Supporting rural women to cope with high food prices
Poor rural households in developing countries were the hardest hit by the 2006-2008 food crisis, with women at a particular disadvantage because of their lack of access to resources like credit, land, technologies and infrastructure. The crisis has drawn attention to the vulnerability of poor populations to global shocks and to the need for countries to put in place better protection mechanisms.
During the 2006-2008 food crisis, international prices for staple foods rose dramatically, pushing more people worldwide into hunger and undernourishment than ever before. Prices declined in the second half of 2008 but spiked again in 2010 and will likely remain high and volatile over the next decade.
As in previous global crises, poor rural households in developing countries were the hardest hit. Poor rural women were particularly affected because they lag behind in access to resources like credit, land, technologies and infrastructure, which reduces their purchasing power. The crisis has drawn attention to the vulnerability of poor countries and populations to global shocks and to the need for countries to put in place better mechanisms to protect the most vulnerable populations.
The impact of high food prices on poor rural households
Rural households have little to no resources—such as savings or access to credit—to help them face high food prices, and the poorer the household, the more its members have to change their way of living to cope: they reduce spending on non-food items like healthcare and education; eat smaller or fewer meals and less expensive, less nutritious food; borrow money to buy food; and work longer hours or take on additional work to earn more money.
How do rural women cope with high food prices?
Rural women adopt specific behaviors and measures to soften the effects of high food prices on their families:
As the traditional food providers and carers for their households, they tend to act as ‘shock absorbers’, giving their food to their children and their husbands to prevent them from going hungry, and spending more time caring for sick relatives as households cut back on health expenses.
“Prices of food have really gone up and this has made my children and I not eat as we used to. We used to eat four times a day but now we can only eat two times under hard struggle.” -- Salome Nche, mother of eight, Cameroon.1
Women also look for more part-time employment or work longer hours on top of their existing jobs and household responsibilities to earn more money for their families. They may also look for additional credit to afford food and other basic necessities, and are susceptible to get into debt because their lack of access to formal credit may force them to turn to moneylenders, pawn brokers and other sources of expensive credit.
To cope with higher food prices, poor households at times have to sell assets, like livestock, seeds, or tools, which are very difficult to regain. Women’s traditional assets, like jewellery and small livestock, tend to be sold first because they are easier to recover later than men’s assets such as land and large livestock.
Children are also affected—they may be taken out of school to either be sent to work to supplement the family’s income or to help with household chores while their mothers take on additional work. The former is more likely for boys and the latter for girls.
What can governments do to support rural women and rural households to deal with high food prices?
Countries can support rural households, and especially rural women, to cope with high food prices by putting in place or expanding food assistance and social safety net programmes that take into consideration men and women’s different roles and responsibilities within households and the different behaviors they adopt in times of crisis.
Through food assistance schemes, governments provide households with food rations to compensate for lacking food supplies. This includes giving households food stamps or vouchers that people can exchange for food, implementing school feeding programmes where meals are given to children in school, and food-for-work programmes where people are given food rations in exchange for their work on public projects like building roads.
Social safety net programmes work similarly, except that they provide households with cash to buy food and other necessities instead of food rations. These programmes include cash transfers where governments give periodical payments to households, and public work programmes, which are similar to food-for-work programmes, except that they compensate people in cash.
Food assistance programmes are advantageous for rural women who are traditionally responsible for obtaining food and ensuring good nutrition for the family. These programmes may reduce women’s need to take on additional work to obtain more income to buy food and, in some cases, increase their decision-making power in the household. For example, in Ethiopia, women working in public work schemes indicated that they preferred being paid in food rations rather than cash as this prevents their husbands from spending earned resources on non-food items.
School feeding schemes are also a helpful measure because they motivate parents to keep children in school in times of crises, ensuring that they receive the nutrients they need and maintaining their chances at better opportunities later in life. These schemes are particularly important for girls, who tend to be pulled out of school before boys.
Cash transfers are also instrumental in supporting women, especially when the transfer is directed directly to them, and public work programmes that are designed to include them have many beneficial effects, including improving their access to credit since their participation in the programme is often viewed as a guarantee of repayment.
By building programmes that take into consideration rural women and men’s differentiated needs and resources, governments can better strengthen rural communities’ resilience and ability to cope with high food prices and food price sparks in the long run.
1. Excerpt from the Huairou Commission report “Grassroots Women’s Perspectives on Food Insecurity in Africa, Asia and Latin America,” 2009.
FAO launched the Initiative on Soaring Food Prices (ISFP)
FAO launched the Initiative on Soaring Food Prices (ISFP) in December 2007 as a response to the food crisis. Under this initiative, FAO is working to help smallholder farmers grow more food and earn more money. FAO works with governments to make sure farmers have sustained access to quality seeds, fertilizers and tools as well as technical assistance, training and credit and supports work to improve rural infrastructure such as roads, irrigation systems, storage and market facilities, and to promote better management of water and land resources.
Also as part of the ISFP, FAO provides policy guidance to governments and has developed food and agricultural policy decision monitoring to track food and agricultural policy decisions taken by countries in response to the food security crisis. A report, "Food and Agriculture Policy Trends after the 2008 Food Security Crisis: Renewed Attention to Agricultural Development,” was recently issued along with a “Guide for policy and programmatic actions at country level to address high food prices.”
FAO has also scaled up its monitoring of food prices at country, regional and global level through its Global Information and Early Warning System on Food and Agriculture (GIEWS).
Click here for more information about the Initiative on Soaring Food Prices (ISFP).