Empowering women to achieve food security

Elizabeth Hosier

Empowering rural women

Empowering rural women. Photo from treesftf via Flickr Creative Commons.

Gender equality is the single most important determinant of food security.  You may be tempted to immediately ridicule this assertion; indeed it is an audacious statement and certainly one that could be contested.  However, its foundations are built upon the consensus of understanding that empowering women is fundamental to achieving global food security.

Global gender equality remains an elusive goal despite development actors unanimously agreeing upon its necessity.  The recognition of such a target is worthless as an end point: theorising must be translated into mobilising resources. But how can we target our resources at such a broad goal? While the achievement of gender equality is given added impetus on framing this goal through its synergetic relationship with food security, the process of how this is attained is further convoluted. There is no panacea to unscramble the complex web of production, distribution, access and utilisation issues that constitute food security. It is apparent that there is a need for increased research to provide an evidence base that can identify the constraints and opportunities of the copious cultural, social and economic barriers currently reinforcing gender inequalities relating to food security.

Rights-based approach

An overarching barrier to attaining food security is the presence of laws that discriminate women.  For example, even in situations where women are primarily responsible for food production, they are often subjected to an unequal distribution of assets and as such lack the rights to make decisions, constraining food productivity.  Such openly discriminatory laws need to be eliminated immediately.  Incentives should be given to promote the entrenchment of gender equality across all laws, policies and programmes.  A particular focus should be made upon strengthening women’s entitlements to physical capital, enabling women to legitimately lay claim to assets and so have a stronger legal position from which to make decisions and have them heard.  There are suggestions that this would result in a 20-30 per cent increase in food productivity alongside improved health and nutritional outcomes for households.  However, examples of more progressive acts that have been enacted still have entrenched gender discrimination and so there is a need to look beyond laws to customary rules.

One step beyond

The social and cultural norms of rural life in developing countries often involve set gender roles; a labour divide that needs addressing as it currently renders women being time, mobility and energy poor.  While the 2010 Millennium Development Goal summit recognised this unpaid and undervalued work force, there is a need to move on from this recognition phase.  A possible vehicle for attaining this particular goal is through public service development, focusing on the delivery of: improved public transport, the option of child care services and improved water services.  A redistribution of household responsibilities, for example introducing initiatives to encourage men’s role in the care economy, would further aid the achievement of this goal.  This would enable a more productive use of women’s time; for example, dedicated to education and paid employment.  Poor education and the resultant lack of employment currently put women in a weaker position both within the household and within the community.  Women’s income security needs greater support; for example, through the introduction of microfinance programmes with safety nets explicitly set out to cater for women.

Women’s role as a social and human capital resource is currently not being maximised.  This is especially disconcerting on consideration that social organisations of rural women typically far exceed their male counterparts.  Their capacity to operate, beyond subsistence at a level of commercial enterprise is currently minimal hampering productivity levels.  Social programmes to facilitate innovative partnerships and entrepreneurs should be encouraged and be inclusive of women, while women’s skill sets should be developed through targeted training; thus maximising women’s potential to become innovative leaders in sustainable agriculture.  There are several social programmes already in operation; their successes should be used to inspire future initiatives.

Manner of address

Each of these aims, while cumulatively appear overwhelming and unmanageable, if addressed in an appropriate manner can go some way to being achievable.  A regional study sets out this desired strategy in some detail; however, there is collective recognition that this manner of address needs to be:

  • inclusive; bottom-up in approach, with women having a role in decisions at all levels, while also involving male counterparts in order to minimise cultural resistance
  • phased in approach; with an awareness that it is not possible to make all desired changes instantly
  • multi-sector in nature; introducing measures to multiple policy sectors that work to complement each other
  • enforceable; with on-going monitoring
  • and, perhaps most importantly, context specific; driven by the needs of local communities.

There are numerous barriers to attaining a sustainable and gender sensitive food policy.  Our entry point needs to go further than a rights-based approach in order to tackle underlying social and cultural practices in an inclusive and context-driven manner.  Perhaps then we will be able to look back and show that the empowerment of women was the single most important determinant of achieving global food security.

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