Children learning in Tanzania. Image: Oxfam
Children learning in Tanzania. Image: Oxfam

Day 10: The Recivilization of Men by Women

30 November, 2012 | Food and Gender: Online Discussion

The agrarian transition to an input-intensive, capitalized form of agriculture is deeply gendered. Food security depends on combating overt discrimination against women, but this shall only be viable if combined with a redistribution of roles in the household.

By Olivier De Schutter, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food

The agrarian transition is a complex process characterized by an accelerated switch to an input-intensive, capitalized form of agriculture and a growing importance of global value chains and of export-led agriculture. It results in increased land concentration, massive rural-to-urban migration, and the depopulation of rural areas.

"The agrarian transition to an input-intensive, capitalized
form of agriculture is deeply gendered.

This transition is deeply gendered. First, the general trend has been for men to migrate first, for longer periods and to destinations farther away. There are exceptions to this pattern. In Sri Lanka and in the Philippines for instance, female migrants formed respectively three quarters and over half of outgoing migrants in recent years -- often to become domestic workers or sex workers, or to work in the garment industry in a heavily segmented employment market. In general however, it is the men rather than the women who are likely to abandon agricultural work at home and seek income in other sectors, in part because of social norms concerning gender roles, and in part because of the higher levels of education, on average, of men, that allow them to seek off-farm employment.

"Men are likely to abandon agricultural work at home
and leave women behind to carry the full burdens of agricultural production"

Women then are then left behind to carry the full burdens of agricultural production. They may be supported in this regard by the receipt of remittances, which can serve to buy inputs or hire labour for the performance of the heavier tasks, such as land preparation, that are not generally seen as suitable for women: this appears to be quite common in South East Asia, where the productivity of land could be maintained in part thanks to such remittances.

But women often have little legal protection or rights to property ownership, and they face cultural and social norms that are obstacles to their ability to improve productivity. In addition, they may find it difficult to reconcile their role as small-scale food producers with their responsibilities in the "care" economy, an obstacle male agricultural producers do not face. These responsibilities reduce the mobility of women, which affects their ability to market their produce; and they result in time poverty for women and a shortage of labour on the land.

Against this background, concerns have been expressed about the impact the feminization of agriculture may have on local food security, if, due to the obstacles they face, women are less productive than men. In 2010, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) famously concluded that "if women had the same access to productive resources as men, they could increase yields on their farms by 20–30 percent. This could raise total agricultural output in developing countries by 2.5–4 percent, which could in turn reduce the number of hungry people in the world by 12–17 percent.

"Women may find it difficult to reconcile their role as
small-scale food producers with their responsibilities in the "care" economy.

Whatever the validity of this calculation, the reality is that food security today depends, more even than in the past, on combating discrimination against women, in order to allow women and female-headed farming households to produce under better conditions.

The agrarian transition is also gendered in a second way. An increasing proportion of women have taken up waged employment on large farms, in many cases replacing men who have moved to non-agricultural employment. The growth in the proportion of women employed as agricultural workers occurs at a time when non-traditional agricultural exports are rising, especially horticultural products. New jobs are created in cut flowers and in vegetable growing and packing: these are "high-value" products, because they require special handling or some processing, which adds substantive value beyond the farmgate.

For employers, recruiting women into these relatively labor-intensive types of production presents a number of advantages. Women are considered more docile than men, and more reliable. The nature of the tasks in the emerging export sectors -- fruits and vegetables in particular -- are generally physically less demanding and do not require the use of heavy machinery, and are therefore seen as suitable for women. The wages of women are generally lower than those of men, which employers sometimes justify by the consideration that they are not, typically, the main wage-earners within the family; for the same reason, women are considered a highly flexible workforce, which can be hired on a weekly or seasonal basis.

There occurs what might be called an "internal segmentation" in most high-value agriculture. On these farms, one relatively stable and qualified segment of the workforce coexists with another segment, made up of unskilled workers, often recruited at certain points in the year only, and often as casual workers, without a formal contract of employment.

"Food security today depends, more even than in the past,
on combating discrimination against women."

The pressure to maintain such a dualized system, even as technological advances have made production less dependent on seasonality, can be explained as the result of globalization and the need to "rationalize" (i.e. make more profitable) workforce management. That also explains why jobs in the "periphery" part of the workforce are classified as seasonal or temporary, even when they may in fact be continuous. Typically, women are disproportionately over-represented in this "periphery" segment, rather than in the "core" segment of permanently employed workers.

Women's rights must be given a central place in the agrarian transition if it is to be reconciled with rural development and the reduction of rural poverty. As independent, small-scale producers on family farms, women must have recognized access to land and other productive inputs. They must be supported by extension services which provide gender-aware advice and whose personnel better represents women. And they must be encouraged to organize themselves into cooperatives that allow them not only to produce better by achieving certain economies of scale, but also to have access to group insurance mechanisms and financial services, and to have a political voice.

As waged agricultural workers, women on farms must be protected from the various forms of discrimination they currently are subjected to. Such discrimination takes a variety of forms, including an over-representation of women working under temporary contracts or hired without any formal contract; a failure to provide women with protective gear against pesticides; a refusal by employers to hire women who are pregnant, leading seasonal pregnant workers to sometimes hide their pregnancy in order to maintain their access to incomes; and an exposure of women to domestic violence because they cannot move away from the plantation.

Setting wages on a piece-work basis (by volume or by surface area), generally disfavours women, since the pay is calculated on the basis of male productivity standards. One consequence of this system is that it encourages women, to have their children work with them as "helpers," in order to perform the task faster: this is one of the reasons why so many children are employed in agriculture.

"The fundamental question is how the increased role of women in
agriculture shall be reconciled with their role in the "care" economy."

However, the feminization of agriculture raises questions that go beyond the discrete forms of discrimination they are subjected to and that human rights must guard against. The fundamental question is how the increased role of women in agriculture shall be reconciled with their role in the "care" economy (the minding and education of children, or the care of the elderly and the sick), as well as with the household chores for which, in all regions, they remain chiefly responsible -- the purchasing and preparation of food, laundry, or collection of firewood or water.

This is work that is essential not only to the health and nutrition of family members, but also to the maintenance of the agricultural workforce. Yet it is work that is unremunerated, unrecognized, and largely invisible, because it is work done by women.

It is important to invest in services and infrastructure that reduce the burden this represents for women -- for example, by childcare services in rural areas or by water pipes linking villages to water sources. As we think of how to support rural development, we must recognize the importance of this "care" economy as a vital adjuvant to the "market" economy -- and we must, for instance, adapt how extension workers provide advice or how employment on farms is organized, to fit the responsibilities women assume within the household.

  "What is required is the recivilizing of men by women."

But the reduction of household chores and recognition of them will not be sufficient. We also must redistribute roles within the household: we need to ensure that men, too, contribute their part to the "care" economy, and that the gendered division of roles is destabilized and transformed. The feminization of agriculture shall only be viable if it is combined with such a redefinition of responsibilities. Rather than men remaining exclusively focused on income generating activities while leaving to women to perform all the unremunerated tasks that are essential to the market itself, we need to rebalance the respective contributions of both. What is required is the recivilizing of men by women.

Download: The Recivilization of Men by Women


Thank you for this inspiring discussion!

The two discussion streams yesterday with Pamela Caro and Jayati Ghosh raised a couple of important issues that hadn’t received much attention in the online discussion to date.

Commentators really appreciated that Pamela Caro raised violence against women in her essay, a scourge that social movements fighting for food justice should take on and prioritize as part of their struggles.

Building on Pamela’s remarks and on previous discussions on women’s disproportionate responsibility for unpaid care work, one commentator, Andrea, argued that we can no longer ignore what goes on in the “private sphere”. She challenged Oxfam to work on changing the deep-seated discriminatory attitudes and behaviors that play out in households and behind closed doors and that keep women in a subordinate role in the food system and in society at large.

As she said: «This isn’t just a plus, it’s fundamental and should be a priority». Pamela agreed and called on us to challenge the gendered division of labor throughout the entire food system, from the kitchen to the farm.

In response to both essays, you also raised interesting questions about how to get social movements to embrace a women’s rights agenda and better collaborate with women’s movements. Consta suggested that we need to identify instances where feminism has helped to radically transform social movements for the better, and that we all need to work to ensure that women’s organizations are recognized and valued as essential partners in all social struggles.

Olfania and María Teresa called on NGOs to recognize rural women as agents of change in their right, while acknowledging that change takes time and that rural women’s power is constrained by illiteracy and discriminatory cultural norms that keep them hostage. 

And now we move on to our last essay! Olivier De Schutter has provided us with an analysis of some of the main points that were raised in the 10 previous essays and draws out recommendations of his own for how to best advance women’s rights within the food system.

He returns to the issue of women’s lack of time and unpaid care work, and argues that efforts to combat discrimination against women in the food system will only be viable if combined with a redistribution of roles in the household and what he calls the « recivilizing of men by women ».

Do you agree that this is indeed the most critical issue for advancing gender justice within the food system? Today is the final day of the online discussion, so please join in and let us know what you think!

I also want to take this opportunity to thank all of you for sharing your thoughts or for listening in. It has been an inspiring discussion!

Let’s stay in touch!


Root Cause

Income from other sources a determining factor in migration of men. There are Income inequalities a gap in collaborating for this transition. Unpaid labor from this perspective , a Social stigma on which we must work. 

Another point of view

I always was concerned in this topic and still am, thank you for posting.

Root Cause

Gendered patterns in generating, allocating, controlling, and spending household income creates difficulties in their efforts, and limit the benefits that accrue to women, and thus their incentives to work and progress. Social norms further determine how women are able to build the social and commercial networks and relationships necessary to adapt to changing market conditions and/or new markets. ….. Indeed, working with ‘’women alone’’ is no guarantee to ensure sustainability of women empowerment and gender equality objectives on food security, etc. Attracting more of men, and working with them as ‘role models’ of new practice from the patriarchal and rigidly hierarchical notions of masculinity that they are taught from boyhood, can greatly facilitate changing social and economic fabric, offering men opportunities to redefine their own identities and positive engagement. Perhaps it would be helpful to start such effort with people at relatively younger age.



We need a new agrarian transition

Great overview of the agrarian transition we are in and its often negative impacts for women and women's rights, but I am left with some questions.

You say, and I agree, "Women's rights must be given a central place in the agrarian transition". But which agrarian transition? The one to "an input-intensive, capitalized form of agriculture". Can that transition, even with some gender tweeks, become one that overcomes gender based and other power relations that keep so many exploited and in poverty?

The article seems to conclude that the "fundamental question" is the balancing of women and men's role and reproduction and production and the route to this is recivilized men doing their fair share at home.

Beyond men starting to pull their weight at home (which we all should) we still need to urgently address the way different roles are valued, and I mean beyond just a cash value. It seems highly likely that for a long time to come women will continue to carry the primary responsibility for reproduction and even if men take more of that responsibility it should be properly recognized and rewarded (provided that is not at the expense of women being pushed out of the care role into other even more undervalued roles). 

I am not clear from this article how men are to be civilized. I also doubt this will deal with the manifest other problematic outcomes of the agrarian transition, not least climate change and other environmental destruction. Sure, if we are going down let’s do so together, men and women sharing the same burden (and joys) of looking after the home and being equally exploited in the work place. What I believe we need, however, is to focus more on moving towards a completely new agrarian transition with different drivers and values, including women's rights and new gender relations as fundamental.

As it is the end of the ten days, I would like to thank all the contributors, respondents and organizers of this online debate. It has been informative and provoked me to think about the issues and to consolidate and share some of my own thought. Thanks

Recivilizing men

I like a lot ending these two weeks with the idea of recivilizing men by women. The idea of the agrarian transition enforced by those in power, presented by Olivier is a powerful one, and I would like to link it with two dimensions that I consider important. The first is conflict / violence and the second is the link that the whole transition has with climate change. These are important because they will continue to generate important changes in the context, with more difficulties for the weaker and more vulnerable people in society.  

Because of the predominance of the market forces and dominant groups and companies, violence at the personal and the collective levels is introduced into the transition presented by Olivier. Recivilising men individually or in community life happens after conflict has been expressed. In some cases, depending on a set of variables, the community/country has the capacity to process it in a peaceful way. In some other cases – Central America in its relation with Mexico and the USA – the violence appears in a specific trend of femicides. Women have migrated from their rural communities, they get employment in a maquila or in a big factory and there are specific systemic forces exerting violence against women who have migrated. Women are killed and they are missed in their homes and in their communities. In these cases children and men are left alone.

In some other cases – I am thinking about Tajikistan and Central Asian countries – the men are the ones who find employment in a bigger country like Russia. The condition for any family to survive relies on the fact that the man gets an employment in Russia, thus getting the capacity for sending remittances to his country of origin. One employment in Russia generates 6 people living with an important level of security in Central Asia. The women and children who are left in the country are the ones in charge of agriculture. The Agrarian Reform system has to understand this, in order to give women and families an adequate response.

The other important element is Climate Change. We are pointing towards a world full of disasters, where the average temperature will increase in the order of 5 degrees centigrade for 2050, meaning general disasters and growing pressure on the existing land dedicated to agriculture, higher permanent costs for food and necessarily more people migrating to urban centers where better care can be achieved. All of this means that if the migration indicated by Olivier happens, we will have several modes of agriculture fighting for the land, for sustainability and for the market.

The feminization of agriculture in this new contexts means that the recivilizing of men by women will have to happen in rural and in urban areas with men contributing with our fundamental part to the ‘care’ economy, in a world where the fundamental variables related with conflict and climate change will be changing all the time.


The Right to Food, Gender Equality and Economic Policy

Thank you for your thoughtful analysis and comments.

At the Center for Women's Global Leadership (CWGL) based at Rutgers University, we have been working towards building a feminist and human rights-centered macroeconomic policy through developing popular education materials and trainings as well as partnering and collaborating with diverse actors. Please visit our website for more information about the advancing economic and social rights from a feminist perspective program:

It is critical to address both the social and economic aspects of food insecurity. In September 2011, CWGL convened a meeting with the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to food and brought together economists, researchers and advocates, working from a feminist perspective on various aspects of the food system. The meeting report covers the gendered dimensions of the food system and international trade, as well as fiscal policy, gender equality, and financialization. At the conclusion of the report is a list of key recommendations which participant offered to governments:

  • Identify the gendered dimensions of price volatility in terms of producers’ production risks and access to financial resources and food;
  • Regulate futures markets so they can play a role in managing risks associated with food production, without leading to excessive speculation;
  • Develop a global coordination strategy on reserves to enable better stabilization of global food prices;
  • Invest in food reserves at the local and national levels, including distribution mechanisms, infrastructure and storage, that respond to women’s roles as producers and consumers;
  • Invest in women’s cooperatives and self-help groups as a form of mutual insurance at the local level.

Thank you.

Re-civilizing men

Well done and high time. I'm constantly wondering (and sometimes saying out loud), "When will men come out of the cave?" I see no sane reason why they have forced each other into regressiveness by bullying each other, shaming each other, beating the crap out of each other if they don't tow the caveman mark: ignorance and abjectivity. Pathetic. And they have caused no end of grief to women, girls, boys and society in general with their testonic (good word?) heroics. Hooey. Grow up, fellas. Do yourselves and the rest of us a kindness one time.

Another point of view

Perfectly written subject material, appreciate it for information. "You can do very little with faith, but you can do nothing without it." by Samuel Butler.

A Civilized Agrarian Transition

I am grateful for the comments received on the short essay "The Recivilization of Men by Women". I wrote it to convey the idea that we, men, needed to be taught about the importance of caring for children and others, of maintaining strong social relationships, of dedicating time to others (members of the family and friends) -- in other terms, of doing what women have always been assumed to do, and which for that very reason has been neither valued nor even taken seriously (when it is, in fact, not just important for its own sake, but also vital for the reproduction of the market economy itself). Being taught also means de-learning: escaping a condition that obliges men to be profit-driven, animated by a relentless desire to dominate and to emerge as winners from struggles both imaginary and petty. It shall not be easy, but it is the condition for true redistribution to be achieved: it means relieving women by a more equal sharing of the burden of household chores, but it also means liberating men from the preconceived roles they are expected to assume.

But there is something else. As food producers, women may present us with a new way of seeing farming -- geared less towards the market and the maximization of cash incomes, and more towards feeding the family and the community ; focusing on crops that taste good and are easy to cook and to store, rather than on crops that fetch a high value in the cash economy. Because this is a different conception of farming, it requires a different type of support going to farmers, that is not aimed solely, or even primarily, towards encouraging small-scale farmers to join larger supply chains and to become successful entrepreneurs. Families that produce their own food, or important portions of it, are less vulnerable to price spikes on the market, and if they have enough land to cultivate, they can be protected from at least acute malnutrition: this is also a wisdom we may have to rediscover -- accepting to be recivilized in the process.


Food and Gender


An exhausting but illuminating 'tour de force' of food and gender has come to a fitting closing. Lots of food for thought was offered, covering the multiple local and global dimensions of food and gender challenges. Olivier de Schutter closed it off well by calling for a recivilizing of men by women. True enough. And he reminded all of us that women’s increasing role in agriculture needs to be reconciled with their role in the care economy and their managing innumerable household chores on top of that. But such transformative changes won’t happen in a socio-political and cultural vacuum. They won’t happen in an economy that has deliberately fragmented the workforce over the last several decades according to the classical “divide et impera” - divide and rule - dogma. Marginalizing women is but another systemic character trait of the market economy, and it applies to all sectors of the economy.

The marginalization of women in the agricultural sector, the ‘dumbing down’ of their work and pay scale mirrors closely what we have seen in the aftermath of the 2008 financial and economic crash in both industrial and developing countries. Low-end and low-paying jobs in the industrial and manufacturing industries increased dramatically in numbers at the expense of what were once medium-to-good-paying jobs. But after the crash these went primarily to women who were hired to perform these jobs formerly done by men, albeit at a fraction of the salary previously paid to men.

Yes, de Schutter is right, women (alongside men) must be encouraged to organize themselves into cooperatives to protect their livelihoods and legitimate interests. But again, the organization of the workforce in the agricultural sector mirrors ‘neatly’ what we have witnessed over decades now in both the private and public work sectors across all industries. “Union busting” or “union-blocking” in the United States, for instance, has reduced the ‘unionized’ share of private sector employment from 35 percent in 1958 to just 6.9 percent today. Cesar Chavez, the legendary United Farm Workers Union leader of the 1970s is but a faint memory; and so is the strength of the farm workers today. Again, these developments don’t happen in isolation, they are part and parcel of systemic efforts to squeeze and exploit the workforce; whether women or men, whether in industry or in agriculture.

But reflecting of what I have read over the course of the past two weeks here, what stuck with me the most was Nidhi Tandon’s insightful treatment and, much to her credit, very clear verdict that you don't fix a broken food system, you change it! Nidhi's diagnosis is spot on. It's an act of insanity to keep fixing a broken system with basically the same 'therapies' over and over again ("when will we ever learn?"), expecting different results. When will it sink it that the system is not reformable? Pepping up the global food system with steroids (by infusing massive amounts of money to power its stuttering and stalling 'agribusiness engine', showering unsustainable subsidies on global food producers and giving the chemical and pharmaceutical industries free reign to make it more 'productive') hasn't done the trick. Nor have exceedingly favorable global food trade rules for the “Nestles of the world”. So, what possibly could they ask for now to demo that their food system and business model is really the way to go? That it is providing the local and global communities with what people want and need: Access to affordable, nutritious, healthy, and (let's not forget!) tasteful food AS WELL AS a production and consumption system that is equitable and inclusive irrespective of gender, race, color or creed!?

We need a new food system, a 'food system 2.0', one that grows organically (no pun intended) from local and communal bases, and then spreads its wings. But, in contrast to what we have experienced over the last 40 plus years, this time around we have to get the basics, the fundamentals and the values right. That requires that those who have historically provided people the world over with food are sitting at the table. Is there any other way to see it?

Another point of view

Enjoyed reading this, very good stuff, thanks . "Shared joys make a friend, not shared sufferings." by Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche.

Wonderful articles- well

Wonderful articles- well written and most interesting. Solutions are difficult!