Without Women, No Food Security

Against the Current, No. 157, March / April 2012

Esther Vivas

IN THE COUNTRIES of the Global South, women are the primary producers of food: the ones in charge of working the earth, maintaining seed stores, harvesting fruit, obtaining water and safeguarding the harvest. Worldwide, half of all food production is done by women, but in the Global South between 60-80% is performed by women. Women are the primary producers of basic grains such as rice, wheat, and corn, which feed the most impoverished populations in the South.

Yet despite their key role in agriculture and food, women; together with their children; are the ones most affected by hunger. In an excellent summary, “Feeding the World: Agriculture, Development and Ecology,” Philip McMichael outlines three changes that have led to the unequal distribution of food:

1. Industrial and bio-engineered agricultural displaces peasants from their lands.

2. An increasingly market-driven food system is built for people with incomes, leading to massive hunger on the one hand, and rising obesity on the other.

3. Today’s global food chain, controlled by transnational corporations and backed by trade agreements, reinforces the large-scale factory farm and its unsustainable methods, and increases the miles necessary to market the food, thus adding to greenhouse gas emissions. (See Socialist Register 2007, Coming to Terms with Nature, Leon Panitch & Colin Leys, eds.)

I would add a fourth change: During the 1980s and ‘90s, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund’s application of Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) in the Global South aggravated the displacement of peasants and particularly undercut the role women played in food production and storage.

The “shock measures” imposed by the SAPs consisted of forcing the governments to withdraw all subsidies for staples like bread, rice, milk and sugar. There were also drastic reductions in public education, health, housing and infrastructure spending. The forced devaluation of national currency (to cheapen exports) further diminished local purchasing capacity. To attract foreign capital interest rates were increased, generating a speculative spiral.

These measures added to the extreme poverty of many in the Global South. As Juana Ferrer of the International Gender Commission of Via Campesina pointed out: “In the processes of privatization of public services, the most affected people have been women. Women have been affected above all in the fields of health and education where they have historically carried [the most] responsibility for their families. … In the measure [to which] we do not have access to resources and public services it becomes more difficult to lead a worthwhile life for women.”

During this period peasant families in Africa, Asia and Latin America increasingly survived by supplementing their livelihood through incorporation into the agro-export-oriented sectors. Here there is a marked gender division, with women performing “unskilled” work such as gathering and boxing while men plant and bring in the harvest. Of course women receive inferior pay for their work — approximately 30% less than male day laborers. This same gender division exists in non-agricultural employment.

The collapse of the countryside in the Global South and the intensification of migration to cities has led to a process of “de-peasantization.” Women from the Global South find jobs as caregivers, maids and sex workers in Europe, Canada, the United States, and even in the wealthier countries of the Middle East. Thus the Global North externalizes its costs while burdening the women and the communities they have left behind with increasing social and economic costs.

In many countries, however, the migration process has not taken the form of a classic rural to urban movement, in which ex-peasants go to the cities to work in factories as part of the industrialization process. Rather, migration has been characterized by a process of “urbanization disconnected from industrialization” in which ex-peasants, pushed into the cities, are then fed back to the periphery (favelas, slums), many living off the informal economy and comprising the “informal proletariat.” (See Walden Bello, The Food Wars and Mike Davis, Planet of Slums).

Access to Land

Access to land is not a guaranteed right for many women. In numerous countries laws forbid this right, and in those countries where legal access exists there are often traditions and practices that prevent women from property ownership.

In India, Chukki Nanjundaswamy of the peasant organization Karnataka State Farmers Association notes: “Socially, Indian peasant women have almost no rights and are considered an ‘addition’ to males. Rural women are the most untouchable of the untouchables within the social caste system.” Access to land for women in Africa today has become even more precarious with deaths from AIDS. On the one hand women are more likely to be infected, but on the other, when one of their male relatives who holds title to the land dies, women have difficulty accessing control.

In many communities, women have no right to inherit, and therefore lose their land and other assets when widowed. Yet land is a crucial asset — it allows for the production of food, serves as an investment for the future; and as collateral implies access to credit. Globally, however, it is estimated that women receive only one percent of the total agricultural loans, and even then it is not clear who in the family exercises control.

These practices do not only exist in the Global South. Debra Eschmeyer of the National Family Farm Coalition explains how these unequal practices exist in the United States as well: “For example, when a women farmer goes alone to seek a loan from a bank it is far more complicated [than] if a male farmer seeks a loan.”

Agribusiness vs. Food Sovereignty

The current agro-industrial model is unsustainable. It is not based on methods of conservation that include crop rotation, seed storage and composting, but rather uses enormous resources that can only be purchased from the market. Mechanization requires fuel, oil and electricity. Large-scale farming uses inorganic fertilizers, increases water usage and destroys biodiversity with the use of herbicides and pesticides. The genetically-modified seeds that attempt to outwit chemicals must be purchased with every planting.

Further, today’s livestock-based food system consumes grains that poor people have traditionally eaten. And farm factories where livestock are crowded together need chemicals, antibiotics and hormones to control bacteria, and the animals’ manure pollutes the water table and streams for miles around. But the corporations that operate them claim that the small farms and backyard flocks are the source of a possible virus outbreak — not the conditions in their own environment. (See Mike Davis, The Monster at Our Door)

Agribusiness has appropriated the various stages of production, leading to the loss of peasant autonomy. The entire chain is now controlled by multinational corporations, mostly from the United States and the European Union. These corporations are interested in maximizing profit, not in a sustainable and healthy food system. Nor are they concerned about controlling prices or keeping the price of food staples low.

Between 2005-’06 the index of food prices increased 12%, the following year by 24% and between January and July 2008, another 50% rise. Cereals and other staple foods were those that suffered the largest increases. This crisis underscores the high volatility of the food system under monopoly control. According to FAO data, one out of every six persons in the world lives in hunger. Millions of people in developing countries spend between 50-60% of their income on food, and in the poorest countries, the figure goes up to 80%.

Rising food prices are disastrous. The problem is a not lack of food, but rather lack of access to it. In fact, since the 1960s, while the global population has doubled, grain production tripled. Thus there is enough food to feed the entire global population — but the wasteful and market-driven global food chain decreases the possibility of sustainable production.

Neoliberal policies applied indiscriminately over the past 30 years have forced vulnerable markets to open up to the global economy. In order to pay their debt, countries in the South privatized formerly public goods and services (water, agricultural protections). These are the main factors that have dismantled peasant agricultural methods that have guaranteed people’s food security for decades.

Food sovereignty is a powerful alternative to this destructive agricultural model, promoting “the right of peoples to define their own agricultural policies and … to protect and regulate domestic agricultural production and the domestic market” food sovereignty seeks to regain the right to decide what, how and where to produce what we eat. It promotes the idea that the land, water, and seeds belong in the hands of peasants. It asserts that we deserve to control our food systems.

Since women have been the producers and preparers of food, the concept of food sovereignty has an inherent feminist perspective. As Yoon Guem Soon, a Korean peasant woman and representative of Via Campesina in Asia pointed out: “Feminism is a process for getting a decent place for women in society, to combat violence against women and to claim and reclaim our land and save it from the hands of multinationals and large companies. Feminism is the way for rural women to take an active and worthy role within society.”

La Via Campesina

Via Campesina is the world’s foremost international movement of small farmers. It promotes the right of all peoples to food sovereignty. Established in 1993 at the dawn of the anti-globalization movement, Via Campesina gradually became one of the major organizations in critiquing neoliberal globalization. Its ascent is an expression of peasant resistance to the collapse of the rural world under the impact of neoliberal policies, and the intensification of those policies as embodied in the World Trade Organization.

In 1996, coinciding with the World Food Summit at the FAO in Rome, Via Campesina highlighted food sovereignty as a political alternative to the profoundly unfair and predatory food system. This does not imply a romantic return to the past, but rather recovers knowledge and traditional practices, combining them with new technologies and knowledge. Above all, Via Campesina sees food sovereignty as a way to construct democratic forms of food production and distribution.

Via Campesina has been a place where peasant women struggle together with their colleagues against the neoliberal model of agriculture. But incorporating a feminist perspective has been a process. In fact, at the First International Conference in Mons (Belgium) in 1993, all elected coordinators were men. Although the conference identified the need to integrate women’s needs in the work of Via Campesina, the conference failed to establish mechanisms to ensure women’s participation. Thus, at the Second International Conference in Tlaxcala, Mexico, the percentage of women attending was the same 20% it had been three years earlier.

To address this issue, a special women’s committee was created (later known as the Women’s Commission of La Via Campesina). When Via Campesina publicly presented the concept of food sovereignty at the World Food Summit of FAO in Rome in 1996, women contributed their own demands. These included the need to produce food locally and added “human health” to “sustainable agricultural practices.”

They specifically demanded a drastic reduction in harmful chemical inputs and advocated the active promotion of organic agriculture. Women also insisted that food sovereignty could not be accomplished without greater female participation in the definition of rural policies.

The work of the Women’s Commission helped promote exchanges among women from different countries, including women-specific meetings to coincide with international summits. Between 1996 and 2000, the Commission’s work focused mainly on Latin America — through training, exchange and discussion — and rural women increased their participation in all levels and activities of Via Campesina.

As Annette Desmarais noted, “In most countries, agricultural and rural organizations are dominated by men. The women of La Via Campesina refuse to accept these subordinate positions. While acknowledging the long and difficult road ahead, women accept the challenge with enthusiasm, and vow to carry out a major role in shaping the Via Campesina as a movement committed to gender equality.” (See La Via Campesina. Globalization and the power of the peasantry, 2007, Madrid.)

In October 2000, just before the Third International Conference of La Via Campesina in Bangalore (India), the 1st International Assembly of Women Farmers was held. This allowed for greater participation of women in the organization. The Assembly adopted three major goals: 1) to ensure the participation of 50% of women at all levels of decisions and activities of La Via Campesina, 2) to maintain and strengthen the Women’s Commission, and 3) to ensure that documents, training events and speeches of Via Campesina do not have sexist content or use sexist language.

Members at the conference agreed to change the institutional structure to ensure gender equity. Paul Nicholson of La Via Campesina notes: “[In Bangalore] it was determined that equality of man and woman in spaces and positions of representation in our organization opened a whole internal process of reflection on the role of women in the struggle for women peasants’ rights. … The gender perspective is being addressed now in a serious way, not only in the context of parity in responsibilities, but also a profound debate about the roots and tentacles of patriarchy and violence against women in the rural world.”

This strategy forced the Via Campesina’s member organizations to rethink their work to incorporate new measures that would strengthen the role of women.

As part of the Fourth International Conference in Sao Paulo, Brazil, in June 2004, the Second International Assembly of Women Farmers brought together more than a hundred women from 47 countries on all continents. The final statement concludes: “We demand our right to a dignified life, respect for our sexual and reproductive rights; and the immediate implementation of measures to eradicate all forms of physical, sexual, verbal and psychological violence. … We urge states to implement measures to ensure our economic autonomy, access to land, health, education and equal social status.”

In October 2006, the World Congress of Women of La Via Campesina was held in Santiago de Compostela, Spain. Participants included women from agricultural organizations in Asia, North America, Europe, Africa and Latin America. The objective of the meeting was to discuss and analyze the meaning of equality from a feminist perspective and develop a plan of action to achieve it.

Sergia Galván of the Women’s Health Collective in the Dominican Republic pointed out in a presentation that the women of La Via Campesina had three challenges ahead: 1) to advance the theoretical discussion to incorporate the feminist peasant perspective in mainstream feminist analysis, 2) to continue work on autonomy as a vital reference for the consolidation of the movement of rural women, and 3) to overcome the feeling of guilt in the struggle for higher positions of power over men.

At the Fifth International Conference in Maputo, Mozambique, in October 2008, La Via Campesina hosted the Third International Assembly of Women. The assembly approved the launch of a campaign targeting all forms of violence faced by women in society (physical, economic, social, sexist, cultural, and access to power) that are present in rural communities and their organizations.

Work that aims at achieving greater gender equality is not easy. Despite the formal equality, women face obstacles when travelling or attending meetings and gatherings. As Annette Desmarais noted, “There are many reasons why women do not participate at this level. Perhaps the most important is the persistence of ideologies and cultural practices that perpetuate unequal gender relations and unfairness. For example, the division of labor by gender means that rural women have less access to the most precious resource, time, to participate as leaders in agricultural organizations. Being involved in reproductive, productive and community work makes it much less likely [for women] to have time for training sessions and learning as leaders.”

It is a struggle against the tide, and despite some concrete victories, we face a long fight in our organizations; and, more generally, socially.

Weaving Alliances

La Via Campesina has established alliances with various organizations and social movements at the international, regional, and national levels. One of the most significant has been with the World March of Women, a leading feminist global network that has called for joint actions and meetings. They have collaborated in activities such as the International Forum for Food Sovereignty held in Sélingué, Mali.

The success of this collaboration is embodied in the dual membership of women who are active members in the World March of Women, and La Via Campesina. These experiences encourage closer ties between both networks and strengthen the feminist struggle of rural women that is part of the broader struggle against capitalism and patriarchy. As Via Campesina says: “Globalize the struggle. Globalize hope.”

March/April 2012, ATC 157