Author: Leonida Odongo
Today is International Rural Women’s Day, it is a day celebrated every on 15th of October. The theme for 2022 is “Rural Women, key for a world free from hunger and poverty”. Rural women are the cog when it comes to food production. The bulk of the food eaten in Africa is produced in the rural areas. Agriculture is considered the backbone of most African countries. In the entire food production chain, you will often find women, from tilling the land, seed saving, processing but sadly when it comes to final products they are often excluded from decision making.
Rural women suffer from various forms of violence; this contributes to interfering with food production. Economic violence makes women to be denied access to land and in some communities’ women till the land, but the sale of farm produce is controlled by men.The skyrocketing prices of food, climate crisis, negative of COVID-19 continue to impact on women, more so rural women. According to Oxfam, since 2021, due to climate change, the rains have become more erratic, and this is in a midst of conflicts, COVID-19 and locust plague.With the climate crisis, harvests have failed, livestock are also losing their lives, camels which are among the hardiest animals are dying of hunger. To make the situation dire, conflicts are happening in various communities across the continent. For communities affected by flooding, families are yet to recover from the damaging impacts of flooding.
Extreme weather events are compounding a dire situation. For example, women are the majority of food producers. With the biting drought, they can no longer be productively engaged in agriculture because of dependence on rainfall agriculture. Climate induced extreme wither events is also resulting into pests, for example desert locust which resulted in farmers counting them loses in millions. Oxfam further notes that over 44 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance in Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya and South Sudan and over 30 million people are facing severe levels of hunger. If you interrogate further, you will find that of the persons facing hunger, most are women and children. The prices of food have skyrocketed. The war in Ukraine has negatively impacted on global food systems and energy prices. As noted by Relief web, the reduced agricultural production as well as blockades in the Black Sea Region and trade restrictions affected the flow of essential grains, reduced availability of staple food leading to rising costs. For example as of May 2022, the price of wheat rose by 48.6 percent , whereas wheat rose maize rose by 9.3 % Reduced agricultural production and blockades in the Black Sea Region coupled with trade restriction policies affecting flows of essential goods such as grains and sunflower-seed oil, led to a reduced availability of staples and a sharp increase in global grain prices in May 2022 of 48.6 percent for wheat, 28.7 percent for maize and 9.3 percent for rice in 2022 , compared to before the war broke out in Ukraine. Furthermore, the prices of vegetable oil tripled. Many African countries depend on imports for their food.
As of October 2022, which is coincidentally when the International Rural Women’s Day and the World Food Day are celebrated, there is no cause for celebration in Africa at large and in East Africa is particular where 82 million people are acutely food insecure.Rural based women across Africa continue to suffer from various constraints that inhibit rural from producing food include lack of credit, lack of training, lack of updated information as well as lack overwork. Rural women also get exposed to agrochemicals, most of which they apply without protective gear. For agriculture to thrive it needs money. Many women cannot effectively produce food because of lack of finances, they can hardly develop their land. Many women also lack collateral and hence cannot take loans for farming. Being a farmer and depending on rain-fed agriculture is also an everyday risk faced by women. When crops die because of prolonged drought as is the current situation in countries such as Kenya and the Horn of Africa region, women are the ones expected to avail food in the household.
Women overwork, they undertaken both productive and reproductive roils within the household. A conversation with community members on how much work is done among men and women in a 24-hour clock, more often you find that women’s work tends to be more but is hardly recognised nor economically quantified. In a rural household, it is women who cook, prepare the land, take children to school and still come and do milking and prepare food. Rural women often sleep last and are always the ones to wake up the earliest. Rural women also lack agricultural extension service, as such this makes them vulnerable to wrong narratives. For example, agro-chemical companies easily dupe women to continue using synthetic chemicals on their farms without telling them the likely negative impacts of these additives on soil health, water and food.
When it comes to decision making, be it at the household, at the local community or in budgetary allocation processes on agriculture within a devolved system of government such as the case of Kenya, women’s voices are muted. Public meetings locally known as baraza never favour women, whenever these meetings are held, women are always busy at home and hence unable to attend, within the household, rural women and by extension urban based women are often relegated to the kitchen. On land rights, the main factor of production, women’s presence if deliberately excluded. Land is often in the name of male relatives, women have to seek permission to use land and plant food. Upon widowhood, rural women get evicted from their land, losing the ability to produce food, their next option becomes informal settlements in the city. And sometimes the land they are deprived off is sold to the next willing buyer.
Rural based women in Africa today are facing the twin challenges of climate and food crises. As providers of food , women have to travel longer distances in search of water. With climate change , rural women are subjected to more labour as they spend more time looking for scarce resources .Climate change also exacerbates household gender based violence for women. When women take long to the river or have to queue for long because there is less water, when they come home they have to explain why they are late , and this brings about beatings and other forms of violence. Conversations with women from the Maasai community in the Mara shared that when a woman comes home after 6pm, she gets beaten whereas when a man comes back home late, no questions are asked. When queried whether they find this as wrong, the response this is part of our culture and we have accepted it.
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’s restricted access to and control over key natural and productive resources undermine their rights and economic capacity, affecting the efficiency of the agricultural sector and limiting economic growth overall, failing to tap into women’s enormous productive potential.
There is intersectionality between food and other injustices not only in Africa but across the world. Lack of food pushes parents to marrying off their children in the hope that they will get a better life. UNICEF notes that in regions such as Ethiopia, child marriage is on the rise due to drought. No mother wants to see her child hungry, however, this is the reality across the Horn of Africa where families don’t have any remaining options as they battle to survive drought, water scarcity and skyrocketing food prices. Famine Early Warning Network goes to further note that 1.8 million children are in need of treatment due to life threatening severe cases of acute malnutrition.
Rural women will continue to suffer so long as they are excluded from controlling land. The main belief is that women cannot be trusted to handle property, furthermore, conversations with men during communal land dialogues organised by Kenyan Peasant League confirms that eviction from matrimonial homes and the inherent denial of property rights continues to impoverish women not only in rural areas but also in urban areas where they seek refuge in informal settlements after losing their land to relatives in the villages. Many constitutions all over Africa speak of equality, but when it comes to matters property, this equality is never realised. Cultural practices give more power to males, forcing women to accept to live in poverty. There is also the assumption that women will get married and get land in the husband’s family. But this is not always the case as women are often treated as foreigner in both their father’s homes and their matrimonial homes. During land related community dialogues, women also reveal that although married for many years and even having grown up children, majority have never seen the title deed to the land on which they farm. This puts women and their children at a very precarious position in terms of potential disinheritance especially in cases where women are not empowered on their rights or where husbands die intestate.
The lack of farm inputs essential in food production such as seeds is also a problem, the dominant narrative that indigenous seeds are ‘archaic, non-productive ‘has greatly contributed to this. In Africa, women are the nurturers of seeds, they ensure continuity of life. This age old activity undertaken by African women is being threatened by disappearing seed varieties. It is impossible to produce food when you don’t have seeds. To continue the cultural relevance of food in Africa, to ensure loyalty to the taste of food as we know it in Africa, indigenous seeds need to be available in every rural household. This ensures biodiversity and nutritional sufficiency. Another reality which in rural areas which has direct impact on household food insecurity is he disappearing of granaries. With the so called shift to modernity, granaries are becoming a thing of the past. However, there is a direct relationship between the existence of a granary and the availability of food in a household. With the erosion and disappearance of granaries, agrovets are becoming seeds stores for farmers. There is need for campaigns in villages far and wide in the African continent to bring back granaries and indigenous seeds. This ways families will be assured of nutritional value and diversity in what they eat.
Access to credit should be availed to rural women to enable them produce food undisrupted. This calls for solidarity funding and solidarity marketing where consumers and producers are more connected, producers are assured of markets for their products and consumers know where their food comes from. The onset of COVID-19 confirmed to us that the best markets are those found within your borders, the hard questions on the International Rural Women Day and by extension World Food Day is what have African governments learnt with regards to food production from COVID-19 , what lessons are they taking forward or will it be business as usual ?.It is quite sad to imagine that many years ago, most African countries could produce their own food but have now become net importers of food, with the 1980s being the turning point.
To address the multiple forms of oppression that rural women encounter on daily basis, it is important to create platforms for rural women to make decisions, be able to question existing food chains and to have meaningful participation in budgetary processes specifically on food and related expenditures. Food is political because it involves decision making about who gets what and when, it involves people’s lives and livelihoods, for the current and future generations. The absence of women in policy spaces relating to food is an apparent contradiction because women are the majority of food producers and agricultural workers as well as household nutritionists, they have the responsibility of ensuring balanced diets and at the same time availability of sustainable sources of food.
It is also important to deliberately create consciousness among women to challenge patriarchal norms that inhibit control of land and other factors of production. In Africa, rural areas are the reservoirs of food, close off any African rural community and cities will die of hunger. In order to address rural women’s poverty and stay true to the 2022 theme of International Rural Women Day, it is important to ensure rural women have the requisite support in terms of skills, knowledge, access to credit as well as storage facilities. Rural women also need skills in marketing, storage equipment and skills in increasing the shelf life of farm produce. There also need to harness efforts towards addressing the care work imbalance in households, which leaves women with the double burden of care roles and productive work on the farm. Unpaid care work should be an everyday conversation, there is need for valuation of women’s contribution in the household and redistribution of household chores and incomes. This can only be realised by organising conscious raising sessions that bring both men and women together for reflections and continuous advocacy targeting men. Spaces need to be created for community dialogues on women rights, community leaders need to be made aware of how women suffer because of discrimination, to bring up a more equal society, young people need to be made aware that patriarchy hurts both men and women. Transforming discrimination meted on women needs to start at household level, with schooling that no gender is more superior.
For 2022, however, we cannot say we are celebrating the International Rural Women’s Day when these same women continue to suffer from hunger and the adverse effects of climate crisis, hopefully we learn from these crises and emerge stronger, years to come.