Women collecting water in Uganda. Image: Oxfam
Women collecting water in Uganda. Image: Oxfam

Day 5: Time for a New Recipe

23 November, 2012 | Food and Gender: Online Discussion

The women’s movement hasn’t been proactive about defining its own platform for action on food justice, and we are noticeably absent from spaces where decisions are made. We need to break out of our silos, strengthen our technical expertise, and start shaping the political process rather than stand on the sidelines.

by Alexandra Spieldoch, women's rights activist, formerly with WOCAN

As producers, natural resource managers and food providers, women ARE the real food system and have much to lose in the current development paradigm, which is contributing heavily to food insecurity, environmental degradation and volatility. Leaders have acknowledged this in general terms, but have yet to act effectively to change those policies and programs that are detrimental to women’s human rights. Nor has the women’s movement been proactive enough about defining its own platform for action. Instead, women’s rights activists are often running behind the problems, not in front of them. Perhaps we have lost some of our footing in the way we are organizing ourselves.

By using the ‘we,’ I do not pretend to speak for all the women in the world, nor do I believe there is one women’s movement. However, working collectively is important, and for this commentary, I am comfortable making generalizations to make some basic points.

Here are five basic recommendations to help us move forward more effectively:

1. Fine tune our critiques and specific goals

A great deal of time has been spent describing the problems women and girls are experiencing with regard to the food system because they are staring us in the face and the story needs to be told. Yet when it comes to moving from describing problems to proposing effective solutions, the women’s movement often falls short and has become too comfortable with generalities. 

For example, some women’s rights activists have decided to just say NO to everything that is patriarchal, which may be an important political analysis, but it is not a strategy for action that inspires. Some are promoting gender mainstreaming of food and agricultural policies, a valid goal. However, it often turns into a quota system or a checklist for technocrats rather than a meaningful process for improving impact and bringing about systemic changes.

"Our efforts to weigh in
have lacked a clear plan of action."

Globally, our efforts to weigh in have lacked a clear plan of action. We have been present and somewhat active in spaces such as the UN Committee on World Food Security, the UN Commission on Sustainable Development and the Rio + 20 Conference, yet we lack a process for bringing forth more content. And, we are noticeably absent from other spaces and processes (nationally and regionally) where decisions are made that have significant impacts on women’s food security and rights. 

For example, there is no clear advocacy strategy stemming from the women’s movements vis-à-vis Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Program (CAADP), the agricultural program of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development. It would be powerful to have a regional African feminist policy agenda that stems from national dialogues on the core issues, and regularly engages in the CAADP process. 

2. Break out of our silos

Dialogues on inter-related issues are occurring in silos, making it difficult to advocate effectively. For example, water specialists meet at the World Water Forum. Agricultural Ministers meet to talk about agriculture and the economy at the G20 and at the regional level. Climate specialists meet at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Business leaders meet pretty much everywhere. And women’s rights activists converge at the UN Commission on the Status of Women – a political space with little money, low attendance, and little clout. This is a generalization, of course, but the hard fact is that women’s advocacy for a just food system takes place mostly in spaces that have minimal political weight.

"Women's advocacy for a just food system takes place
mostly in spaces that have minimal political weight.

I’d like to see us organize our own multi-stakeholder dialogues on food reserves, price volatility and local food systems with gender experts, and directly involve ourselves in the agenda being set by the G20 governments. We could develop a pool of feminist experts to participate in negotiations on land, climate, water, etc… not just to say we were there, but to shape the political process. 

3. Strengthen our technical expertise 

Truthfully, there aren’t enough feminists with the technical expertise needed to contribute effectively to the various processes and programs at all levels and across sectors. If the women’s movement is to be influential, we need more gender experts in development, macroeconomic policy and legal policy, as well as more food scientists, agronomists, water specialists, nutritionists, and land specialists. It is bad enough that activists on these issues are few in number. Without technical expertise, women’s rights activists will never get beyond generalities.

"Without technical expertise, women’s
rights activists will never get beyond generalities."

We can start by mapping expertise around the globe and connecting with women leaders, not just those who refer to themselves as part of the women’s movement. We could develop our own initiative for generating expertise and advocacy on food and climate related issues. Where some of this work is already being done, no need to recreate – we can highlight what is out there and build on it.

4. Increase and improve our funding sources 

Lack of funding is a real barrier for whatever creative thinking we might do on how to create a just food system for women. Though leaders have been calling for more gender equity and more investment in women in food and agriculture, promises from the donor community are still largely unmet. There is money flowing from the private sector to support export-led growth and insert women farmers into global supply chains. However, little money is going to finance rural women and their families for a different agricultural model, one which supports viable local markets, agro-ecological practices and low-cost post-harvest technology.

"Little money is going to finance rural women
and their families for a different agricultural model."

I would like to see a global network of progressive women funders which supports this model. Funders would meet regularly with technical experts and small-scale women producers who are leaders in sustainable production and food security, and actively support feminist research, networking and program development.

5. Learn from one another and rebuild our trust 

We can learn from the many good initiatives that are out there, like vertical farming in the urban slums in Kenya, women’s seed saving in Guatemala, women’s organic rice farming in the Philippines, and women’s cooperatives in India and Niger. There are new discoveries such as post-harvest grinders and water technologies that are cheap and greatly reduce women’s labor and increase output without intensifying the agricultural model.

"It does seem at times that we are
constrained by our own distrust of each other."

We need to catalogue what research and experiences are out there, showcase relevant policies, post breaking news, promote critical opinions, and highlight new leadership approaches. This can be done in many ways – an electronic resource is one important tool.We can also learn from what has not worked, such as mandating gender mainstreaming into projects without budgets, expertise or buy-in. 

It does seem at times that we are constrained by our own distrust of each other. There are historic, valid reasons for this in terms of activists being too general or policy-oriented and practitioners being too narrow in their focus on hands-on contributions, or NGOs speaking for grassroots women rather than letting them speak for themselves. We need to rethink our relationship with one another differently, better.

In conclusion, in this broken food system, women have already shown that we are resilient, smart, and strong leaders. When we can take a deep breath and harness our knowledge and power to act, then we can shift the paradigm in our favour, which would also benefit the world.

Download Time for a New Recipe.


Inspire us!

Fatima Shabodien’s moving essay on the plight of women who live and work on commercial farms in South Africa clearly struck a nerve yesterday. One commentator referred to Fatima’s article as a “wakeup call”, and many of you posted comments to express your outrage over the inhumane conditions in which women produce and package the food we eat.

As Sophia Murphy pointed out, South Africa is no exception. Farm workers around the world, both North and South, continue to be some of the poorest and least protected people in our societies, with no political voice or power. Several of you spoke of the need to build alliances between farm workers and consumers to stand up in solidarity against exploitation and discrimination. And to achieve food justice, rural women must organize politically and fight to have their labor rights respected. 

Building on Fatima’s remarks, several commentators pointed out that the commercial agriculture sector is intimately linked to land grabs by corporate elites, and you echoed Fatima’s call for more secure access to land and resources for rural women. On the other hand, one commentator reminded us that it is not enough to give women formal land titles; if women are not respected and have no negotiating power within their households and communities, land in itself will not lead to better livelihoods, greater autonomy or freedom from violence.

With today’s essay by Alexandra Spieldoch, we turn out attention to the global policy arena and discuss how best to get women’s rights on the agenda. Alexandra suggests that the women’s movement hasn’t been proactive enough about defining its platform for action on food justice and is absent from spaces where decisions are made that impact women’s food security.

Do you agree that women’s movements have not been able to effectively influence global decision-making around food, agriculture and climate? Do we really lack technical experts? What decision-making spaces and influencing moments should we prioritize? In your opinion, what would be the most strategic way to get women’s voices heard in global fora?

This online discussion is about generating bold proposals and building a collective agenda to advance gender justice within the food system. Inspire us!

Globalization: A blessing or a curse?

As a woman farmer and as someone who has deployed international communication systems, I've had an encompassing view over the last thirty years. In my opinion, the most strategic way for women's voices to be heard globally, is for us to act in ways that respect ourselves, our families, our communities and environment FIRST at home. 

Repeatedly I've witnessed (and participated) in the frenzy to bring about large-scale change while failing to make the changes I wish to see on a personal and local level.  We MUST BE the change FIRST in ourselves.

Leadership requires strength, hard work and most importantly, the support of others. How can we bolster women's rights in foreign countries when we turn a blind eye to our sisters here in our communities struggling with injustices and hardships? Always, we weigh the price of our actions, whether it is doing the right thing or not rocking the boat. 

It is far easier to support an esoteric movement than to stand next to our sisters and support them when they struggle or praise them when they succeed. Women's movement--blah, blah, blah...Ask a young woman today who is Grace Potter and she'll hold up a musician as a woman of success. Ask her who Grace Hopper is and she'll most likely answer "who?".

Throughout the ages, there have been countless great women of technology, but time and time again, we've stood by silently allowing others to usurp our intelligence and inventions. We  have the technologies, we know how to use them but continue to apply a masculine paradigm.

We continue to operate in models that have been thrust upon us by centuries of patriarchy. No longer do women work together in communities, raising our children with shared values, planting, tending, harvesting---no, we each have our own microcosm banding together not in support, but in competition. When one of us stumbles, do we help our sister up, ignore her and move on or as in the masculine world, go in for a kill shot so as to better our own position?

In my opinion, our decision-making processes suffers from following blindly along behind leaders who have stepped up for personal achievement and not altruistic beliefs. These women lead like men, protective of their positions of power. Too often, we overlook or ignore their utter lack of integrity on the most basic level because we have been programmed to believe that because they are acting on a global level all is fine. This is little more than a foundation of shifting sand.

We, as women, will not gain global respect or prosperity  and make resounding changes until we build a solid foundation based upon our own personal truths and wisdom.

I offer this challenge to women of all ages, races, belief systems and incomes: Take a GOOD LOOK at your leaders. Examine them closely. Do they "walk the talk"? Do they make decisions based upon what is right for the community, not just for themselves?  There are a lot of women leaders who continue to operate in the masculine realm and they are doing us a grave disservice in our efforts to move foreward with critical issues that will affect our future.



Cooking the Recipe

Alexandra’s article made me think about the ‘movement recipe’ and about the required time for cooking it. I think that there are several very active women’s movements, and that they need to facilitate their putting together around the specific priorities of Food and Climate justice in order to give an adequate global response to the current development paradigm ruled by the market.  Though the rest of society can help, these women have the leadership.

Though I like a lot Alexandra’s recommendations, it is important to keep in mind process and time. Time and culture are key variables in this ‘cooking’.

It is important that in the ‘cooking process’ we all give priority to those women’s movements which are already organized at the sub-regional level in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Europe  and Latin America. Their coordination at the global level is precious. We need to find the way that these existing and very active movements connect well with women organized at the community level, who are part of those communities that have been evicted from their land because of the accelerated land-grabbing process. This is happening now and women and communities need our response now.

I find important that we also refer to those processes where civil society and social movement have gained some institutional space. I am thinking about the Committee on World Food Security and particularly on its Civil Society Mechanism. Spaces like this would help us to break the silos and would facilitate women to exert their own political weight and shape the political process. Though the CFS process is centred in Rome, now it is going into a de-centralisation process, with regions gaining a prominent role. We can act on both fronts.  

Grassroots women and movements have the first line into the process!



I like the way you have framed the critique of food justice movement and efforts. While the answers are not that straight forward to come by, and realities are complex, it is always useful to get down to detailed solutions once enough noise has been made. While women are facing food injustice, food insecure communities regardless of their gender, age and race, are on the margins of this debate and macro factors including 'market' systems that surround  small producers and consumers must be dissected to find more calibrated solutions. State always has a tough choice to make  between producers and consumers and create a state of shifting equilibrium that keeps social conflict from imploding on either side. And yet, inefficiencies and greed of the market players continue to remain hidden from the debate in any meaningful way.

Thanks for getting down to basics for making the debate real. I would like to add to your list one, perhaps very obvious, point. Communities’ own engagement and ownership, especially from ‘women's perspective' in this issue  cannot be emphasised enough. If only we can find more effective ways for them to lead the debate and also find and suggest the solutions, even as other actors  continue to act in solidarity.


Alexandra touches on important key points within the limits of this short essay, it is much less about the 'technical expertise' and much more about working together in a strategic way at the centres of where these discussions take place and not at the margins or corridors or in our own little corners. The 'women's movement' as diverse as it is, is pulled in many directions by different agenda priorities and by wildly different interpretations of what needs to be done. That being the case then, these issues need to be addressed on a case by case, country by country, region by region basis. And in my essay on values - I am suggesting that until women at the village/community level are able to express their critique/redesign of the system, there is plenty of room for distrust. 

Like working in a global matrix organisation?

Very interesting arguments, Alexandra. To me it sounds like "breaking out of the silos" is what all private corporations are interested in succeeding with. When organized as a matrix. Only when working closely together across functions and specialist area does a long term strategy materialize into better decision-making and more innovative solutions for various stakeholders. Applying this model to the food system would make a huge difference. 

A United Voice and Plan for Action

Alexandra rightly points out that there is clear lack of integrated strategy for the women movement on change of the food system which makes impact in pockets and in isolation from the rest. As far as this remains the practice no significant/ effective impact or influence can be reached on a global level on food, agriculture, climate change and women, not because of lack of technical expertise, but because of no united voice and plan of action by women that need and press for these changes.  Women must stop the distrust which truly exists between them and unite across all fronts, borders, languages to make their voices heard. This must be do consistently to make any demands heard and meet.  

Women ARE the real food system

As you say "women ARE the real food system. Women aroung the world are reshaping the food system from below. Most of these women, some you mention from Kenya and Guatamala, etc..., don't see themselves as part of the women's movement and have little interest in international policy spaces. They are the innovative peasant farmers, the drivers of Alternative Food Networks from Detroit to Dar es Salaam, the backbone of Urban agriculture in so many cities, the Cross border food traders between Zimbabwe and South Africa, and so many more.

Let's reenforce this women led transformation of the food system. I am less convinced that trying to get the technical expertise to engage in a male, corporate and international power relations shaped policy making processes will have an impact. Especially as "the spaces where decisions are made" are really the boardrooms of the large corporations that dominate the broken food system.

This power and these decisions are contested though, contested between supermarkets and women street traders, between fertiliser suppliers and women peasant farmers practicing ecological agriculture. Lets make sure we are united in at least one thing; backing these women in there battles on the streets and farms around the world.

Empower the priviledged to be gender experts

I agree with Marc that improving the technical skills among gender experts and women Rights activists will not be sufficient in changing decision making in existing power relations. I will argue that we have to empower those in the decision making processes with the technical expertise to see the societal and economic benefits of promoting women Rights (without that making rights and justice the end goal). We need to start this journey in the daycare institutions, schools, and educational institutions as they are succesfully doing in Sweden. The majority of politicians in Sweden are calling themselves feminists. There is something to learn from this. 


Feed the Future etc.


Thanks for another interesting day of blogs and comments - all round and interesting week.

There is a quite a lot of work being done in Agriculture that bridges some of the divide between women's rights and agricultural development. The following are resources and initiatives with which many are likely aware, but I include them here for those who may have less knowledge of this area.

For example, the Feed the Future initiative of USAID. Women's roles are key, and USAID along with IFPRI have developed an index for women's empowerment in agriculture that is applied in Feed the Future programs http://www.ifpri.org/sites/default/files/publications/weai_brochure.pdf

Also, the Gates Foundation has been funding a number of agricultural initiatives that are women-focused - by way of example see Heifer http://www.gatesfoundation.org/learning/Pages/grantee-heifer-dairy-development-africa.aspx and CARE http://www.gatesfoundation.org/learning/Pages/grantee-care-dairy-productivity-bangladesh.aspx

There is also work on gender justice in value chains such as by Linda Mayoux http://genderinvaluechains.ning.com/forum/topics/draft-gender-justice-protocol

Finally, DFID and SDC have a huge number of 'M4P' projects that are in agricultural market systems, and a paper was recently commissioned to respond to women's empowerment within those market systems http://www.m4phub.org/userfiles/resources/32201210289657-M4P_WEE_Framework_Final.pdf

Best regards,




Thank you for these thoughtful comments!  I look forward to an ongoing dialogue on this!

I am particularly interested in the reflections that technical expertise isn't so much the issue, but political action, women's space and support for activism. I largely agree with this. I would just add that from my perspective being radical isn't just about being in the streets and organizing at the grassroots level and I guess I don't see the need for a split: can't we organize in the streets, be leaders in setting policy and practices, and improve education and formation for women and men as multiple approaches to transforming the food system?

I like the comment that alternative models are already being implemented and there are great examples of programs that are working out there. This is really a key point I wanted to make in the article: we need to catalogue and support this work going further as well as to question strategies that aren't working.

Thanks again!


Feed the Future etc

Thanks Linda again

Thank you for the very selective, important resources, including that of Linda Mayoux. ... With Linda Mayoux and WEMAN-Global (supported by Oxfam Novib) we have recently produced report from the global Microcredit Summit in Spain (Nov 14-17, 2011) with over 2000 participants, on gender issues in microfinance titled: FINANCIAL SERVICES FOR GENDER JUSTICE (Linda Mayoux and Getaneh Gobezie: see link:

I hope this helps



Permalink: http://oxf.am/3pN