Women in poor countries are bearing the brunt of the current food crisis. Today we highlight some of the dimensions of the crisis as it affects women.
The current food crisis is yet another reminder of the feminisation of poverty. Women produce most of the food in poor countries, yet they have less access to seed, fertilisers and extension services. They are also the most hungry — about seventy per cent of the people who do not have access to enough food are women and girls. Women form the bulk of the working poor — they toil long hours without reaping enough to enable them to climb out of the dollar-a-day absolute poverty bracket. In some countries women widowed by HIV and AIDS are routinely disinherited, and in these and many other countries women’s lower cultural or legal status means that they do not own the land they till. The food crisis has inevitably taken a greater toll on women, and consequently the well-being of whole communities is affected.
Some of the grim statistics are as follows:1
- Food prices have risen 55 percent from June 2007 to February 2008, including an 87 percent increase in the cost of rice in March.
- Households in developing countries spend an average of 70 percent of their incomes on food, compared to the 15 to 18 percent that households spend in industrialized countries.
- Even before the food crisis hit, an estimated 7 out of 10 of the world’s hungry were women and girls.
- Rural women alone produce half of the world’s food and 60% to 80% of the food in most developing countries, but receive less than 10% of credit provided to farmers.
At the recently concluded United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) Food Security Summit in Rome, delegates promised increased commitment to fighting hunger and to developing agriculture. The Summit was not intended to be a pledging conference but several donors announced that they would make financial contributions to enable countries hardest hit by the food crisis to grow enough food to feed their populations.2
Representatives of women’s organisations attending a recently concluded FAO African regional consultation reiterated the fact that “It is widely acknowledged that improved women’s access, control and ownership of land/natural and productive resources, is a key factor in eradicating hunger and rural poverty. This has been restated in [several] framework[s] of international commitments. . . . However, there has not been concerted international action to address the question of women’s access, control and ownership of land/natural and productive resources in Africa.”3
The food crisis can be attributed to the global market economy; an economy that undervalues the labour of women — productive and reproductive — and of the poor in general. According to a statement released by the women’s organisations attending the FAO African regional meeting, “The overall situation is that in the face of increased competition and conflict over land rights for mining, development, logging and other economic activities and as a result of trends towards market-based land reforms, and environmental and health disasters, African women are fast losing their already precarious access to land and resources. HIV-positive women or widows and children orphaned by HIV and AIDS risk losing all claims to family land and natural resources.”4
Countries have often had no choice but to integrate into the global economy to the detriment of their citizens. The international financial institutions insist that poor countries’ governments divest from providing adequate support to local agricultural production and food security. Protesters around the world have decried the decline of food production in favour of crops for biofuels as an alternative source of energy. The energy crisis itself is fuelled by the global market economy.
The current global economic set-up ensures that profit is prioritised over economic human rights. Notwithstanding the numerous commitments to human rights, no end to poverty is in sight. The very institutions that are charged with the responsibility of upholding and protecting human rights uphold and protect market fundamentalism. On the other hand, are there viable alternatives to the market economy? The current food crisis should serve as the impetus for an urgent quest for an alternative economy; an economy where the pursuit of profit does wreck the environment and cause hunger; an economy where human beings not only have equal rights on paper, but have equal value in reality.
1 Taken from Fact Sheet “The Effect of the Food Crisis on Women and Their Families” produced by Women Thrive Worldwide.
2 “Food Summit Calls for More Investment in Agriculture,” FAO Newsroom, June 6, 2008.
3 “African Women’s Statement on Land/Natural and Productive Resources,” 25th FAO African Regional Conference (ARC), Nairobi, Kenya, June 16-20, 2008.
Kathambi Kinoti is a Kenyan feminist living and working in Nairobi. A lawyer by training, she has extensive experience in the field of women’s rights. Kathambi is a co-founder of the Young Women’s Leadership Institute, an organization that works towards the holistic empowerment of young women. This article first appeared in the Web site of the Association for Women’s Rights in Development on 20 June 2008.