Jean Phombeya and her seeds in Malawi. Image: Oxfam
Jean Phombeya and her seeds in Malawi. Image: Oxfam

Day 7: Seeds and Sisterhood

27 November, 2012 | Food and Gender: Online Discussion

Governments and development agencies need to shift the onus of feeding the world away from time-strapped impoverished women, and instead support their organizing and cultivate their traditional knowledge. We also need to rethink women’s unpaid care work and lack of time as fundamental issues of food security.

By Joanna Kerr, CEO of ActionAid International

As someone who has been working for women’s rights and sustainable development for the past two decades, I have heartily embraced the increased international attention on the needs and roles of women farmers in poor communities. But as development agencies prioritize these rural women, let us ensure that we don’t repeat mistakes of the past. If hunger, climate change AND inequality are to be tackled then NGOs, governments and women’s movements need an approach that shifts the onus of feeding the world away from time-strapped impoverished women, and instead supports them in their organizing and in their cultivation of traditional knowledge, and puts their rights first.

"Women are on the frontlines of the struggle over the way our food is
produced, over knowledge, over seeds and over the sustainability of the food system as a whole."

From what I have seen across many parts of the Global South, women are on the frontlines of the struggle over the way our food is produced, over knowledge, over seeds and over the sustainability of the food system as a whole. Deo, a 42 year old Brazilian farmer working with ActionAid, told me just how women are trying to bring about fundamental change:

Men don’t know how to wait. They want to plant and then harvest. Working in agroecology demands patience. Time is needed to obtain a positive result, especially since our [past] way of farming has damaged our land too much. The men eventually abandoned the new system and returned to conventional methods. The women joined forces …to learn and fight with their husbands to change, stop the practice of burning, diversify production, feed the soil by covering it with the plants themselves and grow medicinal plants to improve our livelihoods.”

Clearly, women like Deo make a significant contribution to localized food systems; millions like her are the primary food producers, providers, and processers in many developing countries. In fact, local small-scale food producers and providers have been innovating for generations, looking after our soils, seeds and the cultural heritage that accompanies food. Rural women in particular – be they farmers, forest dwellers, tribals or indigenous women –have been the repositories of knowledge on food production, seed conservation, processing and cooking food.

Yet over the years this knowledge and these traditional, resilient and efficient systems have come under sustained attack from industrialized, mechanized food production and distribution systems. The push to homogenous crops in the fields and standardized foods on supermarket shelves is largely the underlying cause of the decline of these methods.

As a response, ActionAid has been supporting an agroecology model of sustainable agriculture not through pre-set technological packages, rather built on the local practices of farmers. Our agroecological initiatives focus on organic methods, promoting diverse and nutritious crops while recognizing and building on the skills and experiences of women farmers and connecting them to academic knowledge on sustainable agriculture.

But here lies the dilemma. These sustainable and more climate-resilient methods – as Deo reminds us above – take time to develop.  Time is a poor woman’s most limited resource. Society’s expectation that women will do the additional “care work” – child care, cooking, cleaning, water and fuel hauling – stands in the way of both development and women’s empowerment.

"Women’s unpaid care work and their lack of time are frustratingly
not seen as fundamental issues of food security."

Women’s unpaid care work and their lack of time are frustratingly not seen as fundamental issues of food security.  Policy makers and most agriculture programmes are not recognizing women as food producers with both productive AND reproductive roles.   Development programmes usually address these separately and fail to see the linkages and trade-offs that come with seeing women only as farmers or only as carers/food providers.

Generally speaking, agriculture departments and donors prioritize high yield production through chemical inputs and new seeds.  Green Revolution thinking is rampant.  And while peasant movements are justifiably fighting for land, they usually leave women’s rights as an afterthought.  Even in my own organization there are some colleagues who quite simply laughed at the prospect of focussing on, let alone men sharing, care responsibilities.  Gender norms run very deep. Further, while many women’s groups are trying to bring the care burden to the fore, the overwhelming demands of tackling violence against women or lack of reproductive rights overshadow this issue.

I’d argue there are some relatively easy solutions to tackle both gender equality and sustainable agriculture including looking beyond the technical to the political.

One obvious route is to ensure rural women have the means and possibility to organize.  I have seen, over and over, that by bringing women together, they can strengthen their identity as rural women, build solidarity among family farming groups, circulate useful knowledge, build their self-confidence, achieve individual and collective empowerment and even transform public policies.

"Women are using agroecology as an effective strategy
to take back control over what they produce and how they produce it."

Second, donors and NGOs need to recognize that when women are using agroecology as an effective strategy to take back control over what they produce and how they produce it, they are actually having a positive impact on their food security, incomes, and health. They are expanding the area under their control where they can grow diversified and nutritious crops – in some cases their backyard garden – while reducing their labour provision to the family’s field where they had little control over the output and profits.

Third, policy makers and programmers need to re-think the care economy as simply the domain of women’s unpaid time. Optimistically, this is increasingly an area of policy debate – of who should provide care services amongst the mix of families, public institutions, NGO service-deliverers and private companies. The policy response to this challenge is complex (i.e. it is not just wages for housework) and requires contextualisation, but overall, this debate needs to be brought into focus so that societies’ recognize and ultimately redistribute this care work.

In the meantime, at the more practical level, where I have seen crèches or child centres, women’s milling cooperatives, seed banks, and other appropriate technologies to reduce women’s time, women’s leadership and empowerment follows.  These pragmatic efforts to improve the time efficiency of women’s food production can also have significant strategic benefits. The common notion that women are “helpers” and that their labour has less value than those of men will be transformed.

In many cases, agroecology practices have helped show women and their families the importance of women’s economic autonomy—including the control and use of income raised by women. In ActionAid’s experience this work has motivated a growing number of women to proactively take on leadership roles in rural workers’ unions, and to come together to discuss issues such as market access and fight for new public policies on agriculture.

"Donors and NGOs need to support women’s organizing
as both a means and an end in itself."

Many mainstream approaches to agriculture have perversely increased hunger, deepened poverty, undermined fragile soil systems and considerably increased women’s work burden. Donors and NGOs need to activate a holistic approach that increases women’s control over their time and their agricultural practices.  This means explicit support to women’s organizing as both a means and an end in itself.

Supporting women’s farming groups through agroecology is not some out-dated romantic vision of traditional systems nor a feminist utopia as some critics might suggest.  Instead, more governments, NGOs, and social movements need to embrace these common-sense approaches and the very women who are at the forefront of the battles for food, sustainability, and human rights.

Agroecology is where food justice and women’s rights could walk hand in hand.

Download: Seeds and Sisterhood


From corporate power to the care economy

Wow, Tinna Nielsen’s call to Stop talking about equality stirred up quite a storm yesterday!

Several of you were taken aback by Tinna’s proposals and questioned whether private sector perspectives should even be invited into a discussion on food and gender justice. Others, on the other hand, seemed to appreciate the diversity of perspectives and proposals the discussion has generated thus far.

Setting aside the provocative tone of her article, many commentators seemed to agree with Tinna that it can be strategic (at times) to adapt our narrative in order to enter into dialogue and seek to influence the private sector. As one commentator put it, this is simply “comms 101”. The G(irls)20 Summit initiative was given as an example.

But while the use of corporate language can be tactical in some instances, commentators forcefully stated that it should never overshadow the need to speak up for women’s rights.  As Sophia Murphy simply said: “I still think that ‘because it is the right thing to do’ is a powerful argument.”

Comment after comment, you also stressed the risks associated with having to make the business case for women’s rights, justice, diversity and equality. And you asked: What happens if ‘doing the right thing’ just isn’t profitable?

Several of you pointed out that the instances where women’s rights and corporate profit intersect are few and far between, and that more often than not, profit is enhanced by deregulation and exploitation.

According to many participants, it is the struggles of social movements that has always brought about meaningful change. Without their organizing, campaigning and sacrificing, the corporate sector would never be challenged to fundamentally change its ways. Tinna acknowledged the important role of civil society in her response to comments, while insisting that incremental impact of “nudging” the private sector in the right direction could not be disregarded.

With today’s essay by Joanna Kerr, we turn out attention to an often overlooked aspect of the food security puzzle: women’s unpaid care work and lack of time. I am eager to know what you think of Joanna’s recommendations, and how you think the issue of women’s time poverty can best be addressed.

Based on your experience, what policies and programs can be put in place to lessen women’s care burden? And what impact can this have on both women’s food security and food systems more generally?

give agroecology approaches a chance

Yes indeed agroecology approaches, often led by women, do offer a reall way to sustainable food justice. There are many examples of situations where such approaches give greater returns, per hectare of land, in terms of food produced than agroindustrial approaches. So why are these approaches not more widespread I hear some people say. Tha main reason is that they are not picked up and promoted by companies with big marketing budgets as there is no opportunity for return on large capital investment. They are also not widely promoted by governments as our governments are in cahots with the same companies and also want a tax (even bribe sometimes) income that is easier to get from a few large corporations that you can play golf with or meet in a nice hotel.

An agroecological approach does not offer good opportunities for large capital accumulation, they instead offer the possibliity for a large number of women to assert their autonomy, take more control of their lives, and ensure the right to food for themselves, their families and communities (not that they should be obliged to) in a way that can be sustainable environmentally. To embrace this we need to keep in mind that it is not a lack of food produced in the world that is leaving people hungry, it is people's lack of access (right) to it. Thus large capital intensive farming with perhaps, in tons, large outputs does not solve the problem as it does not give people in poverty the means of accessing the food produced. We must move beyong our fixation with having to produce more and more, to ensuring that more women in poverty benefit from the hard work they already do and can thus lift themselves out of poverty. For this securing women's land rights has to be a key step.

So let us take on the task of spreading this message that Joanna Kerr has articulated very well. Another future is possible.

Another point of view

Simply wanna input on few general things, The website design and style is perfect, the articles is rattling wonderful : D.

Unpaid Care Work

Thanks Joanna for this excellent article and your highlighting of the issue of unpaid care work.

I agree that too often in women's economic development / agricultural development programming, the typical basis for analysis and planning is a full workday built on a male paradigm of work (that is, lesser responsibility at home). In my mind, this fits in with the broader development issue of women's empowerment versus increased income. That is, the focus in economic development / agricultural development has often been on greater production and incomes (not even greater profits but that is another issue)  and not on control, access, time and equality. There is a shift now and many of the major donors are beginning to expect demonstrated improvements re women's empowerment overall. But, the time/care issue is the one that receives the least attention and is the most difficult to change, and while the expectations are there, the practical tools and frameworks are often not available.

Policies and programs can impact the care economy and should be priorities, but what happens at home is strongly influenced by cultural traditions and societal beliefs about roles and responsibilites. This is not different in developed countries where -- despite access to daycare, legislation for parental leave, fully subsidized healthcare and education -- women still work much longer hours than men at home, and often opt for lower paying part-time work outside the home. Worldwide, women are the primary care providers for the home, the family, the young, the sick, the elderly and often the community.

So, what is the relevance for unpaid care work and women's economic empowerment in developing countries? First, it is the awareness that policies and programs while important can only do so much, and in our programming we also need to use frameworks that take women's reality into consideration (throughout the project life cycle). Second, for colleagues working in program implementation (who have had to shift from one approach to another in economic development and agricultural development), this is often practical training and tools to help with analysis, program design and planning, execution, and monitoring and evaluation - and include practical solutions that Joanna mentions such as creches etc. Third, it is finding or supporting leverage points/activities for socio-cultural shifts including gender sensitization, collective action, education, etc. This third point re socio-cultural shifts fits in with the broader empowerment issue that also includes control, access and equality.

But of course, development is muddy and organic. So, we also know that when women's income increases, they can often apply pressure at home to get greater support and they can be very resourceful about doing this. And, as household poverty decreases, there can be gains for the whole household including women. However, the latter is especially true when women are also contributing.

Great discussion. I look forward to reading others' posts as the day goes by.



Another point of view

I am not real wonderful with English but I come up this really easy to read.

The opposite of Nature is Impossible / RB Fuller, 1965

For me it was astonishing to find how our partners' work on livelihoods reflects well what Joanna indicates in her article. Though different countries, regions and cultures give different names to what they are doing on agriculture, they indicate that their work is agroecology. This is interesting because the 24 countries responding fall in different cultures, geography, languages, religious beliefs, networks, etc., et.  

They have found the resources required delivering their work and they can engage easily on debates about the transformation required now.  But I find that their simple response is not that 'simple' because different stakeholders have different interests and women have to respond to a diversity of discourses grouped under the umbrellas of ‘resilience’, ‘care’, ‘power of markets’, ‘importance of exports’.  Though they are not responding to all stakeholders, small holder women go at a lower speed and in their daily life they manage to compare systems, interests and... they choose their transformational options. They are calling us to understand... and to support them!

We need to continue supporting their productive and knowledge options, putting their rights first, as indicated by Joanna. In the thousands and one NGOs we have written and spoken a lot and we have managed to open our space. Now we need to understand that the priority for the moment is to support those small holder women who are in the front line, speaking and presenting their own options. We can’t replace them!

A couple of days ago I got an article written by Julia Wright / Coventry University, indicating why ensuring food security through Agroecology is a no brainer. Agroecology already provides food availability, access and adequacy. From IAASTD she defends the role played by food sovereignty and by using key indicators for sustainability, she compares agroecology with the GM approach. She comes to the same conclussion reached by potato producer women who expressed their big NO to GM potatoes a couple of days ago.  

Some countries and many communities have demonstrated the success of agroecology. Though they are not telling lies, one of the biggest problems is that most of society who already understand the importance of having good quality food (because of the reasons explained by Joanna) have also understood the same thing as the producer women! Which means that in reality they are in a powerful position to speak!  

I have been living in the United Kingdom during the last 11 years. Two things that have astonished me are:

  • How the big street has been invaded (that’s the adequate word) by the big super-markets.  You find the same four supermarkets (on for each social class layer) everywhere in the UK.
  • The second important thing is that organic producers and small holders’ agriculture get the best prices. The market itself (via the super-markets and the smallholders’ markets) is giving more value to agroecology!

If this is already happening in the market, then the next step has to be necessarily political, and my impression is that during the coming couple of years we should concentrate our energy on the political moments faced by women's movements.


Thank you Joanna for this

Thank you Joanna for this important contribution which echoes the realities on the ground (I should point out that I have also come across many men who do not buy into the agro-industrial employment model and who value patience, land stewardship, ecologically sound fishing, bee keeping) - and they all share a different sense of what is important to them and their communities.  As Marc says - another future is possible - its roots are deep in the past. n

Unpaid women

This problem applies to business as well, most of which get started with the help of girlfriends, sisters, mothers, etc that do all the administration and processing at start-up, with no recompense. Girlfriends are talked into it as  'believing' in it a condition of the relationship.  Family members are expected to take it on, just as they are to clean the toilet, and rarely asked if they are willing to do it, let alone want to, promised benefit when the company pays off, which rarely comes. Most businesses would never get off the ground without women and men will never acknowledge this or even say thank you. 

 short of time but eager to

 short of time but eager to read what Joanna had to say, i was not disappointed. You say that "Women’s unpaid care work and their lack of time are frustratingly not seen as fundamental issues of food security." I am not saying anything original when i point out that it a fundamental issues in all sectors and all spheres affecting some women more than the others. The challenge is not just in crafting a public policy responding to the demands of care economy or re-fashioning generation by generation the moulds and scripts of gender roles and relations but creating an understanding and simple practical measures to address it. let us start with ourselves and see how far we can push the envelope - get innovation and ideas going that show that it is possible and that it has impact on women's ability to make real choices and enjoy its results (or learn from them !)

Time, leadership, and empowerment

I very much like Joanna's focus on reducing women's time burdens and improving opportunities for leadership (which they are often too time-constrained to take up).  These are two of the domains of the Women's Empowerment in Agriculture Index that we at International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) were commissioned to develop for USAID ( ).  USAID wanted to use this for monitoring the impact of their Feed the Future programs, so that programs could not be deemed a "success" if they did not empower women.  (The other three domains of empowerment are decisionmaking in agricultural production, control over resources, and control over income, plus gender parity).  What I particularly like is that having these domains be something that is measured can get program designers and implementers to think not just about productivity increases, but about whether they are increasing or reducing women's work burdens, and are creating opportunities for leadership. 

To return to Joanna's example, if introducing agroecology takes more of women's time, are there other things that can be done to reduce their drudgery? This seems to be the kind of thinking that we need to get beyond the "productive/reproductive" divide.   

Labour Saving Technologies

Thank you for this important discussion again

Time Poverty is one of the key issues and controversies in rural finance programmes. Micro-credit is highly encouraged to support and empower women. So women are expected to do micro-projects ''in addition to'' whatever household responsibilities they have. Add to this the fact that they most do not have the skill in business, market connection, business information, etc, etc... Unable to become profitable, many women actually have become ''over-indebted''. In Indea in 2010 (Andhra Pradesh to be specific) as well as some other Asian and African countries CGAP (consultative Group to Assist the Poorest, housed in World Bank) reported a number of 'suicides' committed because of over-indebtedness. ... Many programmes now include in their programme deign how they can help solve such problems of women. In addition to skill development, BDS support, etc, they also specifically target projects which can tackle women's problem of ''time poverty''. For example, they finance child care programmes in rural areas (including at subsidized interest rates) managed by women entrepreneurs. They also support ''modern stoves'', solar energy etc, so that women do not spend much time collecting fire wood, and most of their time can be devoted to their small business.... But these kind of programmes need serious commitment on the part of programme designers, and more integration of actors in localities, etc.


Another point of view

Very interesting points you have noted, appreciate it for putting up.