Rights expert highlights threats to women's right to food

The article below was published in South-North Development Monitor (SUNS) #7524, 13 February 2013. We thank SUNS for permission to re-distribute this article.

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Rights expert highlights threats to women's right to food

Geneva, 12 Feb (Kanaga Raja) -- While women's rights, including the right to food, are protected through a range of human rights instruments, "discrimination against women remains pervasive in all spheres of life", according to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to food.

In his report (A/HRC/22/50) to the upcoming twenty-second session of the Human Rights Council later this month, Special Rapporteur Mr Olivier De Schutter said that discrimination against women may result from laws that are themselves discriminatory.

More often however, he added, the discrimination women face is the result of social norms or customs, linked to certain stereotypes about gender roles.

These include unequal access to productive resources such as land and to economic opportunities, such as decent wage employment; unequal bargaining position within the household; gendered division of labour within households, that result both in time poverty for women and in lower levels of education; and women's marginalisation from decision-making spheres at all levels.

"Only by addressing these different levels, including by challenging the existing distribution of family responsibilities between women and men, shall the root causes of discrimination women face be effectively addressed," he stressed.

The Special Rapporteur cited several human rights instruments that protect women's rights.

For example, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights provides for the right to an adequate standard of living, including the right to food, to be guaranteed without discrimination (art. 2, para. 1).

A non-discrimination requirement is also imposed under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, both in the enjoyment of the rights listed in the Covenant (art. 2, para. 1) and in other spheres of life (art. 26).

The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women guarantees equality of treatment between women and men in a range of areas; it has a specific provision on women in rural areas, guaranteeing the rights of women to equal treatment, in particular, in land and agrarian reform as well as in land resettlement schemes (art. 14).

The Convention also guarantees adequate nutrition for women during pregnancy and lactation (art. 12).

The Convention on the Rights of the Child, which sets out rights that should be guaranteed without discrimination (art. 2, para. 1), also refers to the duty of States to protect the right to health of the child, inter alia, by the promotion of breastfeeding (art. 24, para. 2 (e)).

"Despite these requirements, discrimination against women remains pervasive in all spheres of life," De Schutter underlined.

The report says that the various forms of discrimination are inter-related. Disempowerment of women results in women facing discrimination as economic agents. This in turn means women are less economically independent, are exposed to violence and have a weaker bargaining position within the household and the community.

As a result, they continue to assume a highly unequal share of tasks and family responsibilities within the household - taking care of the children and the elderly or the sick, fetching wood and water, buying and preparing the food.

Women work more hours than men, although much of the work they perform remains informal, essentially performed within the family, and un-remunerated, and thus is neither valued nor even recognised. This leads to lower levels of education for women, and in an inability to seek better employment opportunities outside the home.

These various forms of discrimination against women and girls are human rights violations that States have a duty to combat, said De Schutter, adding that they affect directly the right to food of women and girls.

"Improving the education of women and, thus, their economic opportunities, not only can make a substantial contribution to a country's economic growth, it is also the single most important determinant of food insecurity."

According to the report, a cross-country study of developing countries covering the period 1970-1995 found that 43 per cent of the reduction of hunger was attributable to the progress of women's education, almost as much as increased food availability (26 per cent) and improvements to the health environment (19 per cent) during that period combined.

An additional 12 per cent of the reduction of hunger were attributable to increased life expectancy of women, so that in total 55 per cent of the gains against hunger during those 25 years is owed to an improvement of women's situation within societies.

"Discrimination against women as food producers is not only a violation of their rights, it also has society-wide consequences, because of the considerable productivity losses entailed."

Evidence suggests that countries where women lack land ownership rights or access to credit have on average 60 per cent and 85 per cent more malnourished children, respectively. One study in Burkina Faso found productivity on female-managed plots in Burkina Faso to be 30 per cent lower than on male-managed plots within the same household because labour and fertilizer were more intensively applied on men's plots. Yet, the literature also shows that with equal access to inputs, yields for men and women are very similar.

In 2010, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) concluded that "if women had the same access to productive resources as men, they could increase yields on their farms by 20-30 percent. This could raise total agricultural output in developing countries by 2.5-4 percent, which could in turn reduce the number of hungry people in the world by 12-17 percent".

De Schutter explained that access to food can be secured: (i) by obtaining incomes from employment or self-employment; (ii) by social transfers; or (iii) by own production, for individuals who have access to land and other productive inputs.

Highlighting the plight of women as waged agricultural workers, the rights expert noted that women farmworkers, who represent 20 to 30 per cent of the approximately 450 million people employed worldwide as waged agricultural workers (the proportion is higher, at around 40 per cent, in Latin America and the Caribbean), face specific difficulties.

Women are disproportionately represented in the "periphery" part of the workforce that coexists with the "core" segment of permanently employed farmworkers. This "periphery" segment of the workforce is made of unskilled workers, often without a formal contract of employment, and their work is often seasonal or temporary (or classified as such even when it is in fact continuous).

The main reason why women are disproportionately represented in this segment is because they have fewer alternative options and are thus 'easier' to exploit, says the report.

"A number of the issues that in practice are of particular concern to women could be addressed in principle through effective policies and laws, and collective bargaining. These include equality of opportunity policies, equal pay for work of equal value, maternity leave and benefits, child care issues, reproductive health services."

However, De Schutter said, apart from the general problems related to unionisation on farms, male-dominated unions do not always pay sufficient attention to issues that matter especially to women.

The report notes that women's access to employment in the industry or the services sectors of the economy requires improved access to education for girls; and infrastructural and services investments that relieve women from part of the burden of the household chores that women shoulder disproportionately.

"Improving access to education for girls requires that the incentives structures for families be changed, and that social and cultural norms that lead parents to interrupt the schooling of girls earlier than that of boys be challenged."

Many poor households are unable to send girls to school because of the costs, both direct and indirect (school fees or other costs related to attending school, such as uniforms and books), of doing so; because of opportunity costs (girls who go to school are not available to work within the household); because of the commute involved, when the family lives at a far distance from the nearest school, and associated security concerns.

The report finds that various programmes have proven to be effective in removing some of these obstacles.

Bangladesh, for example, launched the Female Secondary School Assistance Project (FSSAP) in 1993; ten years later, as it entered its second phase, the project covered one quarter of rural Bangladesh and now benefits almost one million girls across the country in more than 6,000 schools. FSSAP provides a stipend to girls who agree to delay marriage until they complete secondary education, for a total cost to the programme of about US$121 per year per person; and it has improved sanitation facilities in schools.

The report underlines that the right to social security, as guaranteed under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, includes access to health care; benefits and services to persons without work-related income due to sickness, disability, maternity, employment injury, unemployment, old age or death of a family member, including contributory or non-contributory pensions for all older persons; family and child support sufficient to cover food, clothing, housing, water and sanitation; survivor and orphan benefits.

The Special Rapporteur said that in many cases, the specific situation of women is not considered in the design and implementation of programmes.

Highlighting the issue of women's access to social protection, De Schutter said that most social transfer programmes are in the form of cash transfer programmes which can be conditional or unconditional. However, partly because of concerns with the fiscal sustainability of unconditional cash transfer programmes, and partly in order to encourage poor families to invest more in their children and thus reduce the inter-generational transmission of poverty, conditional cash transfers (CCTs) have been expanding in recent years.

Noting that CCT benefits are usually given to women, as the "caregivers" of households - in Brazil, 94 per cent of the recipients of the Bolsa Familia transfers are women - De Schutter, however, said that too little attention has been paid to the gender impacts of CCTs, when such programmes are put in place.

He also cited public works programmes that are designed to provide employment to families who have no other source of income; remuneration is usually in the form of cash (cash-for-work) or food (food-for-work), or a combination of both.

Many public works schemes set aside a quota for women. For example, India's Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), introduced in 2005 and which benefited 52.5 million households in 2009-2010, provides for one third of the employment to be allocated to women.

The Rural Maintenance Programme in Bangladesh goes even further; it is an all-women programme, successfully employing over 50,000 rural women to maintain 60,000 miles of earthen roads.

While access to employment in such programmes can favour the empowerment of women, paying greater attention to the gender impacts could significantly increase their benefits to women, De Schutter stressed.

"Concerns have been expressed about the impact that the feminisation of agriculture may have on local food security, given the obstacles women face which negatively affect their productivity. Indeed, women often have little legal protection or rights to property ownership, and they face cultural and social norms that hinder their ability to improve productivity."

On how these challenges can be met, the Special Rapporteur said that in the longer term, improving education for women and expanding opportunities for them in off-farm employment are key. But for the large number of women who depend on agriculture, including, increasingly, urban and peri-urban agriculture, it is equally important - and urgent - to improve women's opportunities to thrive as producers.

"Gender-sensitive agricultural policies are required, consistent with guideline 8.6 of the Right to Food Guidelines concerning women's full and equal participation in the economy and the right of women to inherit and possess land and other property, and access to productive resources, including credit, land, water and appropriate technologies."

Access to land is key in this regard, where "women face multiple forms of discrimination in accessing land". Women also face discrimination in accessing extension services. The third area is finance, where "microcredit schemes often target rural women specifically, who, even more than men, face obstacles in accessing credit."

"A human rights-based strategy to address gender discrimination against women includes four complementary requirements. It must relieve women of the burdens of household chores; it must be empowering and challenge the existing division of roles; it must systematically aim at taking into account gender in existing food security strategies; and, as regards governance, it must be part of a multi-sectoral and multi-year effort, including independent monitoring of progress towards certain targets," said De Schutter.

States' obligation to remove all discriminatory provisions in the law, and to combat discrimination that has its source in social and cultural norms, is an immediate obligation that must be complied with without delay. This should be combined with the use of temporary special measures to accelerate the achievement of gender equality, and with effective remedies for women who are victims of discrimination, he added.