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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.
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