Rural women speak out about food insecurity
Today’s global food insecurity destabilizes rural communities all over the world, impeding their access to food and affecting their ability to earn a livelihood. In partnership with the Huairou Commission and WOCAN, FAO held a series of twenty one consultations with hundreds of women and men in Africa, Asia and Latin America to better understand the direct impacts of food security on their lives and those of their families.
Today’s global food insecurity destabilizes rural communities all over the world, impeding their access to food and affecting their ability to earn a livelihood. While both rural men and women suffer heavily from this situation, women, who are the traditional providers and preparers of food for their families and communities, tend to be disproportionately affected because of their lack of access to resources like credit, land, technologies and infrastructure, and as such, elaborate distinctive coping strategies.
FAO, in partnership with the Huairou Commission and Women Organizing for Change in Agriculture & NRM (WOCAN), held a series of twenty one consultations with hundreds of women and some men from women’s groups in Uganda, Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, Cameroon, Benin, Ethiopia, India, Nepal, the Philippines, Pakistan, Nicaragua, Jamaica, Honduras, Guatemala, Peru, Argentina, Bolivia and Ecuador to better understand the direct impacts of food security on their lives and those of their families.
The participants voiced their perspectives on the root causes of food insecurity and talked of the consequences on their lives and their communities and of the initiatives and solutions they were devising to survive. Here is an overview of the discussions:
Rural women’s perspectives on the root causes of food insecurity
High food prices and export and import policies
"The cultivation of traditional foods has decreased in favor of cash crops so we have less available food. But also, the prices for our crops have considerably dropped and our income from them does not allow us to spend more on alternative foods for consumption."
Participating woman farmer, Pakistan.
Across all regions, the first items rural women talked about as major causes of food insecurity were high food prices and reduced incomes, the rising costs for agricultural inputs, and current import and export measures. In Africa, the women deplored the fact that cheap imported foods have hurt local subsistence farmers, leaving them unable to compete and threatening their livelihoods. This was echoed by the women in Latin America, who also talked about the unfairly low prices smallholder farmers received from intermediaries for their produce. On the other hand, in Asia, women explained that because of their governments’ growing interest in exporting agricultural products, especially cash crops, the cultivation of traditional nutritious foods grown for local consumption like pulses, wheat and rice, had fallen, causing a loss in food diversity and nutritional intake. Across all regions, the different measures taken are similarly hurting smallholder farmers and causing communities to rely on cheaper and less nutritious imported food.
"The way the climate is now, it confuses us. Before, we knew that mid March was the time we expected rain and after the rain had fallen, we could plant our crops. But at times rains started coming earlier... Now we will go and plant our crops and when the crops start giving shoots, a very harsh sun will come and destroy them, and so we are confused about the climate and we do not know when to plant.”
Participating woman farmer, Cameroon
Climate change and damaging agricultural practices
Climate change is experienced as a major threat. In Africa, the women explained that the phenomenon was increasingly delaying the arrival of rain while prolonging the rainy season and causing destructive winds, landslides, bush fire, and deforestation, all of which were making farming very difficult and leading to the loss of crops. In Asia, the women explained that the cultivation of traditional crops previously relied on sustainable and ecological methods and questioned the growing dependency on harsh fertilizers and pesticides, saying that these methods had damaged entire crops, polluted the soil, air and sources of water and endangered biodiversity. This was also brought up in Latin America where some of the groups explained that transnational businesses were overusing agrochemicals and fertilizers and that they had seen birds and insects disappearing, which was degrading the soil. Many talked of falling into debt when their harvest was destroyed. They added that damaging natural capital was making economic activity impossible.
Lack of access to capital, land and property, and privatization
In all regions, and particularly in Africa, the women discussed their lack of access to capital, land, credit, and to property because of insufficient legal rights or customary laws, issues that were affecting their ability to produce and to earn an income. They also discussed the increasing privatization of land, where big companies were buying up arable land to produce cash crops. In Africa, this has been causing rural women to travel greater and greater distances to find available land and to be subjected to higher payments by landlords. The problem of land grabbing by governments was also discussed and seen as a big concern for food security.
"Without land we will die of hunger."
Participating woman farmer, Nepal
For example, the women in a group in Nepal explained that the government wanted their land to build a major thoroughfare. In Africa, the women also talked about the poor infrastructure that was preventing access to markets and leaving communities unable to sell or buy. The lack of machinery, technology and storing facilities also made it impossible to process and preserve foods.
Political instability and graft
In Latin America, political instability was cited as exacerbating food insecurity with a freeze on international aid in some cases, and in Africa, many women reported instances of graft, such as the sell of tainted seeds and fake pesticides on markets, which was worsening the situation.
Food insecurity affects rural women’s lives and the lives of their families and communities
"The family responsibility lies on women so that she distributes all available food for her children, husband, and other family members. If some of the food items are left she will have it, if not she suffers from hunger.”
Participating woman farmer, Ethiopia
Across all of Africa and Asia, rural women noted that they and their children were the hardest hit. Women, who are traditionally responsible for maintaining the food security of the household, tend to be the first to go hungry as they give their food to other family members first. They have also widely taken on additional work and diversified their income-generating activities on top of their existing responsibilities.
Between hunger, extra work and other effects of food insecurity, many of them said that they and others had fallen seriously ill. In general, food insecurity has had an important negative impact on people’s health. In addition to malnutrition, children and adults have become more vulnerable to depression, illnesses have been aggravated, and participants spoke of increased levels of alcoholism. People living with HIV/AIDS have also been severely affected--without access to antiretroviral therapy and well balanced, nutrient diets the condition of many has declined rapidly.
The insecurity is also destabilizing relationships within households in many ways. In Benin, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, and Zambia, the women said that many men were either abandoning their families or migrating in search of work and income to send money back, leaving the women as the heads of households. Women and youth were also increasingly moving to cities or large scale farms to find work, leaving behind the children and the elderly.
"If some family needed support to obtain food, we used to help them. Now we do not have food in storage, so help between the people in the community has decreased. Finding enough food for one’s own family has become the priority."
Participating woman farmer, Nepal
In Africa, participants explained that instances of women being dispossessed of their land and property by in-laws or other groups were on the rise, and in Asia, many were trapped in a circle of debt and had been forced to sell personal belongings.
The women also explained that the social fabric of communities had deteriorated. The difficulties were so great and had been lasting for so long that people were no longer able to help each other and robberies and other illegal activities were on the rise. Sexual violence and prostitution were also worsening, increasing women’s exposure to HIV and AIDS and other health problems.
"If a woman becomes poor, the household suffers, children will not go to school, they will not have good paid jobs, the health of children suffers too, the family remains poor and we end up with a community of illiterates with no skills and no money."
Participating woman farmer, Ghana
In all regions, women expressed very deep concerns about having to take their children --especially girls—out of school because school fee money was needed to purchase food or because they needed their children to go to work to earn an income or to help with household tasks. They said that children in school were also having problems learning because of malnutrition. In Africa, young girls were being more often forced into early marriages as their families could no longer feed them.
How rural women cope with the situation
"Most households could not afford onions in our village. One woman in the village had access to some land and water, but she did not have the money to invest in crops. Together, other women from the village bought seeds to grow onions on the available land. As a result, many households have access to onions. It would not have been the case if we had not put together our resources.”
Participating woman farmer, India
Throughout all regions, rural women have been extremely industrious and inventive in coming up with solutions to soften the blow of food insecurity on their families and communities. In Asia, Africa and Latin America, rural women have organized collective farming initiatives to return to a greater cultivation of traditional food crops using traditional methods of farming including the use of manure as fertilizer and of ash as seed preservatives. They have started to share land and seeds, and the costs of expenses such as tractor services to plow the fields in order to maximize harvests. They have been devising farming methods to grow crops on depleted soils or with less water, such as the use of logs to channel water to the crops.
With the help of grassroots organizations, they have also created savings groups and credit collectives. For example, in India, the participants explained that they had created the Thankot Women’s Savings and Credit Cooperatives, which have been a reliable resource for women to cope with rising food prices. They have also diversified their sources of income, such as selling crafts, and formed business partnerships.
"We have introduced a food bank. This is generally a place where we bring an agreed share of food for storage during the harvesting seasons. During the drought, this has been our safe haven. Many families have benefited from this initiative."
Participating woman farmer, Kenya
In Kenya and Ghana, rural communities have created food banks to store produce, allocating portions to the neediest families and developing canning techniques to prevent the food from perishing.
In Asia, women have organized local actions to support the prioritization of crop production for local consumption and to sell to local villages before selling to large markets. In Ecuador, Latin America, women’s movement and indigenous movements jointly organized actions to push for the repeal of laws going against their economic, political and cultural rights, and to create new laws that better protect them.
Everywhere, the participating women called for support from local organizations and from the government with social protection programmes. In Asia, the women asked for local organizations to support communities with crop management, diversification and training on new techniques and for the government to help with irrigation mechanisms, family planning and with the organization of gender networks to share knowledge and education. This was also the case in Africa, where women also wished governments would better support their land ownership rights and their productivity through better agricultural mechanization, subsidized inputs like fertilizers and better access to technologies and credit. In Latin America, the women asked for governments to support stores where producers can trade directly with consumers without intermediaries, to provide special loans for agro-ecological production, and to improve access to land and credit.
"To avoid depending on rain fed crops, I risked my meager savings and drilled a borehole. I have been able to irrigate my vegetables and my household spending has considerably decreased."
Participating woman farmer, Kenya
In all regions, women also recommended that governments modify their trade strategies to better support local production.
Across the regions, the combination of poverty and the lack of social structures have compelled women to build their own support networks to protect themselves and their families from the impacts of food insecurity. While these women’s courage in recognizing that they and their communities must become increasingly self reliant, and their resourcefulness in devising coping strategies that have shielded their families from many hardships, the discussions have made clear that they cannot alone face food insecurity and that more support is needed from governments in the form of social protection schemes that will decrease vulnerability to transient shock while mitigating the risks of future crises.