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Women's voices in the food chain
Alice Escalante de Cruz
over Asia, women toil longer hours than men in the fields, tend domestic
livestock and vegetable gardens, pick fruit, gather fuel wood, fetch water,
cook, feed and care for children, the elderly and disabled family members,
market farm produce, select and preserve seeds and manage the household
finances. Yet, they do not have the power or the authority over the land
they till or the yields they produce.
Access to and control of resources are reflective of power issues. In
the Asian context, women's access to land and other resources are constrained
as a result of cultural, traditional and sociological factors. Agrarian
reform policies that do not address these underlying issues fail to weed
out the root causes of women's disempowerment.
feminisation of agriculture
Around 70% of the population in India earn their livelihood from agriculture.
Women in rural India are extensively involved in farming activities. Their
roles range from managers to landless labourers depending on the land-owning
status of farm households. Women in India make up 55% - 66% of the total
labour force, with higher percentages in certain regions.
In Pakistan, women play a major role in agriculture, livestock raising
and cottage industries. They are involved in all operations related to
crop production such as threshing, winnowing, drying, grinding, husking
and storage, in addition to their daily household chores. In a survey
of five districts in Pakistan, it was found that 82% of women participated
in agricultural activities. They account for 25% of the production of
major crops. Rural women in Pakistan spend a considerable amount more
time on livestock rearing than on crop production. A typical rural Pakistani
woman works 15.5 hours a day; 5.5 hours on caring for livestock and only
50 minutes caring for her children.
The role of women in agriculture in China changed with the development
of the market economy. Previously women's work on the farm was highly
seasonal and depended on the locality. With the economic reforms and men
moving out into the labour force, women handle most of the agricultural
activities. In 1991, women accounted for 41.2% of the rural labour force
in agriculture, and 22.96% in agricultural services. But by 1998, women
were responsible for more than 60% of the agricultural activities in the
Hongpo Administrative Village. In the Yunnan Province, women make up 46.6%
of the agricultural labour force. After the introduction of the new household
responsibility system, women accounted for 60% -70% of the total farm
manpower. Women are exclusively responsible for home garden production
almost everywhere in China.
as seed breeders
Women are the custodians of genetic diversity and traditional knowledge.
Their expertise is only recently being attested by modern science. A collaboration
between scientists at the Rwandan Agricultural Research Institute (ISAR),
the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) in Colombia and
the local women farmers to breed improved bean varieties showed remarkable
results. Women farmers outperformed the bean breeders in the selection
of bean varieties that displayed most potential under actual conditions.
In many rural villages of Asia, women hold the secrets to knowledge of
seeds for food, medicine, and cultural or other uses.
Women farmers in Humnapur, Kalimela and other villages in the Medak district
in India collect old varieties of seed from parents-in-law and grandparents,
from relatives living far away, from neighbouring villages and gene banks.
These women know the characteristics of the various varieties of seed,
they know the soils on which they grow best, many of which need little
rain, those seeds that add nitrogen to the soil, and which types are resistant
to pests. Today, at least 1,500 small and marginal farming families in
around 75 villages can access these collections of traditional seeds kept
in a mixture of clay and cow dung. Ashes and neem leaves protect these
In Bangladesh, the women of Nayakrishi have rebuilt their own 'seed wealth'
at the household and community levels. Seed preservation and germination
are largely based on the knowledge of women. They use earthen pots for
the preservation of seeds kept in a place similar to a farmer's house.
In the village of Wenteng, southwest China, women expert maize breeders
skilfully control the breeding process, from field design to seed selection
through pollination. Traditional plant varieties are maintained through
generations by separating the planting of different varieties in space
and time. Women farmers also acquired, maintained, and refreshed their
preferred varieties through open pollination hybridisation.
In Nepal, women and children do the collection of more accessible medicinal
and aromatic plants.
gender-sensitive food policy
Despite the reality of women's work on the land and their immense contribution
to food security, they remain largely invisible and unsupported by agricultural
polices that still favour and consult men. This even in modern times where
men are increasingly absent from farms and rural areas as they migrate
to cities or abroad in search of paid employment, leaving behind their
wives and older folk to manage their farms. In addition, war, sickness
and death from HIV/AIDS is also taking a toll on rural male populations.
Women are therefore taking on more of the burden and responsibility of
farm management without the power over these assets.
Though women's work constitutes 60% of the world's labour, they receive
only one-tenth of the world's income and own less than 1% of the world's
land. In India and Nepal for instance, fewer than 10% of women farmers
own the land.
Poverty is also seeing an increasingly feminine face. Statistics indicate
that since the 1970's, the number of women living below the poverty line
has increased by 50%, in comparison to 30% for men. Of the 1300 million
poor people in the world today, more than 70% are women.
If mainstream investments and development interventions continue to be
gender-blind, they will remain ineffective in addressing the inequities
faced by women. Policy makers need to consider the following:
Study the gender roles in agricultural production by documenting the different
roles played by women and men.
Recognise the contribution of women in agriculture and consult them before
national policies relating to these roles are implemented.
Put control over land and revenue in the hands of women where they perform
the major tasks of food production.
Support the needs and priorities of women in research and development
in agriculture. Simple labour-saving devices can help women reduce the
burden of long hours in the field and free them to spend more time on
child rearing or enjoy better quality of life.
Recognise the role of women as seed savers and breeders. Scientists and
agricultural extension agencies should work with women to develop new
varieties and conserve bio-diversity.
Recognise the potential of women as community leaders and mobilise them
into community groups to assist with rural development. Provide them the
opportunity to get educated and gain specific skills to lead their households
and communities out of poverty.
Throughout the new Food & Nutrition programme, emphasis will be placed
on the gender issue and the work structured so as to result in a greater
appreciation of the role of women in the food chain. With this initiative,
we hope to help the voices of these women to be heard.
Alice Escalante de Cruz, Programme Officer, Food Security and Safety,
Consumer International (CI), Malaysia.