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Food sovereignty offers opportunities to advance women’s rights, but we must also work to change gender relations within rural families and within our own movement. Peasant movements such as La Via Campesina must step up to the challenge of linking food sovereignty and feminism.
By Pamela Elisa Caro Molina, feminist researcher working with CLOC-La Via Campesina
Food sovereignty offers opportunities to advance women’s rights within the food system, but we must also work to restore gender relations within rural families and within our own movement. Food sovereignty is about to peoples’ right to decide what to produce. From a feminist perspective, we need to ask ourselves who has the power to exercise this right. Peasant movements such as La Via Campesina must step up to the challenge of articulating food sovereignty and feminism.
Food sovereignty is a proposed alternative to the neoliberal model of food production and consumption. The term was coined at a forum held alongside the 1996 World Food Summit, the result of a collective people’s concept-building process, with many women participating from La Vía Campesina (LVC).
Under the banner “food is not a matter of markets, but of sovereignty”, the movement defends people’s right to define their own agricultural policies and to organize the distribution, exchange and consumption of food according to the needs of families and rural communities, and other cultural, ethical and aesthetic factors, in sufficient quality and quantity.
Food sovereignty involves protecting and regulating local production and trade with a view to sustainable rural development; to fostering organic farming practices; to promoting rural–urban alliances and fair trade; and to rejecting the privatization of land, biofuels, genetically modified crops, single-crop farming and agrochemicals.
Food sovereignty offers opportunities to advance women’s rights within the food system, because it acknowledges the historic role they have played since the invention of farming in gathering and sowing seeds, and as protectors and guardians of biodiversity and genetic resources. Women provide moral, social and emotional support for food sovereignty, “creating bread and food out of nothing”.
"Biotechnology and intellectual property rights form gender barriers to the recognition of women within the food system."
Seeds are rural women’s greatest treasure. They are both the beginning and the end of the production cycle that reflects a people’s history. If seeds exist in diverse forms and circulate freely as a collective asset, they will guarantee an abundance of food. As a result, biotechnology and intellectual property rights form gender barriers to the recognition of women within the food system, preventing women from passing on their knowledge.
As well as strengthening local banks of indigenous seeds and continuing to promote seed exchanges, one bold suggestion would be to symbolically and materially reward women who keep and reproduce seeds.
From a feminist perspective, the agenda of recognizing women’s historic role is not enough. We must also attempt to restore gender relations within families and our own movement, as well as re-evaluate the economic and productive nature of reproduction and food, questioning the organizational structure of the economic system based on the idea that reproduction and production are not autonomous.
Women are beginning to assess their own personal contribution to the agricultural economy. Naturalization, invisibilization and discrimination are still taking place. One challenge for these movements is to assume that “the personal is political”, moving from “class to gender” and recognizing rural women as economic actors and political subjects with individual rights, not just holders of collective rights as a social category.
Food sovereignty involves wholesale agricultural reform. This process must be a bold one, however, involving equality, ensuring that women are fully entitled to access and control land, fishing areas and grazing migration routes, and that indigenous people have land rights. Concrete suggestions include revising farmers’ understanding of collective and community land ownership and ensuring that land is divided fairly between the men and women who work it, including individual and joint ownership.
Food sovereignty appeals to people’s right to decide what to produce. From a feminist point of view, we should ask ourselves how the power is divided in the exercising of this right. Concrete advances in gender emancipation will take place if decision making is egalitarian, ensuring internal democracy within families, communities and organizations.
More specifically, we should aim to create fair decision-making bodies and help women not to feel afraid to make decisions by boosting their self-esteem, thereby promoting access to better education and training them in lobbying.
We are currently faced with both opportunities and risks, which the movements need to come to terms with. The re-evaluation of historic social roles, such as the role of food provider, runs the risk of being limited to a mere symbolic recognition, which could even reinforce the traditional patriarchal gender division of work.
Another risk is that of reinforcing a self-satisfied discourse of victimization, based on women’s excessive responsibilities and greater burden of work (both productive and reproductive), including the provision of care.
"We are missing opportunities to take advantage of the awakening of women's consciousness."
Opportunities are being missed to take advantage of the awakening of female consciousness and women’s leadership in movements such as LVC to question politically the patriarchal organizational structure of the economy, starting with the rural family unit.
The organizations themselves are aware that when they point out that the recognition of women’s historic contribution should result in proposals for gender equality, the patriarchal system of relations broadly continues to be established within rural daily life, making male domination an ongoing tie (Brasilia declaration by social organizations, social movements and NGOs on voluntary guidelines for ownership of land and natural resources. Page 3).
Articulating food sovereignty and feminism is therefore the unavoidable challenge facing social movements such as LVC. It requires them to review their focuses and strategies with a view to making advances in gender equality and the empowerment of women. The strategies that should be reinforced are to continue claiming social assets and productive resources (land, water, equipment, machinery, storage centres), but also to promote genuine participation, autonomy and sovereignty for women in all areas: the economy, politics, and even sexuality, calling on women to uphold the “sovereignty of the land of their bodies” by saying ‘no’ to gender violence.
Concrete suggestions include fostering the balanced participation of men and women in all stages of the production and distribution of food, setting up alert systems when, for cultural reasons, activities that are carried out mainly by women (such as seed reproduction) are undervalued and, by contrast, the public activities that tend to involve men more (such as selling) are overvalued. Another suggestion is to promote women taking control of the entire economic and production chain, all the way up to selling their produce at markets, with income for individual women to help to support their autonomy.
Food-related chores should be the responsibility of everyone, not just of women as part of the gender mandate. For LVC, this should involve politicizing private food-preparation spaces, incorporating a “behind closed doors” debate into families’ and couples’ lives and questioning the unfair traditional organizational structure of rural families.
"The movement should publicly denounce gender inequalities in society, families and in social organizations."
The challenges facing the movement include publicly denouncing gender inequalities in society, families and social organizations, as well as promoting practical models of agrofood production that involve equal work and equal rest, like a horizontal, cooperative employer–employee relationship, with no privileges for men or gender-based hierarchies.
Since these changes are not “by decree”, the platform must generate awareness-raising processes that seek to denaturalize certain behaviours and eliminate patriarchal views that subtly infiltrate the consciousness, with the understanding that the invisible destiny of women is a social and therefore removable phenomenon, and that gender equity involves both interchangeability and reciprocity.
These daily spaces for reflection in rural life can take place at a social gathering, around the stove, at a party or even at a football match. It is also a good idea to hold workshops with children and teenagers, as well as using local media to promote the message of equality.
La Via Campesina’s female leaders in Latin America have held a number of food sovereignty campaigns, which have caused tensions among male leaders, who have spent years in public leadership roles. In the process of strengthening leadership positions in order to challenge imbalances of power, it is essential to promote alliances with non-rural feminist movements, which can provide training, arguments and strategies for tackling the conflicts that arise out of change, helping to make the process of gender equality a sustainable one.
Download: Food Sovereignty and Gender Equality