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Re: Women Produce Food, But the Last to Eat it

The article below was published in South-North Development Monitor (SUNS) #8197,
9 March 2016.

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Women produce food, but the last to eat it

Geneva, 8 Mar (Kanaga Raja) -- While women produce and provide food, they still account for 70% of the world's hungry and are disproportionately affected by malnutrition and food insecurity, according to the latest report by the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food.

The report by Ms Hilal Elver was presented to the Human Rights Council on Monday. The Council is currently holding its thirty-first session from 29 February to 24 March.

In her report, Ms Elver said that notwithstanding the legal framework designed to protect them, women experience poverty and hunger at disproportionate levels.

"Institutionalised gender discrimination and violence still impose barriers that prevent women from enjoying their economic, social and cultural rights and specifically the right to adequate food and nutrition, and the status of women and girls has not substantially improved, despite recurrent calls for the inclusion of a gender perspective to development programs and to social policies."

According to the Special Rapporteur, women account for 70% of the world's hungry and are disproportionately affected by malnutrition and food insecurity.

This ratio is overwhelming in some developing and Least Developed Countries; for example, more than one third of women in several South Asian countries are underweight.

"Poor nutrition, lack of healthcare, social protection, limited economic opportunities and general neglect has excluded more women from global society than the number of men killed in 20th century wars, combined," said Ms Elver.

On the other hand, she added, female farmers are responsible for cultivating, ploughing and harvesting more than 50% of the world's food.

In sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean, women produce up to 80% of basic foodstuffs and in Asia women constitute 50-90% of the labour force dedicated to rice production.

"Although women produce and provide food they are often the last ones to access food for themselves," said the report, noting that gender gaps are observed in access to all productive resources, such as land, seeds, fertilizers, pest control measures and mechanical tools, credit and extension services.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), "... inequalities between men and women in their access to productive resources, services and opportunities are one of the causes of under-performance in the agriculture sector, and contribute to deficiencies in food and nutrition security, economic growth and overall development."

"Improving this situation for women would lead to important advantages for society as a whole. It is estimated that closing the gender gap in agricultural yields would increase agricultural output in developing countries by between 2.5 and 4%. This in turn could reduce the number of undernourished people in the world in the order of 12-17%, or as much as 150 million people," said the Special Rapporteur.

According to the rights expert, girls and women suffer from discrimination in relation to their right to food at all stages in life.

In many countries, females receive less food than their male partners, due to a lower social status. In extreme cases, a preference for male children may lead to female infanticide, including by deprivation of food.

"Structural violence is an under-examined barrier to women's right to adequate food and nutrition. Gender-based violence, which is a primary form of discrimination, impedes women from engaging in their own right to adequate food and nutrition, and efforts to overcome hunger and malnutrition."

Furthermore, girls and adolescent women induced by tradition or forced into child marriage and adolescent pregnancy, suffer the consequences of a high work burden and deprivation of their child rights, including their right to adequate nutrition and education.

Adolescent pregnancy is a typical outcome of child marriage and complications during pregnancy and childbirth are the second largest cause of death for 15-19 year-old girls globally.

According to the Special Rapporteur, the reasons behind the failure of women's access to adequate food can arguably be linked to two structural disconnects which exist at the cross-roads between women's rights and the right to food.

The first disconnect refers to the failure in international law to fully endow women with their right to food, while the second disconnect concerns the structural separation of nutrition from the human right to adequate food, which has focused on increasing food production and not on broad and equal food access.

Women additionally face numerous legal barriers in domestic law, which prevents them from fully realising their right to food, including property rights, land rights and intellectual property rights.

These legal barriers also prevent women from maintaining livelihoods that provide sustainable incomes necessary to purchase food, thus challenging women's right to food and ability to achieve food security.

"Rather than enabling women to secure stable livelihoods, both formal and customary laws are often barriers to women's economic independence."

The report said that legal barriers also prevent men and women from equally benefiting from paid employment through the sanctioning of systems of overt discrimination against women in the workplace.

As of 2014, 77 out of 140 countries with reported data still had legal restrictions on the type of paid employment activities available to women.

Even when equal employment opportunities are available, equal pay is not: only 59 countries from the same sample of countries legally require equal pay for work of equal value.

The report said that one of the most substantial factors enabling women to thrive as food producers - either for income support or subsistence - is women's ability to own and access land.

"Unfortunately, the exclusion of women from land ownership is a global phenomenon."

The share of land-holdings owned by women in Africa ranges from 5% to 30%. In a recent study on the situation of women and their right to land in Central America, researchers found that in all countries, laws exist that recognize the equality of rights between men and women.

Despite this, a profound gap remains between formal equality and equality in practice. This gap results in women owning less land, which tends to be of worse quality and with less judicial security. Central American women only have access to between 12% and 23% of land.

The Philippines also demonstrates discriminatory land distribution. While the country legally allows women to own land, the "invisibility" of women within the food production system has created structural barriers that prevent them from accessing productive resources.

The Special Rapporteur pointed to a correlation between land ownership and access to productive resources including credit, inputs, varieties of seeds and inorganic fertilizers, farming equipment, and extension services.

In this context, she noted that less than 3% of women who work in the agriculture and fisheries sectors in the Philippines benefit from support services such as credit, seeds, training, and access to technology, therefore making it almost impossible to secure a sustainable income and livelihood.

"Women's property ownership is a significant indicator of poverty, and a key factor in securing increased participation in household decision-making."

Granting women the autonomy to make everyday choices has been proven to improve reproductive health, family nutrition, and child welfare. Land ownership also helps strengthen women's roles in community affairs and women's bargaining power.

The report further noted that while inheritance is often the main avenue for women's land acquisition, women are still less likely to inherit land than men. Inheritance is often determined through marriage practices.

Through patrilinearism, which is the most common societal system, sons, rather than daughters, inherit land from their fathers.

For married women, the death of a husband does not guarantee her ownership rights of the decedent's property.

In Uganda, for example, a co-ownership clause was added to the Land Act of 1998, which technically vested the land title in both the husband and wife; however, upon the death of the husband, any children of the marriage are legally allowed to take land from the mother.

Similarly, among the Hmong and Khmu, the largest ethnic groups in Lao PDR, women are primarily considered as guardians of their children's inheritance rather than heirs in their own right and additionally single women are prohibited from living independently.

Between 1990 and 2010, many Latin American and sub-Saharan African countries engaged in land reform to establish formal laws that recognize and protect women's rights to land.

According to the 2015 UN WOMEN's Progress of the World's Women Report, "by 2014, 128 countries had laws that guarantee married women's equality when it comes to property, and in 112 countries daughters had equal inheritance rights to sons".

"These are positive developments but unfortunately, formal laws have not sufficiently secured property rights of women, largely due to the prevalence of customary laws," Ms Elver said.

In many African countries, the existence of "dual legal systems" reflecting both customary laws and common law tends to complicate land ownership.

In Asia, many countries retain personal or religious laws that prevail over formal laws in practice, which effectively prevent women from owning land.

Additionally, in many cases, formal laws and state institutions have limited reach beyond urban centres.

According to the report, State action can also be a source of discriminatory land distribution. A State may engage in land redistribution through various measures, including land reform, large scale appropriation, and privatisation programs.

At times, land distribution intended to benefit marginalised groups only benefits male heads of household.

"Recent land reform programs have tried to address this inequity by specifically allocating land to women, or acknowledging joint property rights. However, many countries still come up short, even when gender equality is explicitly articulated as a policy objective in such programs."


The Special Rapporteur said that historically, efforts to increase the global food supply did not apply the intellectual property rights (IPR) regime to agricultural innovation.

In most communities, farming practices such as seed exchanges were communal activities, unrestricted by law. Furthermore, most agricultural research and development (R&D) was funded by the public sector.

Today, however, industrialised agriculture mostly replaced traditional communal farming and has been inspired by a competitive market for agricultural innovations to increase production.

Over the past few decades, funding for agricultural R&D has shifted to private companies. The ten largest agricultural biotechnology companies invest roughly 1.69 billion euros a year on new product development, amounting to about 7.5% of these companies' total sales revenue.

To ensure that these companies recoup development costs for agricultural technologies and continue to invest in R&D, an IPR-agricultural framework has emerged.

"Unfortunately, the IPR regime disproportionately excludes women, particularly in the context of agriculture," said the Special Rapporteur.

For example, IPR tends to reward "high technology" but ignores the contributions that the female labour force makes to agricultural production.

Meanwhile, the privatisation of agricultural resources leads to increased monetisation. Women are less likely than men to have discretionary income, and are therefore less able to afford expensive seeds that were once managed communally.

"Furthermore, the IPR regime does not readily acknowledge the value of women's traditional knowledge, which may cover a broad range of agricultural practices, technologies and techniques. In addition, women are faced with the threat of bio-piracy: the practice of co-opting and patenting traditional knowledge, without awarding appropriate compensation."

According to the rights expert, the greatest implication of the IPR regime on women and their right to food relates to seed saving, a practice that is both predominantly controlled by women and a critical component of small-scale, subsistence agriculture.

Studies show that up to 90% of planting materials used in smallholder agriculture are seeds and germplasm that are produced, selected, and saved by women.

"Seeds and seed banks are important for addressing the crisis of agricultural biodiversity, for ensuring sustainable livelihood solutions for food security, and for empowering women with a sustainable livelihood."

Globally, women have bred more than 7,000 species of crops. In India alone, seed saving has enabled women to breed 200,000 varieties of rice.

Biodiversity offers the genetic variation necessary to protect against diseases, pests, and weather events that threaten to wipe out food supplies.

Meanwhile, global agribusiness and biotechnology corporations have transformed the global commercial seed market into a multi-billion-dollar industry and four companies alone account for 50% of this market.

With such lucrative monopolies at stake, these international corporations have actively exercised the IPR regime to secure exclusive access to, and thus royalties from, patented seeds.

"As a result of IPR laws, seeds that would have once been saved and shared are now the intellectual property of corporations," said the Special Rapporteur.

Recent litigation demonstrates that corporations are willing to appeal to the law to protect their property. Since 1997, Monsanto reports that it has filed 147 lawsuits against those farmers who failed to "honour this agreement," i. e. Monsanto's intellectual property rights.

The fact that 73% of the world's seed supply is owned and patented by these corporations and are therefore non- renewable, presents women with a major dilemma.

They are accustomed to seed saving and sharing, and would have to chose between discontinuing the traditional practice of saving and exchanging seeds or risk punishment for an intellectual property crime.


According to the report, non-corporate agricultural producers, and particularly women, have suffered from evolution in agricultural policy and economic trends over the past several decades.

"The devastating structural adjustment policies imposed throughout much of the developing world in the past decades, largely as a precondition of receiving development assistance or joining the global trade regime, have resulted in an overall loss in agricultural productivity, decreased yields, and increasingly precarious rural livelihoods."

The Special Rapporteur noted that agricultural trade liberalization is generally premised on export-promotion policies that benefit men and large-scale farmers.

Liberalization has also opened smaller markets to subsidized imports, thus displacing the farmed products of local women, and encouraging the production of export crops over subsistence agriculture.

"Women are struggling to maintain household incomes due to increased competition with imported agricultural goods, reduced prices, and declining commodity prices in international markets."

The trade liberalization policies heavily favour large corporate agribusinesses and a large-scale model of agricultural production, at the expense of the most vulnerable and marginalised small-scale agricultural producers.

Women tend to engage in agricultural production on a scale that is not compatible with a large, corporate model of farming, holding smaller plots than men, which are, on average, 20-30% less productive than plots managed by men.

Agro-biotechnology is also a large part of the corporate model of agriculture, and it poses specific challenges for women.

Women generally lack necessary training in technology and experience "time poverty" that prevents them from accessing relevant education.

As a result, women are less likely to understand the negative impacts of technological developments and the effective and safe use of technology.

The report also found that globally, 20-30% of the 450 million wage agricultural workers are women, as are 30% of those employed in the fishing sector and this number is increasing.

Yet, women face difficulty in engaging in market behaviour when cultural norms make it socially unacceptable for women to interact with men.

"Disadvantages for women in both agricultural and non-agricultural sectors undermine their right to food," the report said.

Women's income possibilities are more constrained than men's; women's participation in the labour force is lower than men's on a global scale - 70% of working age men are in the labour force compared to only 40% of working age women and the labour force participation rates have stagnated around the world in the past two decades.

Women earn an average of 24% less than men, resulting in between a 31% and 75% lifetime reduction in income and they are also less likely to receive a pension.

A recent study in Nicaragua showed that if mothers contributed considerably to household income, the likelihood of moderate and severe food insecurity decreased by 34%, and, if mothers were the main decision-makers over household income, this decrease amounted to 60%.

The report further noted that climate change is one of the foremost contemporary threats to food security.

The agriculture sector is under substantial stress from climate change-induced increases in temperature, variability in rainfall and extreme weather events that trigger crop failures, pests and disease outbreaks, as well as the degradation of land and water resources.

"It is widely acknowledged that climate change impacts are not gender-neutral. As already marginalised individuals in virtually every society, women face discrimination and are subject to human rights abuses at a disproportionate rate, further accelerated by climate change."

The successful implementation of climate change policies and projects requires an understanding of the gender- based roles and relationships vis-a-vis natural resources, as well as the gender-differentiated impacts of climate change, said Ms Elver.

She cited research showing that in societies where men and women should be impacted indiscriminately in disasters, women and girls, as a result of gender-based inequalities, are up to 14 times more likely to die in the event of a disaster.

In rural areas, women and girls spend the majority of their time engaged in subsistence farming and in the collection of water and fuel.

As a result of flooding, droughts, fires and mud-slides, these tasks become more difficult. Water shortages and depletion of forests require women and girls to walk longer distances to collect water and wood.

In Senegal and Mozambique, women spend 17.5 and 15.3 hours respectively each week collecting water. In Nepal, girls spend an average of five hours per week on this task. In rural Africa and India, 30 percent of women's daily energy intake is spent in carrying water.

Decreased water resources may also cause women's health to suffer as a result of the increased work burden and reduced nutritional status.

For instance, in Peru, following the 1997-98 El Nino events, malnutrition among women was a major cause of peri-partum illness.

"A gendered approach to climate change adaptation and mitigation is necessary to combat the vulnerabilities women face because of existing social, economic and political inequalities," said the rights expert.

In order for adaptation and mitigation strategies to effectively take gender into account, they must provide women with the opportunity to be active members of the planning and implementation of such policies.

Helping women participate fully in the process of adaptation will require concerted effort by decision-makers to overcome the multiple barriers of control over resources, lack of access to information, and socio-cultural constraints.

"Local adaptation policies need to be designed by both women and men in order to build upon existing knowledge and grant women access to the rights, resources and opportunities necessary to surviving climate change in the years to come," Ms Elver underlined. +