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Food Security and Gender: Information Gaps and How to Plug Them
by Johan Pottier


The overall aim is to highlight the link between gender and food security, with the help of anthropological case studies which should inspire the design of more gender-sensitive projects and programmes. Examples are taken from among those used in my recent book, Anthropology of Food (Pottier 1999). The specific objective is to draw attention to themes the importance of which is still insufficiently acknowledged. The presentation ends with a short comment on how grassroots theatre can be used to boost research on the noted information gaps.

To introduce the themes, it is useful to convey a general sense of how and why food security became an issue for discussion and negotiation within households. Making use of Melissa Leach's reconstruction of agrarian change among the Mende people of Sierra Leone's Gola forest (Leach 1994), I shall highlight how tree crop cultivation, introduced in the middle of the century, made many men/husbands opt out of food farming, after which they "promised" to purchase rice to compensate for the loss of their labour. As these "promises" often remained unfulfilled, even today, the outcome is that women need to resort increasingly to personal resources and networks to keep their households food secure.

Information gaps in need of attention

Three priority areas for research and policy attention will be reviewed: women's resourcefulness in agriculture; women's multi-stranded approach to achieving food security; male impoverishment and women's right to access land and inheritance. (This is a personal selection, by no means exhaustive.)

Women's resourcefulness in agriculture

Women's resourcefulness and ability to keep agriculture innovative, often under difficult circumstances, are well documented in the anthropological literature. With examples from rice- and bean-growing regions, rural women's phenomenal contribution to agriculture will be elucidated. Less well documented, however, is women's pivotal role in maintaining and improving the seed (or seed mixtures) that are appropriate for the conditions that prevail on-farm. Women's role in seed selection remains understudied and undervalued. A similar argument must be made with reference to women's role in the management of small livestock.

Women's lead role in keeping agriculture alive and innovative must be recognised also in disaster situations (drought, war) and instances of extensive commercialisation. Regarding the latter, it is of interest that recent research on biodiversity in West Africa has shown that biodiversity levels are not as eroded as is sometimes assumed. Moreover, this research reveals that women farmers are the chief guarantors of dynamic, community-based seed banks, even where commercial interests have brought down diversity on individual farms. Also in need of better understanding (and publicity) is women's expertise in diversifying economic options when coping with calamities like drought, i.e. often combining crop production with raising small livestock. An illustration from Kenya will be used to show that women's co-operatives can be at the cutting edge of innovative on-farm breeding programmes for small livestock.

Suggestion for better policy. One policy idea which needs to move up the agenda is that of promoting community-controlled genebanks in which women, as seed producers or animal breeders, play a formally recognised central role. If time allows, reference will be made to CIAT's efforts in regard of farmer-scientist participation in Central Africa's bean-producing region. CIAT now formally recognises how senior women farmers take a lead role as technical experts. The acknowledgement can have positive consequences for empowerment.

Women's multi-stranded approach to achieving household food security

Women's dynamic involvement in food production is matched by their equally dynamic involvement in food trade. Yet here again, as I learned from reviewing the literature, we face an information gap. While the structural constraints under which women labour are relatively well understood (cf Bernstein et al. 1990), women's ability to overcome constraints and explore new opportunities remains by and large hidden. The point to develop is that women's ability to participate creatively in fast-changing food/commodity markets is often linked to a search for new production strategies. The link, which must be more clearly recognised, dictates that women's dynamic involvement in food trade must be reflected when designing policies for improved agricultural production.

To illustrate the point I draw from a longitudinal study on the impact of "Green Revolution" technology in Java, Indonesia, in which it is argued that initial research on impact occurred at a time when rice production was severely depressed (due to plant-hopper plagues) and the practice of a third harvest not yet established (Gerke 1992). Researching a good decade after the initial impact studies, when conditions had dramatically improved, Gerke found that the negative effects, which she duly acknowledged, were not as severe as assumed in the early 1970s. New plants, production increases and more harvests had brought some prosperity, especially because of an expansion in trade opportunities.

For the design of more gender-sensitive policies, policy makers need to respond to that growing body of evidence which shows women to be simultaneously active in trade and engaged in food production experiments. The delicate balancing act required of women - and here comes the policy angle - often involves "improved" crops. Examples of intercropping practices on Madura island (Indonesia) and in Sagada (The Philippines) will be used to demonstrate that women farmers do not distinguish between their market decisions and production decisions. Examples of how women play the market by linking market and production strategies can also be found in West and Central Africa, where women producers are gradually substituting root crops (which women control) for grain crops (which men control). The advantage of the switch for women's personal security and that of their households is that tubers can be harvested on a continuous basis, which gives women (who harvest) a better chance to market their crops unimpeded. Interestingly, this strategy of storage-in-the-field, which strengthens women's grip on the crops they produce, finds a parallel in certain share-rearing practices involving small livestock. Ethnography from Bangladesh will be used to highlight the parallel.

Suggestion for better policy. The policy recommendation complements the one made in section 1: research on assets women control and market (intercrops, root crops, small livestock) must be promoted with greater urgency. The literature warns, however, that when assets women control benefit from better research or become more lucrative, they tend to be coveted by men, particularly when men are economically insecure. The challenges "poor men" pose, and the consequences for women's livelihood security, are still insufficiently understood. Another information gap.

Male impoverishment and women's rights in land and inheritance

Economically insecure men may redefine the world of goods in ways that undermine women's ability to generate precious cash and keep households food secure. Research on poor men from Central Africa's bean producing zone (they are poor mostly because they either have no land or are married without bridewealth) shows that such men habitually challenge their wives' customary right to grow and control the crops known as "women's crops". In the absence of land and/or bridewealth, husbands see their leverage over the labour of wives reduced, which often makes them uncooperative towards their wives, i.e. they lose interest in achieving a smooth food supply for household consumption. Where land is more readily available, negotiating access is still very much a man's game, also in other parts of Africa. Experiences like the Jahaly Pacharr project in The Gambia, for instance, have shown how women face an uphill struggle even when legislation is on their side (Carney 1988). In this particular instance, men again used language to redefine the world about them in an attempt to regain control and diminish their own responsibilities in food provisioning.

Research on inheritance legislation and practice in Asia has yielded similar findings: women face severe difficulty when attempting to exert their rights. Iran, India and Bangladesh all provide insightful literature on how women regularly lose out, as daughters and wives, because everyday practices - i.e. "common sense" interpretations by men - make implementing existing laws and conventions next to impossible.

Suggestion for better policy. While the campaign for improved legislation regarding women's rights must be stepped up, there is an equal need to focus on ways in which to implement these laws, thus stopping the habitual circumventions. In this respect, policy nakers must recognise that "poor men" are an expanding category whose needs must not be ignored in the design of gender-sensitive policies. All too often, ignorance ends in sabotage.

How to generate policy-relevant, up-to-date information?

The concluding section is a brief comment on what I regard to be an effective tool for information gathering: grassroots theatre. The comment comes with an illustration. In 1993, a workshop on food stress in Northern Province, Zambia, opened with a play by villagers which began with the song "The people for whom I produce get dressed while I, the one who toils, ends up naked" ("Abo ndimina balafwala ne mwine pamputi tutu"). Set in a local village, with characters everyone recognised, the play powerfully exposed the impact of exploitative institutions and individuals, all of whom contributed to the suffering of poor farmers.

Performed at the beginning of a 3-day workshop, the play's impact on the ensuing discussions was inspirational. The experience demonstrated that village-level theatre can be a tool for learning about local perceptions on food security. As such perceptions are never static, and often difficult to access (Pottier 1999: chapter 2), theatre can be an effective means to access them. In this respect, the play clearly outlined the integrated nature of the multiple decisions affecting food security, and yielded information on "home made" solutions that were being tried out. (The latter are normally kept well hidden from outsiders.) If we can learn more about them, some home-made solutions will undoubtedly be worth strengthening through policy initiatives (share-rearing for example; better research on root crops). Plays also have the advantage that they can be recorded, broadcast and distributed. (The Kapatu play was filmed and shown on Zambian television, but other ways of disseminating the material must also be considered.)


Bernstein, Henry, et al., (eds) (1990) The Food Question. London: Earthscan.

Carney, Judith (1988) "Struggles over Land and Crops in an Irrigated Rice Scheme: the Gambia", in Jean Davison (ed.) Agriculture, Women, and Land: the African experience. Boulder, Co.: Westview Press. pp.59-78.

Gerke, Solvay (1992) Social Change and Life Planning of Rural Javanese Women. Bielefeld, Germany: Bielefeld Studies on the Sociology of Development 51.

Leach, Melissa (1994) Rainforest Relations: Gender and Resource Use among the Mende of Gola, Sierra Leone. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, for the International African Institute.

Pottier, Johan (1999) Anthropology of Food: The Social Dynamics of Food Security. Cambridge: Polity Press.

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