Global Policy Forum

Food Rights and Wrongs

E-mail Print PDF

By Molly Anderson

March 2010


The number of people in the world who are hungry because of insufficient calorie intake rose from about 840 million in 2003 to more than a billion in 2009, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). Another billion people may have enough calories but are malnourished and in chronic poor health due to micronutrient shortfalls. This means that nearly one-third of the world's 6.8 billion people are malnourished and unable to secure sufficient healthy food to conduct normal activities.


The sharp surge in food prices and hunger in 2008 led to massive civil unrest and helped topple national governments in Haiti and Madagascar; currently there are 31 countries on the FAO's list of those in crisis and in need of external food assistance. The one bright aspect of this global tragedy is that more wealthy nations and international organisations are recognising the need to increase funding for agricultural development, which had dropped precipitously since 1979. Yet there are still big questions about how these funds will be invested and who will benefit.


While hunger and malnutrition afflict people in every country, they impact women most severely. More than 60% of the chronically hungry are women. Pregnancy and lactation impose major nutritional stresses on women's bodies, menstruation leaches iron from women's blood, and laws and social customs giving women lower status and denying their rights to an equal share of household and public goods take food from women's mouths. Simply being female is a significant risk factor for suffering hunger at some point in one's life, and the consequences of hunger are deep and lasting.


In almost all countries, female-headed households are concentrated among the poorer strata of society and often have lower incomes than male-headed households. The number of female-headed households is increasing significantly in rural areas in many developing countries as rural men migrate due to the lack of employment and other income-generating opportunities. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, 31% of rural households are headed by women, while in Latin America and the Caribbean and Asia, women head 17% and 14% respectively. Even in the US - the world's wealthiest country - the largest food-insecure group is mothers trying to raise children on their own. The latest US figures show that more than 30% of female-headed households with children are food insecure, compared with 10% of all households with children; and children in female-headed households are more likely to be hungry.


Food insecurity and hunger are malignant and have lifelong consequences even if food becomes available. Recent research is showing ways that the stress associated with food insecurity changes brain chemistry, leading to chronically elevated stress hormones and a less effective immune response. When hunger and food insecurity are rampant, they affect the ability to think, work and plan. So people who are suffering from hunger often cannot see a way out, even if solutions are there.


Ironically, at the same time that women are the most vulnerable to hunger, they produce most of the food, especially in those countries most prone to food insecurity. Women produce 60-80% of the food in most developing countries and are responsible for half of the world's food production. They make up the majority of urban farmers in many cities around the world, although their contributions to total agricultural production may be discounted or invisible.


Since the earliest stages of humankind's evolution, women have always been food producers and nourishers. They are largely responsible for feeding the children and the adult male members of the household as well. In addition, they have been the primary crop breeders, seed-savers and sources of knowledge about native biodiversity in traditional societies. Women bred most of the plants from which transnational corporations are trying to patent germ-plasm for crop breeding and pharmaceuticals. Women around the world continue to draw on extraordinary plant diversity to nourish their families. For example, peasant women in Uttar Pradesh, India derive almost half their income from forest species. Even middle-class women in the same region obtain a third of their income from the same source.


But at some point in history, women's essential contributions to feeding society became devalued. This may have been part of the commercialisation and commodification of foodstuffs, when food was shifted from the realm of the sacred and the home into the realm of commerce and profits. Or it may have happened earlier in human history, when paternal societies began to dominate and view women and their labour as the property of men, comparable to cows or inanimate objects. What is certain is that today, women are excluded in many countries from owning or accessing the natural resources that they need to grow food.


Recent FAO studies confirm that while women are the mainstay of small-scale agriculture, the farm labour force and day-to-day family subsistence, they have more difficulty than men in gaining access to resources such as land, credit and the inputs and services that enhance productivity. Women's limited access to resources and their insufficient purchasing power are a consequence of interrelated social, economic and cultural factors that force them into a subordinate role, to the detriment of their own development and that of society as a whole.


This imbalance in power and perception of the value women provide in the food system exists not only in poor developing nations: males have much more power in the global food system and they dominate administrative and management positions. Women are under-represented in agricultural extension, research, teaching and business, even where the majority of students in biology and several agricultural and food disciplines are female. Sadly, even alternative agriculture replicates the male-dominated model: women staff and run most of the non-governmental organisations in the US that promote healthier, fairer and more environmentally responsible agriculture, yet almost all of the 'experts' interviewed in several recent US films that promote food systems with these attributes were male.


Food sovereignty has emerged as a different way of viewing how food systems are and should be, and its principles draw attention to the particular needs for women to have ownership and control of land and for rural women to be direct, active decision makers in food and rural issues. The concept of food sovereignty was first raised at the 1996 World Food Summit by La Via Campesina, the international movement that represents peasant family farm-based food production across the globe. Food sovereignty, at its simplest, is the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems.


At the third international world food summit, held in November 2009 in Rome, a parallel forum on peoples' food sovereignty was organised by non-governmental and civil society organisations. Women fishers, farmers and pastoralists from all regions of the world and representing numerous Indigenous peoples attended to tell their stories and work on remedies to the global food crisis.


Although food sovereignty advocates might not prioritise this solution, an obvious need is to better document women's contributions to food systems through gender-specific data collection and better monitoring of the impacts of barriers to participating in food systems and achieving the right to food for women. More direct on-the-ground needs include ensuring women's ability to own and access resources to produce and market food; providing education for women and by women (such as by training women to become agricultural extension agents and encouraging girls to attend school); investing in technology and services that smallholding women and their organisations need to raise family incomes and increase production of healthy food; and giving women control over decision-making relevant to their own and their families' food systems. Many of these measures will require changes in legal systems that are skewed against women, or do not recognise they have human rights.


Food sovereignty encompasses many of the measures that are needed for women to achieve their full human rights, including the right to food. Although political will to invest in agriculture seems to be growing, hungry people can't wait. It is essential that the questions about who will benefit from that investment and how women's food sovereignty can be increased with added funds be answered promptly and transparently. While more investment in agriculture is vital, the wrong kinds of investment could contribute to further inequity in the food system. - Third World Network Features


FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.