers own the land they work, have the authority to make decisions about crops and livestock, or control their own incomes. The box separates these "women's empowerment" issues from other parts of the solution to hunger, such as agriculture. Sure, there are programs for "women farmers," but this is often viewed as a matter of equal opportunity. Crop research, extension services, training in newer or more productive growing and harvesting methods, and a host of other agricultural programs are for "farmers." We don't see a term such as "men farmers" very often -- because the pervasive assumption is that "farmers" are men.

It's an assumption that can literally be seen in fields around the world, reflected in a basic hand tool: the hoe. As it turns out, women work more effectively with hoes that are not only lighter weight, but have longer handles than those intended for “everyone.” But these are in short supply.

It's an assumption that costs the world dearly -- in hunger, malnutrition, and all their consequences. The Institute's new resource, "Development Works: Myths and Realities," points out that according to the 2012 Africa Human Development Report, gender bias is a "principal cause" of hunger in Africa. A principal cause of hunger -- not something that has solutions separate from sectors such as agriculture.

Yesterday, Olivier de Schutter, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, released a report on women's rights and the right to food. He points out in  "The Feminization of Farming," in The New York Times of March 3, that women have a heavy burden of unpaid work -- cooking, cleaning, child care, fetching water, etc., that "result in lost opportunities for women, who don’t have the time to attend classes, travel to markets to sell produce, or do other activities to improve their economic prospects."

De Schutter sums up his argument: "The most effective strategies to empower women who tend farm and family — and to alleviate hunger in the process — are to remove the obstacles that hinder them from taking charge of their lives." 

That's what International Women's Day is all about. And that's why we can't view gender and agriculture as separate but equal spheres.

  Michele Learner is associate editor for Bread for the World Institute.


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