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July 27, 2003 

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Women's voices in the food chain

Dr. Alice Escalante de Cruz

All over Asia, women toil longer hours than men in the fields, tend domestic livestock and vegetable gardens, pick fruit, gather fuel wood, fetch water, cook, feed and care for children, the elderly and disabled family members, market farm produce, select and preserve seeds and manage the household finances. Yet, they do not have the power or the authority over the land they till or the yields they produce.
Access to and control of resources are reflective of power issues. In the Asian context, women's access to land and other resources are constrained as a result of cultural, traditional and sociological factors. Agrarian reform policies that do not address these underlying issues fail to weed out the root causes of women's disempowerment.

The feminisation of agriculture
Around 70% of the population in India earn their livelihood from agriculture. Women in rural India are extensively involved in farming activities. Their roles range from managers to landless labourers depending on the land-owning status of farm households. Women in India make up 55% - 66% of the total labour force, with higher percentages in certain regions.
In Pakistan, women play a major role in agriculture, livestock raising and cottage industries. They are involved in all operations related to crop production such as threshing, winnowing, drying, grinding, husking and storage, in addition to their daily household chores. In a survey of five districts in Pakistan, it was found that 82% of women participated in agricultural activities. They account for 25% of the production of major crops. Rural women in Pakistan spend a considerable amount more time on livestock rearing than on crop production. A typical rural Pakistani woman works 15.5 hours a day; 5.5 hours on caring for livestock and only 50 minutes caring for her children.
The role of women in agriculture in China changed with the development of the market economy. Previously women's work on the farm was highly seasonal and depended on the locality. With the economic reforms and men moving out into the labour force, women handle most of the agricultural activities. In 1991, women accounted for 41.2% of the rural labour force in agriculture, and 22.96% in agricultural services. But by 1998, women were responsible for more than 60% of the agricultural activities in the Hongpo Administrative Village. In the Yunnan Province, women make up 46.6% of the agricultural labour force. After the introduction of the new household responsibility system, women accounted for 60% -70% of the total farm manpower. Women are exclusively responsible for home garden production almost everywhere in China.

Women as seed breeders
Women are the custodians of genetic diversity and traditional knowledge. Their expertise is only recently being attested by modern science. A collaboration between scientists at the Rwandan Agricultural Research Institute (ISAR), the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) in Colombia and the local women farmers to breed improved bean varieties showed remarkable results. Women farmers outperformed the bean breeders in the selection of bean varieties that displayed most potential under actual conditions. In many rural villages of Asia, women hold the secrets to knowledge of seeds for food, medicine, and cultural or other uses.
Women farmers in Humnapur, Kalimela and other villages in the Medak district in India collect old varieties of seed from parents-in-law and grandparents, from relatives living far away, from neighbouring villages and gene banks. These women know the characteristics of the various varieties of seed, they know the soils on which they grow best, many of which need little rain, those seeds that add nitrogen to the soil, and which types are resistant to pests. Today, at least 1,500 small and marginal farming families in around 75 villages can access these collections of traditional seeds kept in a mixture of clay and cow dung. Ashes and neem leaves protect these against pests.
In Bangladesh, the women of Nayakrishi have rebuilt their own 'seed wealth' at the household and community levels. Seed preservation and germination are largely based on the knowledge of women. They use earthen pots for the preservation of seeds kept in a place similar to a farmer's house.
In the village of Wenteng, southwest China, women expert maize breeders skilfully control the breeding process, from field design to seed selection through pollination. Traditional plant varieties are maintained through generations by separating the planting of different varieties in space and time. Women farmers also acquired, maintained, and refreshed their preferred varieties through open pollination hybridisation.
In Nepal, women and children do the collection of more accessible medicinal and aromatic plants.

Towards gender-sensitive food policy
Despite the reality of women's work on the land and their immense contribution to food security, they remain largely invisible and unsupported by agricultural polices that still favour and consult men. This even in modern times where men are increasingly absent from farms and rural areas as they migrate to cities or abroad in search of paid employment, leaving behind their wives and older folk to manage their farms. In addition, war, sickness and death from HIV/AIDS is also taking a toll on rural male populations. Women are therefore taking on more of the burden and responsibility of farm management without the power over these assets.
Though women's work constitutes 60% of the world's labour, they receive only one-tenth of the world's income and own less than 1% of the world's land. In India and Nepal for instance, fewer than 10% of women farmers own the land.
Poverty is also seeing an increasingly feminine face. Statistics indicate that since the 1970's, the number of women living below the poverty line has increased by 50%, in comparison to 30% for men. Of the 1300 million poor people in the world today, more than 70% are women.
If mainstream investments and development interventions continue to be gender-blind, they will remain ineffective in addressing the inequities faced by women. Policy makers need to consider the following:
Study the gender roles in agricultural production by documenting the different roles played by women and men.
Recognise the contribution of women in agriculture and consult them before national policies relating to these roles are implemented.
Put control over land and revenue in the hands of women where they perform the major tasks of food production.
Support the needs and priorities of women in research and development in agriculture. Simple labour-saving devices can help women reduce the burden of long hours in the field and free them to spend more time on child rearing or enjoy better quality of life.
Recognise the role of women as seed savers and breeders. Scientists and agricultural extension agencies should work with women to develop new varieties and conserve bio-diversity.
Recognise the potential of women as community leaders and mobilise them into community groups to assist with rural development. Provide them the opportunity to get educated and gain specific skills to lead their households and communities out of poverty.

Concluding remarks
Throughout the new Food & Nutrition programme, emphasis will be placed on the gender issue and the work structured so as to result in a greater appreciation of the role of women in the food chain. With this initiative, we hope to help the voices of these women to be heard.

Dr. Alice Escalante de Cruz, Programme Officer, Food Security and Safety, Consumer International (CI), Malaysia.

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