A woman working on a farm in Stellenbosch, South Africa. Image: Oxfam
A woman working on a farm in Stellenbosch, South Africa. Image: Oxfam

Day 4: Women Farm Workers Dying for Food

22 November, 2012 | Food and Gender: Online Discussion

One of the ultimate perversities of our era is that the producers of food and their children often go to bed hungry. Reform of commercial agriculture is urgent if the women farm workers who grow and pack our food are to have enough to eat.

By Fatima Shabodien, former Director of the Women on Farms Project

In November 2011, my middle-income country, South Africa, was shocked by a news report of four children from one family having died of starvation and dehydration in a veld. The children of the Mmupele family, ranging in ages two to nine years, died after following their farm worker mother who went in search of food. How is it possible, we all asked ourselves, that in a fertile region known as the heart of South Africa’s maize triangle, those who grow our land’s staple food could have succumbed to such a tragic dark-age fate?

Food insecurity is widespread and hunger is a common experience of those who live and work on South Africa’s commercial agricultural plantations today. One of the ultimate perversities of our era is that the producers of food and their children often go to bed hungry. Growth stunting as a result of malnutrition is most marked among the children of farm workers. 

"One of the ultimate perversities of our era is that the
producers of food and their children often go to bed hungry."

Women are particularly vulnerable within this system as their access to housing and jobs remains almost completely dependent on a relationship with a man.  In a context where alcohol dependence and gender-based violence form a potent mix, this dependence literally has life and death consequences for women and their children.

Despite a world class Constitution and Bill of Rights that clearly outlaws discrimination based on gender, a highly institutionalized system of job reservation exists in commercial agriculture in South Africa. The higher-paying, permanent jobs are effectively reserved for men (based on a patriarchal construction of men as heads of households), while women are largely limited to seasonal, insecure, low paying and often more dangerous jobs. Such discrimination encourages women to forgo meals when food is scarce, since all livelihoods depend on a male breadwinner in the family.

South Africa is one of the most urbanized countries on the African continent with an estimated 62 per cent of the population living in cities. The pressure on commercial agriculture to simultaneously feed the ever-growing cities and reach the European export markets is ferocious.

Faced with spiralling input prices, commercial farmers have sought relentlessly to save on labour costs, through casualization, feminization and the outsourcing of contracting to labour brokers (largely to circumvent labour laws). These trends have had devastating consequences for women farm workers. Landowners’ cost-saving strategies have effectively halved the South African formal agricultural labour force in the 17-year post-apartheid period, from 1.4 million to 700,000 workers. The pool of temporary and seasonal women farm-workers pay the price through widespread food insecurity.

The current legal minimum wage is well below what a family needs to support itself (spending more than 80 per cent of income on food), and farm-worker families ironically have no access to land for their own food production. Widespread lack of access to land is in part an apartheid legacy, but it has been compounded by a misguided land reform approach focused on producing a class of black commercial farmers, which has failed dismally. The South African state finally acknowledged that food security should be a key objective of land redistribution going forward, yet there is still little evidence of a move towards placing women at the center of such a strategy.

In addition, the cost of food in rural towns is markedly higher than in urban centers, a problem compounded by the fact that, in the absence of a rural public transport system, workers are left reliant on local farm shops (owned by land owners) where they can purchase food on credit, but at a rate on average 30 per cent higher than other rural retailers. In this widespread practice, workers are often locked into debt bondage, with their outstanding debt being automatically deducted from their weekly pay.

The commercial agricultural sector in South Africa is likely here to stay, at least in the near future, and women will continue to be increasingly employed as farm labour. Hence, reform of commercial agriculture is urgently required to ensure the food security of the women workers who grow and pack the food on these farms. Given the broader land grab trend on the African continent, where large plantation style agricultural production is fast becoming the norm, reforms are doubly relevant.

"Reform of commercial agriculture is urgently required
to ensure the food security of women farm workers."

In his 2011 mission to South Africa, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food concluded that while income poverty was most marked in the Limpopo province, child hunger was very low. This he attributed to the high number of women engaged in their own agricultural production given their access to land. In the context of the widespread burden of disease on rural women, such an intervention can (and in some instances already has) made a life and death difference. Women’s access to land and other productive resources is thus key to food security.

The reform of commercial agriculture should include a legislated living wage (not merely a minimum wage) that includes entitlement to a package of non-wage benefits. Farm-workers should be guaranteed access to and control of land and water for their own food production, with extension support from the state and large private farmers. The kind of support required for subsistence farming is already abundantly available in commercial farming settings.  In addition, specialized support services should promote agro-ecological food production methods.

A concomitant strategy should be to focus agrarian reform towards the realization of food security and food sovereignty. This would require a move away from the dream of merely replacing white male commercial farmers with black ones, and instead fundamentally re-envisioning an agricultural system with objectives other than profits through exports. Farm-workers and small farmers should be encouraged to form consumer, production and market co-operatives.

There is a very active public debate on the notion of a developmental state in our country. This raises important questions on the role of the state vis-à-vis the open market. The evidence is abundant that liberalization and vulnerability to the exigencies of global markets have left the poor and women in particular more food insecure. A goal of food security therefore requires active intervention by a state that positions itself more than as just a mere neutral regulator, but an active protector of the interest of the poor. Despite all the rhetoric to the contrary, we have not seen this from our state to date.

"Liberalization and vulnerability to the exigencies of global markets
have left the poor and women in particular
more food insecure."

In arguing for reforms to the commercial agriculture sector, it is important to bear in mind that land and all natural resources ultimately form the basis of social and political power, and that radical sustainable change (such as a women-focused agrarian reform program) will not happen without challenging this power. The collective actions of women in movements will be key to changing the agricultural landscape of South Africa. It is essential for rural women to mobilize to promote their own interests.  While NGOs have an important supporting role to play, long-term success will depend on the collective mobilization and leadership of rural women themselves.  

"The collective actions of women in movements will be key
to changing the agricultural landscape of South Africa."

It is only when we have covered these fundamentals that we can begin to dream about food security for women farm-workers, and the tragedy of the Mmupele family will not be repeated. The realization of women’s right to food can be a strategic vehicle for the realization of women’s rights overall and an important step in challenging patriarchy.  

Download Women Farm Workers Dying for Food.


From seeds in women's hands to reform of commercial agriculture

Vandana Shiva’s powerful call to keep seeds in women’s hands really resonated with participants in yesterday’s discussion!  Comment after comment remind us how important it is to recognize and value the traditional farming knowledge and seed breeding skills that women have been developed over generations – from India to the Andes.

And yet, most commentators also expressed a sense of concern and powerlessness in the face of what Nidhi Tandon described as the “onslaught” of corporate agriculture.

Many of you asked the question: how can we support women’s seed saving and agroecological practices at a time when governments and corporations continue to encourage monoculture and crops for export?

And the issue of how to scale up local seed saving initiatives raised more questions than answers.

As in previous days, commentators insisted on the need to support women’s leadership so that women themselves are able to weigh in on decisions about the future of our food system.

Today’s featured essay by Fatima Shabodien tackles the issue of commercial agriculture, building on the experience of women working on South African plantations. Shabodien argues that commercial agriculture is likely here to stay, so we urgently need to find ways to reform the sector so that women farm workers get a better deal.

What do you think?

- Is the lack of state regulation to blame for the miserable treatment women farm workers receive?

- Must commercial farms be run this way to survive in a cut-throat competitive export market?

- Can the global supply system be reformed to give these women a better deal?

Seeds in women's hands

I believe it is about time we name it and shame it. Show the statistics of men owners of land against women and show statistics of women working in fields against women. Climate change is another factor that will be even more dramatic for women and their families. There is also water problems, droughts and floods. All these are associated with gender violence which will become worse when women will have to walk long distances to fetch water without mentioning having to live in a clean environment.

South Africa's dream farm model is a nightmare for rural women

Fatima's insights into what is happening to women and their families in the context of commercial farming in South Africa should be a wake up call to all those who believe that large scale commercial farming is the way to solve our problems of hunger and underdevelopment. The tide of large land deals in many parts of Africa  have such a capital intensive commercial farming system as the dream outcome. It will be more of a nightmare as small farmers, many of them women, loose access to land and the ability to feed themselves.

South Africa's farmers (only around 40,000 of them almost all white and men) export their wine, fruit juice, milk and other products around Africa and other parts of the world for those who can afford them. The poorest in South Africa - including those who work on the very same farms, or live landless and jobless next to these farms - still go hungry. It is a system that brings profit and good life styles for a few, but depends on the misery of others. 

Let us dramatically reform that system in South Africa and please let us not export it to other parts of Africa.

Another point of view

Keep up the superb piece of work, I read few blog posts on this website and I think that your site is rattling interesting and contains circles of great info.

What we need is a complete change

What Fatima has pointed out through her experiences in South Africa is a common situation for women plantation workers in most countries. For example in Sri Lanka, where women tea plantation workers are the most malnourished and anemic community in the country.

I dont think asking for stronger government regulations or any other adjustment can provide a long term solution for this. As raised by Vandana Shiva and Nidhi Tandon also we need a complete change in our food system which prioratize different set of values than mere profits. Women's right to food can be ensured only through a system which gives the owenership and control of the system to women only.

South Africa has a long

South Africa has a long history of plantation conditions for black women and men workers - in contrast to other countries on the continent like Ethiopia, where large-scale commercial growing is in its comparative early days. And with the history of apartheid and its legacy, the horror stories persist - for example, of the correlation between being a farm worker on a wine farm and alcoholism, with workers being partly 'paid' in wine. So it's a very particular form of narrative here, in contrast to the stories from the flower farms outside Addis Ababa which are much more mixed - but still stark in terms of pay and conditions, and of course in terms of the recent land grabs which have made these large-scale farms possible, where none previously existed. I'm hoping that researchers into these different scenarios post later today to talk about the similarities and differences between them - there is no one tale of 'large-scale farm employment vs small-scale farming, good or bad'. Congratulations to Lauren and all involved in this blog btw!

Another point of view

Very interesting info!Perfect just what I was searching for!

18 Years After 'Liberation' : Apartheid in Blackface?

Eighteen years after South Africa's historic elections, there are sections of the society that remain in practice third class citizens within a country as divided as ever if not strictly along lines of race, certainly along lines of poverty that still have a strong racial character.  For farm workers what is clear is that the promises of liberation, probably best captured as the Bill of Rights in the Constitution and the ruling party’s “a better life for all” slogan, cannot have been intended for them. It's time for real liberation to come to the poor and dispossessed in South Africa.

beyond ownership

Thanx for opening such an interesting debate!

When we talk about opportunities in commercial farming, we often refer to land ownership. I agree that there is a huge gap in formal ownership of land between rural men and women, but I want to stress that in many contexts ownership is far less important than in the Western world. It might represents a protection vis-a-vis expropriation or a passport to enter some commercial opportunities, but it doesn't assure control on land.

During my fieldwork in Uganda, in palm oil plantation with a smallholder scheme, I found out that the women that manage to benefit are the ones with strong bargaining power vis-a-vis their men. When a woman is educated and she has the support of the community, she manages to stand up for their rights, starting from the household where most discriminations and violence take place. 

Another important factor is to lower the cultural barriers to women employment in rural areas, because the cash coming from other sources of income give women much more power for the negotiation. The gender division of labour is no doubt socially constructed, and only a long term work with rural men and women to unveil this construction (and its consequences) can open up  opportunities to women.

Good discussion to everybody!

Why should hunger and lack always have a feminised face.

Women in Africa are most times involved in small scale backyard farming to take care of their household feeding needs. This is because most of them don't have access to farming land, seeds, tools, fertilizers and credit farcilities so they cant  engage themselves  in large scale profitable farming.

In Sierra Leone women farmers experience two seasons. The season of plenty (that's when the harvest has being completed  and food is in abundance)  and the season of hunger ( when all the food produced during the previous season has finished or has perished because there is no proper way to preserve it.

The cycle of hunger continues and women farmers take huge loans as they await the next harvest  to feedthemselves and their children.

As a leading writer said women's contribution to agricultural production is largely a questions of access to and control over production resources whiles control connotes unconditional use or rights over a resource.

Substantial issues

The best article so far, for their clear diagnosis of the problem and proposed solutions. It will not be through the recognition of the role in biodiversity as gender issues resolved. It will be through the organization and political movements, putting the access to land and labor rights first. Land reform focused on women is much more powerful (and hard to get) that minor aspects as seed diversity or promoting subsistence farming. Let's focus on substantive issues, such as those mentioned Fatima.

Back to the basics

 Land reform policies in most african countries are seen as token to women and most of these countries  have limited or no legislations guiding women access to land . The feild of agriculture is typically seen as a man's world . So even when government gives agricultural support to farming groups women dont benefit because they dont have the time, resources and capital to form organised cooperatives like their male counterparts

Another point of view

I believe you have noted some very interesting points , thanks for the post.

No more Mmupele tragedies. We have to challenge the market!

Thanks Fatima for your excellent article.

The Mmupele experience happened in South Africa, and it happens every day in most of the agriculture producing countries in the South.  The experience highlights what happens with the public rights and with human rights when things are left only to the domain of the market forces supplying food to quickly growing urban markets.

Though it is true that commercial agriculture is growing, not necessarily this is bad or good. It is bad in those countries where the society and the government lost the control of the companies. We find many cases where the commercial practices are inspired by women groups or by communities or by owners who respect human rights, and we can all learn from them.

The key problem that we face is how to inspire good policy practices that place women, that place gender, that place sustainability at the center, respecting all human rights in a context where food insecurity is banned, is not accepted, it is rejected!  These reforms are urgent and we need to organize a global action that will result in giving women access to land and to other productive resources.  We need to act on key stakeholders and challenge them about creating sustainable agriculture systems in which the objectives are food security for all.

Let’s challenge the market!


Many thanks to Fatima for a powerful piece

Many thanks to Fatima for this clearly written and powerful piece. It struck me as I read how similar the stories are for farm workers the world over, whether they work in Romania or Poland, Germany or the UK, Canada or Mexico. As Olivier de Schutter and others have identified, farm workers -- those who labour in agriculture without land of their own -- are among the world's poorest and least protected people. Our laws, in rich countries and poor, allow discrimination against farm workers that effectively creates citizens with no political voice or economic power. Their legislated minimum wages, where there is such a thing, are lower; seasonal work often means the children are denied schooling; and health and safety standards are appallingly low. Because the working conditions are so bad, in many countries farm labourers are immigrants, working legally or illegally. Illegal migrants are always vulnerable to abuse, but legal migrants on agriculture work visas are also abused, because the laws allow it.

We face a real collective challenge here, no matter where we live, to learn about who grows our food and in what conditions, and end the systemic exploitation of farm workers and their families by introducting legislative, political and economic change. The Coalition of Imokalee Workers are fighting the fight in Florida. Their recent successes in forcing change on a reluctant, deeply exploitative industry gives us hope by showing us what can be done.

Thanks again, Fatima, for a great contribution.

The situation is poised to get worse

Fatima writes , "The higher-paying, permanent jobs are effectively reserved for men (based on a patriarchal construction of men as heads of households), while women are largely limited to seasonal, insecure, low paying and often more dangerous jobs. Such discrimination encourages women to forgo meals when food is scarce, since all livelihoods depend on a male breadwinner in the family." I would like to state that this scenerio is common , infact almost the norm across sub-saharan Africa. The situation is poised to get worse for women, children and ultimately men in these women's lives with the advent of Alliance for a Green Revolution for Africa (AGRA), when smallholder farms with a variety of crops  are consolidated into one monocrop producing farm. The women and children will resort to exploitative labour on this big farm and coupled with ill health from use of agricultural chemicals the world will witness a genocide of hapless women. We need to act now to save the situation.

A Very Sad Truth

An adage in my native ethnic tongue in Nigeria asks a question, “Can someone be in a river and soap foams prevent him/her from seeing?” This can never happen as there is enough water to wash off any soap foams, and when if it should happen, it is seen as a taboo, unacceptable and something much be wrong somewhere.  Such is the case where women that work on farms and their children suffer hunger and starvation, very unacceptable and should be considered as crime against humanity. This emphasises the part of the exploitation that Nidhi talked about.  State regulation is very much to blame for this. Unfortunately governments have left their primary responsibility of protecting and providing for her citizens in pursuit for capitalist profits, taxes that it never uses to the benefit of the people. A tragedy! Governments can and must review current exploitative, unfair, inequitable and inhuman land and agricultural laws and policies for balanced agrarian ones. The only time to start the reforms that must ensure that women are in the centre of land laws, distribution, agricultural farming policies and the entire food security is now. We can’t afford further injustice, hunger, starvation and preventable deaths. 

Another point of view

I like this web site very much, Its a very nice berth to read and find info. "He is a self-made man, very much in love with his creator." by Benjamin Disraeli.

Challenging Patriarchy - through the right to food

Whilst I agree with many of the comments above the final sentence: 'The realization of women’s right to food can be a strategic vehicle for the realization of women’s rights overall and an important step in challenging patriarchy' - really resonated with me. As a man working both within my own culture and in others to tear down another broken system - Patriarchy, I have found little support in just tackling this system head on (even as a white man!). Where I have found support from both men and women is when we talk about Patriarchy and how it is detrimental to those rights so close to our heart, for example food. By talking about how such a broken system such as Patriarchy impacts those who we love and ourselves in a detrimental way allows people to engage with this dominant system that has bought so much harm. It allows people not to feel threatened that they may loose something, or to have their cultural values trampled on, but empowered that they may gain something for themselves, their families and thier communities. Lets tackle this perversity as Fatima points out so we can tackle not only food injustice but injustice as a whole.

Another point of view

I think you have mentioned some very interesting details , appreciate it for the post.

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