On March 8 each year, communities around the world stop to reflect on the role of women in our societies, the ongoing inequalities that exist and strategies to overcome them.
Women continue to bear the brunt of global poverty and are estimated to make up around 70% of the world’s poor. With the majority of the world’s poor living in rural areas, rural women are clearly one of the most disadvantaged groups in the world. In rural areas, women do the majority of work as well as carry the burden of caring responsibilities for both young and old. Rural areas are also often where jobs, services and opportunities fail to materialise, where exploitation of people and the environment take place – exploitation which, ironically, the rapidly developing cities of the world depend on.
Union Aid Abroad-APHEDA and our partners see this every day, contrasting the bustling markets and shiny new buildings in the urban areas of the countries we work in with the reality of rural subsistence life – often separated by only a matter of kilometres. There is, of course, a class dimension to this, with poor and rural women suffering what is sometimes called ‘structural’ violence – the impacts of a self-perpetuating societal system that oppresses poor women.
Poor rural women are actively discriminated against by their own governments, business and even non-government organisations. For example, it is estimated that women in Africa own only 1% of agricultural land, receive 7% of agricultural extension (technical agricultural support) and receive just 1% of agricultural credit.
Whilst women bear the brunt of social inequalities, empowering rural women, women farmers and farm workers is the key to a new global food system that prioritises people and can end hunger and poverty. Smallholder farmers, many of which are women, can be assisted to increase production through agriculture training, technical advice and land reform.
Erasing discrimination would be a start. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, if women received the same access to agricultural resources as men, there would be 100 million fewer hungry people in the world.
But this needs to be about more that technical solutions to agriculture. The food ‘security’ model that is currently popular emphasises production of food as the key issue and advocates for mass markets, mono-cropping, and genetically modified foods. Some argue that women are negatively affected by the accompanying intensive exploitation of labour and abuse of the lack of formal title to family farmland by local elites and transnational corporations. The food security concept, which is currently favoured by some development agencies, can perversely result in land-grabs, environmentally destructive intensive agriculture and heavy pesticide use.
And the global food problem is getting worse with the number of chronically hungry people in the world reaching one billion by 2009, up from 800 million in the nineteen nineties.
But there are alternative ways of empowering women to end hunger and poverty. Food ‘sovereignty’ is a model that emphasises the way food is produced. Peasant landholders are encouraged to produce food in environmentally sustainable ways that are essentially integrated and work in harmony with ecosystems – not exploit them. Women can utilise techniques such as agro-forestry (the complimentary planting of beneficial trees) to boost yields and produce large and nutritionally varied yields.
Union Aid Abroad-APHEDA works with partners to implement women-focused rural development projects in Vietnam, Lao PDR, Cambodia, the Occupied Palestinian Territories and South Africa. Our projects focus on diversifying crops and increasing yields using organic methods to both improve nutrition and produce surpluses that can be sold.
One of our partners is the Trust for Community Outreach and Education (TCOE), established by Steve Biko in South Africa in 1983. It has an empowerment approach to development – a refreshing change to the welfarism of some other groups. It seeks to contribute to the transformation of the countryside through the building of an independent movement of the rural poor – made up of small farmers, land rights forums, producer co-operatives, small stock-holders and rural women’s groups -who are capable of articulating and advocating for their own interests.
With TCOE, we are working with grassroot farmers networks, such as the Mayibuye Land Rights Forum, to construct nurseries, seed exchanges, and backyard community vegetable gardens. It will create greater access for women to the economy and sustainable processes to produce food so that they can have improved control over their own development and destiny. It will also increase opportunities for youth to forge careers in farming and agriculture, skill up local farmers through training and create avenues for increased land access and resources for their continued development and food sovereignty.
Today on International Women’s Day we look at how far women have come but also reflect on how far there is to go to overcome institutionalised discrimination.
In a world of such plenty, it is astounding that in 2012 chronic malnutrition can still affect over one billion people. Empowering women and ending discrimination is not only a just goal in itself – it the key to unlocking sustainable development, ending hunger and building a just world for all.