Monday, March 4, 2013

The feminization of farming

That is the title of Professor Olivier De Schutter's op-ed in the New York Times today, but it reminds me of another catchy (if depressing) phrase feminists coined a few decades ago:  the feminization of poverty.

As it turns out, De Schutter, the UN special rapporteur on the the right to food, brings together issues of gender equality and food security in his op-ed in a way that shows the link of both to, you guessed it, poverty.  As most of us know, women are more likely than men to be living in poverty, wherever they are in the world.  Turns out, according to De Shutter, as women get more and more responsibility for growing food in the developing world--partly as a result of male migration for work--women's poverty and hunger, along with that of their families, is exacerbated, not eliminated.

Specifically, De Schutter discusses a report released today to the United Nations Human Rights Council in which he calls for a "comprehensive, rights-based approach focused on removing legal discrimination and on improving public services — child care, water supplies, sanitation and energy sources — to reduce the burden on women who farm."

Noting women's increasing roles "on the front lines of the fight to sustain family farms," De Schutter asserts that gender discrimination and stereotyping lead to pervasive discrimination against women, hindering their ability to overcome poverty and hunger.  Some manifestations of this discrimination "den[y] small-scale female farmers the same access men have to fertilizer, seeds, credit membership in cooperatives and unions, and technical assistance."  Just as problematic, if not more so according to De Schutter, are the burdens associated with traditional gender roles that leave women expected to do "unremunerated household chores like cooking, cleaning, fetching water, collecting firewood and caring for the very young and the elderly." De Schutter notes that these activities are the equivalent "to as much as 63 percent of gross domestic product in India and Tanzania," and that these endless tasks  keep women from having the time they need to "attend classes, travel to markets to sell produce or do other activities to improve their economic prospects."

De Schutter provides success stories from Bangladesh, the Philippines and China, all about programs that look at first blush unrelated to farming.  These programs have, among other things, provided obstetric and other health services, educated women about domestic violence, enhanced education for children, supplied clean water and latrines, and employed women on rural road maintenance crews.  Yet as apparently unrelated to farming as these programs are, all of these have had the knock on effect of enhancing women's farm productivity and helping to alleviate hunger.

De Schutter does not mention the role that CEDAW--which includes specific rights for rural women--can play in all of this, but that is a topic I have written about extensively here, here, and here.  This article is about empowerment of India's rural populations in particular.

Kudos to De Schutter--and the United Nations--for seeing food security as part of a much wider web that implicates women's and children's agency and well-being.  

Cross-posted to Agricultural Law Blog.

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