Day 7: Seeds and Sisterhood

Joanna Kerr

Blog post by Joanna Kerr

CEO ActionAid International
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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