Innovative approaches to gender and food security: Changing attitudes, changing behaviours

The struggle of poor women and men in developing countries to ensure sufficient nutritious food for their families has been regularly reported in the media in Northern and Southern countries over the past four years. The global food price spikes have increased undernourishment by almost seven percent, and have driven at least 100 million more people into poverty. By 2050, the world population will be around 9.3 billion, and feeding everyone will require a potential 70 percent increase in supplies of cereals alone.
Gender justice – that is, the realisation of women’s rights as human rights – and ending hunger, are closely entwined, interdependent goals. Solving hunger now and in the future involves challenging the current global development model which permits – and is driven by – inequality. Gender analysis shows us that women literally 'feed the world', as producers, processors, cooks and servers of food. However, women’s vast contribution to food production, and their key role as consumers and family carers, is still largely misunderstood and underestimated.
global innovativeA conservative estimate is that female farmers cultivate more than 50 percent of all food grown (UNHRC, 2010). In developing countries, 45 percent of economically active women report that their primary economic activity is agriculture, and in some least developed countries, this figure rises to 75 percent.
© Dieter Telemans, Panos Pictures
Yet, in many parts of the world, women are still unable to own or control land in their own right, and have less access to resources such as seeds.
Women also have far less access to highervalue markets, and their crops and food products may be sold on their behalf by men – who then keep and control the income. When a woman farmer or waged labourer returns home, she begins a second shift of work to prepare food for her family. In many cases she eats least and last.
This issue of insights is the result of a collaborative process involving experts working in policy, research and practice on gender and food security in four global regions. At the centre of the process was a dynamic online discussion, which raised many issues and questions around the gender power dynamics of food production, consumption and governance. Particularly interesting, was the extent to which participants identified transformative development pathways that promote food security and poverty reduction while also enabling shifts in gender power relations. Focusing on six projects in South Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East, the articles in this issue illustrate some of these pathways.
They demonstrate how development can support poor households to survive and move out of poverty by channelling resources to women for producing, selling, processing and cooking food. In meeting the intensely practical needs of women, development interventions can challenge and transform the unequal social, economic and political power relations which create a cycle of poverty. There is a synergy between the goals of efficiency and empowerment here: if women are supported to grow more food and control the produce and to have a stronger voice in the home, where food is distributed and consumed, this will be beneficial for families and wider society.
Furthermore, this issue of insights demonstrates that food security and agricultural extension programmes will be far more effective and empowering if they also challenge and transform unequal gender power relations. This means tackling the constraints around women’s access to resources and addressing the issue of unequal gender roles, responsibilities and workloads that perpetuate poverty for all, while leaving women exhausted and often malnourished. It means changing the attitudes and beliefs of all in society about gender roles and power relations – including, crucially, men and boys.
Emily Hillenbrand shows how Helen Keller International’s Homestead Food Production initiative in Bangladesh was a catalyst for change when it adopted a women’s empowerment perspective. This involved attitudinal change among project participants and staff, challenging gender norms of men as the main farmers and women primarily as family carers.
Suniti Neogy describes a project in rural north-east India which sets out to break the cycle of malnutrition among girls and women by working with men and women to emphasise the importance of nutrition for women. It challenged social norms that women should eat after men (reflecting the general view that women are of secondary importance in the family and wider society). Involving men in these discussions helped bring about changes in attitudes.
In Syria, Alessandra Galié’s research shows that new technologies, plant-breeding processes and policies regulating access to seeds need to be developed with women’s specific interests and needs in mind. As men migrate to urban areas looking for work, women are becoming more involved in producing food and increasingly need access to relevant technologies.
A project in Zambia demonstrates the effectiveness and transformative potential of involving all household members in discussions on food security. Promoting gender equality among men and boys in a non-threatening way leads to improved household resilience and coping strategies, as Cathy Rozel Farnworth explains. Once the positive effects on household livelihoods are apparent to men, they are more likely to welcome significant changes to gender roles and relations.
Agnes Quisumbing and Neha Kumar analyse research from the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), which investigated the long-term impact of programmes that provide agricultural technologies to boost assets and nutritional status of women and men in rural Bangladesh. In contrast to the Zambian project, this research indicates that in some contexts, working with women-only groups may be more beneficial for reducing inequalities in ownership and controls of assets than taking a household-focused approach, where often, only husbands are involved.
Food sovereignty has emerged in Latin America as an alternative way of understanding and responding to food insecurity. As Pamela Caro explains, food sovereignty asserts the need for:

  • women and men to have equal access to resources, including land, so that they can become as efficient as possible
  • equal sharing between men and women of reproductive work, including preparing and distributing food
  • women to play a more significant role in decision-making concerning food production and distribution issues.

This issue of insights shows how development policy and practice can potentially improve food security while supporting women’s empowerment. They can focus on women’s critical role as food producers, consumers and family carers, while transforming gender norms and inequalities within households and communities. There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to achieving these outcomes, but it is vital to ensure that food security interventions:

  • are informed by both women and men at the local level in their design and implementation
  • are tailored to specific contexts, given the often vast disparities in experience, needs and gender roles within countries and regions
  • take into account and respect women’s instrumental role in food production
  • involve women and men equally in decision-making around food production, consumption and distribution.

Caroline Sweetman
Editor, Gender and Development
Oxfam GB
Oxfam House, John Smith Drive
Oxford, OX4 2JY, UK