Reclaiming Rights on International Women's Day Centennial

The year 2011 started with the news of food price hikes around the world pushing even more people, especially women, into hunger. But then along came images of women in Egypt in the forefront of a revolution to get rid of a government that has been in power for over 30 years! Victories such as the ones in Egypt are occasions for celebrating the strength and resilience of women even under the most oppressed circumstances, and their ability to defy prevalent stereotypes.

So, what will 2011, the 100th anniversary of International Women's Day, bring for women?[1]

In the initial years, tragic events such as the "Triangle Fire" of 1911 (which killed more than 140 working women in New York City) became a focus of International Women's Day. Since its beginnings in Europe, International Women's Day has grown to become a day of recognition and celebration across the world. Drawing attention to the abject working conditions women faced, and to issues such as land rights and food security, domestic violence and trafficking in women, and at the same time expressing solidarity with sisters across cultures and regions, IWD has grown in strength and visibility.

Yet on this 100th anniversary, what is foremost in my mind are the continuing challenges that women and girls face. In least-developed countries, nearly twice as many women over age 15 are illiterate compared to men.[2] Girls account for two-thirds of children denied primary education, and 75 percent of the world's 876 million illiterate adults are women.[3] And women and girls make up over 70 percent of the 1.3 billion people living on less than a dollar a day. They form the majority of the water poor and food insecure. Given that 75 percent of the poor live in rural areas, and that there is a gender dimension to rural-to-urban migration, it is safe to say that most of these women, living on less than a dollar a day, are in rural areas. It is their responsibility to eke out a living from their surrounding environment for themselves and any other family members dependent on them.

A little over 10 years ago it was estimated that "women work two-thirds of the world's working hours, produce half of the world's food, and yet earn only 10 percent of the world's income and own less than 1 percent of the world's property."[4] I have not been able to find a comparable figure for women's involvement in food production systems in this decade, even though the trends in seasonal and annual male migrations away from rural areas likely have increased women's share of work in food production.

Women are likely to be especially hard hit this year by the hike in agricultural prices. The U.N.'s food-price index rose 34 percent from a year earlier.[5] The price of onions increased by more than 60 percent in some South Asian markets, while that of tomatoes doubled in Middle East. According to World Bank estimates, 44 million people have been rendered food insecure by the recent rise in food prices. Even though we do not have a gender breakdown for these numbers, it would seem fair to assume that at least 70 percent of these 44 million are women and girls.

But there are also reasons for hope. In several climate-challenged communities in Asia and Africa, women have taken a lead of developing climate-resilient food systems. Examples include that of women farmers of Mkuranga District [40 km south of Dar es Salaam] who came together under the umbrella organization, Muungano, to grow organic vegetables and process them for income and food security.[6] Similarly dalit women farmers, of Zaheearabad in India, practice dry-land agriculture in an attempt to adapt to climate change. By following a system of interspersing crops that do not need extra water, chemical inputs or pesticides for production, and by selectively applying farmyard manure once in two or three years depending on soil conditions, the women have been able to meet their food security and improve their livelihood options.[7]

Gender-based differences are evident in developed countries too. In the United States, the highest poverty rate is for rural female-headed households (37.1 percent), followed by female-headed households in other parts (27.1 percent); for single-male headed households these numbers were much lower (16.6 percent for rural and 12.3 percent for urban).[8] Thus in the United States too, food price volatility will be experienced most acutely by members of female-headed households.

However unlike in Africa and parts of Asia, here in the United States, agriculture is a male- (and machine-) dominated activity. In the few cases where women are principal operators, the farms tend to be smaller and tend to grow niche or specialty products.[9] The move towards, smaller, organic and local farms have seen an increasing number of women entering agricultural sector. But for many of them it is not viable as a primary profession yet. Even as we celebrate these efforts of women's entrepreneurship, we must also make sure that these tasks do not remain as unacknowledged and underpaid as they have in the past!

Like their counterparts in developing countries, women in most developed countries bear a disproportionate burden of child rearing in a family. For poorer women, belonging to marginalized communities, this implies the additional burden of ensuring food security for family members, even as they lack access to resources or control over means of production. Thus both in developed and developing countries women are facing increased challenges in feeding their families.

There are also promising calls for international policy initiatives. For example, releasing its 2010-11 edition of The State of Food and Agriculture report the FAO said yesterday: "If women in rural areas had the same access to land, technology, financial services, education and markets as men, agricultural production could be increased and the number of hungry people reduced by 100-150 million."

This new focus on women in agriculture can cut both ways: more women in food production can ensure more food for families; but unless care is taken, women can end up being yet another instrument to achieve narrow development goals. It is necessary that this new focus is as much about achieving food security, and building a climate-resilient food system, as about the empowerment of women and their meaningful participation in decisions that affect their lives. Only such an approach can address the obstacles that block women from claiming their economic, cultural and social rights.

The centennial year, 2011, is an opportunity to recognize women's role in advancing alternate food systems that are both just and resilient around the world. It is also an opportunity to stand in solidarity with women and girls across cultures and nations that continue to face tremendous challenges in realizing their social, economic and political rights as individual women, as mothers and daughters, and as community members.

[1] A hundred years ago, in 1911, the first International Women's Day (IWD) was organized on March 19. Following discussions in 1913, International Women's Day was transferred to March 8 and since then has remained the global date for IWD.

[4] World Development Indicators, 1997, Womankind Worldwide.

[5] Rudy Ruitenberg, World Food Prices Climb to Record as UN Sounds Alarm on Further Shortages, March 3, 2011, Bloomberg.


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