Women and Food : The African Experience

Leonida Odongo
Posted October 17, 2021 from Kenya

International Day for Rural women focuses on gender equality and empowering women in rural areas. The 2021  theme is '' Rural Women Cultivating Good Food for All". Women represent around 43% of the agriculture labor force, despite lacking equal access to the productive resources necessary for farming (SOFI 2019) .Families operate approximately nine out of ten farms globally and 80% of the world food is produced on small-scale family farms, where women play a key role in all stages of food production: from seed collection[1], land preparation, weeding, harvesting and storage, to food processing, livestock rearing and fisheries, including net weaving, fish catching, packaging and fish trading. Women in rural areas are also traditionally responsible for household and reproductive labor, spending up to 10 hours a day caring for the nutritional health and well-being of children, families and communities, cleaning and cooking, fetching water, fodder and fuel.

Rural women across Africa, continue to suffer from almost similar problems in their bid to access productive resources and engage productively in agriculture. Additionally, female farmers due to their extensive work on farms are the most exposed to agricultural chemicals, adverse effects of pesticide include acute and chronic impacts on human health, livestock, wildlife, and beneficial insects such as those responsible for biological controls. However, despite their key role in productive and reproductive spheres of life, women in rural areas face gender discrimination and a host of social, legal and cultural constraints. First, they have more limited access than men to land, productive and financial resources, education, health care, rural extension, markets, climate adaptation initiatives and employment opportunities. Women are also subjected to social exclusion from decision‐making and labor markets, as well as to sexual exploitation, domestic violence and reduced food intake (SOFI 2019).  The recent increase of climate shocks, extreme weather events and climate‐related disasters further worsen the status of women. Further still, as the main caregivers and providers of food, water and fuel, women must work even harder than men and are burdened with additional duties to feed and care for their families and communities.

Patriarchal and capitalist relations of power, along with the entrenched gendered divisions of labor and “gender blind” agricultural policies (that fail to support the intergenerational role of women in building resilient local food and nutrition systems and fostering healthy families and communities), are among the root causes of gender inequalities, discrimination and the marginalisation of women, especially in the rural areas. The Kenyan Constitution article 43 (1) stipulates that every person has the right to be free from hunger and to have adequate food of acceptable quality, the constitution further says that everyone has a right to clean and safe water in adequate quantities. Specifically, on children Article 53(1) says that every child has the right to basic nutrition, shelter and healthcare.Although constitutions and land related legislation speak about  equality in relation to property and inheritance rights , the reality is quite shocking especially when women contest and demand property rights.

In their bid to produce food, women face a myriad of challenges, these include lack of control of land , which is the foundational resource in food production. In Africa, due to patriarchal nature of society, women and girls are denied right to control land. Many a times , women tend to only enjoy user rights but not transfer rights. Women use land through their husbands and if widowed through their sons, in extreme cases they get evicted from their matrimonial homes by greedy in laws mostly men.

Land is an emotive issue across Africa and despite women being the bulk of food producers in the continent , they hardly control land. We cannot talk about food sovereignty when women do not have land , we cannot discuss production of good food when women do not access land .In some pastoralist communities , women have to seek permission from their husbands in order  to utilise land , says Monicah Yator of the Indigenous Women and Girls Initiative.Monicah goes further to say that  polygamous marriages also inhibit control of land by women because despite the many wives married, land ownership   still remains on the hands of males.

As Getrude Kenyangi from Support for Women in Agriculture and Development (SWAGEN)- Uganda says “ When women  contest about natural resources exploitation by their spouses they get beaten or maimed”.Getrude goes further to say that  there are cases of women having their hands chopped off by their husbands for questioning sale of proceeds from the farm by the husbands.

For example in Kenya ,the Agricultural sector directly contributes about 26% annually of the Kenya’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and a further 27% through manufacturing; distribution and service sectors and accounts for 65% of the total export earnings. The sector employs over 80% of Kenya’s rural work force and provides more than 18% of formal employment. The crops, livestock and fisheries sub-sectors are the main components of the Agricultural sector contributing 72%, 18% and 3% of the Agricultural GDP respectively. Kenya’s Vision 2030 recognises the significance of agriculture towards its goals that aim at achieving an average Gross Domestic Product growth rate of 10% per year up to the year 2030.[2] According to the 2019 State of Food Security and Nutrition (SOFI) report, the number of people affected by malnourishment and chronic deprivation is climbing for the fourth consecutive year: 821 million persons suffered from undernourishment in 2018, an increase from 785million in 2015.

Women due to inability to control resources resort to debts, restricted from controlling land, some are forced to take up loans to hire land to grow food. These loans are taken due to economic stress, many women do not know how to read and write especially in rural areas of Africa as such they are taken advantage of my Micro Credit institutions, they at times sign agreements without property analysis or having a well thought out debt repayment plans. Many end up defaulting these loans and sinking deeper poverty. As shared by Susan Owiti of Kenyan Peasants League Women’s Collective, some women have committed suicide because they are unable to  pay debts, this is further evidenced by the case  where a woman jumped into River Kuja in Migori –Kenya , in 2019 County after she was unable to pay the Kshs 9000 (US$90)loan she owed.[3] Women also face the challenge of property administration, many do not have identity cards and so it becomes difficult to process property. Furthermore, for some , although have identity cards, the identity cards are kept by their husbands. As voiced by Ama Amponsah of the Seed Change based in Ontario- Canada emphasised, women should challenge their brothers on land, women are afraid of consequences of asking questions about land and other property. This clearly shows us that land is a Gender Based Violence (GBV) issue in Africa. Ama goes further to say that when women ask about land, they are often told they are bringing foreign ideas.

Policies affect women’s production both for domestic purposes and for economic value. Sadly, women are rarely engaged in policy spaces. Ask rural women whether they have interrogated legislations on land or the existing agricultural policies, the answer you will get is a resounding no. Women should have a voice in decision making spaces and where policies are on food production are being discussed. They are stakeholders in food production because they form the bulk of producers, consumers and those who are more connected with nature. Women are also the one’s in charge of nutrition within the household, therefore the burden of mental development and growth of children falls on their shoulders. Women with disability also face discrimination when it comes to agricultural production, they get marginalised from decision making spaces and often lack the much needed support when it comes to processes such as planting, weeding or even transporting food to the market. Climate change is another challenge facing majority of rural women. Climate change for women means travelling longer distances in search of water, it means family disruption when communities are forced to migrate in search of pasture, it also means conflict when agro and pastoralist communities clash over natural resources such as grazing land.

In order to make rural women really enjoy the rights to food and food production, it is important to create an enabling environment where rights of rural women and girls thrive. For example, many women are unaware that they have land rights or what legislative provisions on land say. Creating conversations around land rights for women for instance Legal Fridays, a concept being implemented by Kenya Female Advisory Organisation (KEFEADO) in Western part of Kenya , where sessions are held weekly on law and how they protect women. This helps simplify the law to women but also gives women the much needed consciousness about their property and inheritance rights.

It is also important to analyse existing opportunities and map out how they can work for women, for instance within devolved governance system such as Kenya, conducting human rights education during chief’s baraza’s would go a long way in communicating to both men and women the importance of land rights for women. As aptly put by advocate Caroline King’ori of the High Court of Kenya, “having platforms where women and men talk to each other about land, will help address the notion that gender the push for gender equality is about competition. “Furthermore, there is need to engage more legal minds on matters of land more so at the local levels through enhancing the culture of pro-bono services. This is because the law is not only technical, but also many women especially in rural Africa cannot afford legal fees.

Additionally, there is need to build and nurture movements for food justice among rural women. There is also need for deliberate consciousness building among rural women, for example taking advantage of the electioneering period in Kenya where politicians will be visiting communities, in every nook and corner to woo for votes. When women are politically conscious, they can make demands on politicians especially through interrogating party manifestos and demand that  issues of women and land be included in these manifestos – says Easter Achieng of KEFEADO.Land rights is a governance issue; it is therefore important to create safe spaces where women can discuss land rights  notes  Bridget Mugabe- Programmes Coordinator at the Alliance for Food Sovereignty- Africa’s largest social movement .

In order for good food to be produced the world over, women should be at the centre of decision making.

[1] For more information on the role of women as guardians of seeds, illustrated by the example from Africa, please see: Pschorn-Strauss, Elfrieda "African Food Sovereignty: Valuing Women and the Seed They Keep", Right to Food and Nutrition Watch (2016): 49-51. Available at: www.righttofoodandnutrition.org/african-food-sovereignty

[2] Draft Agricultural Policy May 2016

[3] https://www.pressreader.com/kenya/the-star-weekend-kenya/20191214/281603...

This story was submitted in response to Human Rights for All.

Comments 6

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megsmueller
Oct 17
Oct 17

Greetings sis! Women should not be challenging such hardships especially in the name of food production. Thank you for raising awareness and for standing in the gap for female farmers! Your work and your energy goes a long way.

Much love to you.

Leonida Odongo
Oct 19
Oct 19

Dear Meg,

Thank you very much for reading my story.Indeed women shouldn't face such struggles .

Best

Leonida

Magabe
Oct 18
Oct 18

How we will get this information

Leonida Odongo
Oct 19
Oct 19

Hello Magabe,

Please get in touch with me on [email protected]

Best

Leonida

Beth Lacey
Oct 20
Oct 20

Such terrible challenges for these women. Thank you for shining a light on it

Leonida Odongo
Oct 30
Oct 30

Dear Beth ,

You are welcome.

Best

Leonida