Safeguarding women’s rights will boost food security

By Mary Wandia
Pambazuka News


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African women play a critical role in ensuring the food security of the continent, writes Mary Wandia in the run-up to the 2009 African Union Summit (24 June-3 July), which has its official theme ‘Investing in agriculture for economic growth and development’. Highlighting that women contribute 60-80 per cent of the labour used to produce food both for household consumption and for sale, Wandia writes that improved women’s ‘access, control and ownership of land and productive resources are key factors in eradicating hunger and rural poverty’.

Yet while land is ‘critical for improving women’s, social security, livelihoods and their social status’, culturally embedded discrimination continues to weaken their land rights and livelihood options, Wandia cautions. It is therefore essential, Wandia argues, for governments to ensure that women’s rights are comprehensively addressed in the AU ‘Africa land policy framework and guidelines’, scheduled for adoption at this year’s summit. –Eds

The importance of agriculture to economic development in Africa and the critical role that rural women play within this sector cannot be over emphasised, especially in smallholder subsistence agriculture, which is critical to ensuring the food security of the continent. About 73 per cent of the rural population consists of smallholder farmers (IFAD, 1993:6). In Sub-Saharan Africa, agriculture accounts for approximately 21 per cent of the continent’s GDP and women contribute 60-80 per cent of the labour used to produce food both for household consumption and for sale.[1] Estimates of women’s contribution to the production of food crops range from 30 per cent in the Sudan to 80 per cent in the Congo, while their proportion of the economically active labour force in agriculture ranges from 48 per cent in Burkina Faso to 73 per cent in the Congo and 80 per cent in the traditional sector in Sudan.[2]

It is widely acknowledged that improved women’s access, control and ownership of land/natural and productive resources, are key factors in eradicating hunger and rural poverty. This has been restated in the framework of international commitments.[3] Land is critical for improving women’s, social security, livelihoods and their social status. Women face discrimination under both customary and formal systems as a result of culturally embedded discriminatory beliefs and practices, male control of inheritance systems, and the spread of HIV/AIDS, which further weakens land rights and livelihood options of widows and orphans.[4]

Securing land rights for women would dramatically alter the insecurity, disempowerment and abuse that are associated with poverty and inequality, and would create new fronts for rolling back HIV and AIDS. Thus, ensuring that women’s rights are comprehensively addresses in the on-going Africa Land Policy Framework and Guidelines discussed below is very critical.

WOMEN’S RIGHTS CONCERNS

Structural adjustment and macro-economic stabilisation programmes have demanded reductions and/or the commercialisation of social services including health and education, leaving women to bear the burden of care. Agricultural liberalisation programmes, subsidy withdrawal and the closure of state marketing institutions have resulted in the collapse of smallholder livelihoods, forcing women to abandon food production for alternative livelihood strategies and, often, a hand-to-mouth existence.

Market-based land reform has repeated the mantra that investment – particularly foreign direct investment – is the means to financial growth. The experience of many communities who have leased out land to investors is that they lose the land as well as the common resources on it, for leases that might be for up to 50 years, with few overall benefits for the community. Women are not party to these negotiations and are not in a position to prevent land leases. Indigenous women’s land rights are constantly being undermined as a result of displacements and evictions, intrusion of other actors on their lands, and assimilationist policies. Dispossession of indigenous lands is frequently an extremely violent process, which has included crimes of rape, murder and torture of women as a means to subjugate indigenous populations.[5]

In Africa, rural women have less access to credit than rural men, which limits their ability to purchase seeds, fertilisers and other inputs needed to adopt new farming techniques. An FAO analysis of credit schemes in five African countries, where women predominate in food production (Kenya, Malawi, Sierra Leone, Zambia and Zimbabwe), found that women received less than 10 per cent of the credit directed at smallholders and just 1 per cent of the total credit directed to agriculture (Bullock, 1993, p.47). In addition, in all of the countries, rural populations generally have less access to credit than urban residents.[6]

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