23 October 2023

Rural Women and Food Security

In honour of the International Day of Rural Women, Professor Elisabeth Prügl puts the spotlight on how current international policies affect rural women, both validating the roles they play and emphasising the inequalities they face, while also taking into consideration the key roles rural women have historically played in regards to food security around the world.

As we celebrate the United Nation’s International Day of Rural Women, it is important to reflect on how current international policies affect them.

On the one hand, the international policy goals of gender equality and women’s empowerment seek to validate women’s work in agriculture and their extensive care and domestic work. According to ILO statistics, women account for 40 percent of the global agricultural labour force and their reproductive labour is more extensive than in urban areas, yet much of this work is invisible and unpaid.

On the other hand, international agricultural policies continue to favour liberalisation and foster large-scale farming. These policies have severely aggravated inequalities in agriculture and play a role in the deterioration of the status of women that has been documented in processes of development.

The DEMETER project, hosted by the Gender Centre from 2015 to 2022, investigated the gendered impacts of land and agriculture commercialization in Cambodia and Ghana. Our data showed that commercialisation sharpened gender divisions of labour and generated inequalities in income in north-eastern Cambodia. In a context of pervasive land grabbing, women became “housewifised” as they lost access to land, and the few new jobs that were created were often incompatible with their domestic care obligations. In Ghana, a large project to formalise land rights across the country ended up dispossessing women. Privatisation gave men permission to sell land without women’s input and commercialisation encouraged this. The DEMETER project also found that land loss generated new food insecurities in both countries: Food production suffered in areas that “overcommercialised” (such as in some South Ghana cocoa-producing regions). Moreover, cash was less available at different stages of the farming cycle, generating cyclical hunger. And where local food markets developed in Cambodia, nutritionally poor snack foods often came to replace balanced diets, especially for the poor. These developments call into question the assumption that commercialisation is the main road toward ending hunger.

The DEMETER project advocated for a gender-sensitive, rights-based approach to agricultural development. We disseminated knowledge to policy makers about the right to food, we trained judges in Ghana and supported planning processes in Cambodia. This approach, based on international law, recognises gender equality as a basic element of food security, and affirms that it is the state’s obligation to make food available (through production), accessible so that everyone has the means to buy it, and adequate, that is, nutritionally balanced.

As we celebrate rural women, it is crucial to recognise the key roles they have historically played with regard to food security. We should support these roles. This will require gender-sensitive rural and agricultural policies that go beyond an obsession with commercialisation and liberalising international markets.