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  • Women's work has always been devalued in our societies, yet they are responsible for at least half of the food production, and yet suffer more from malnutrition than men. (Photo: OIT)

    Women's work has always been devalued in our societies, yet they are responsible for at least half of the food production, and yet suffer more from malnutrition than men. (Photo: OIT) | Photo: OIT

Published 15 October 2014

“In Latin America, 40 percent of rural women over 15 years old do not have their own income, and half of female rural workers live under the poverty line.”

From its regional headquarters in Chile, the United Nations Organization for Food and Agriculture (FAO) warned that Latin American women are suffering more than their male counterparts from poverty and malnutrition, especially because of cultural prejudices, this Wednesday - International Day of the Rural Woman,

At a global level, rural women are key to ensuring food security in their region, and responsible for half of the world's food production. According to the organization, 58 million women are living in rural areas, including 4.5 million working as agricultural producers.

Yet they represent the majority of the poor population in the world, deplored the FAO.

Raul Benitez, its representative in Latin America, explained that although poverty in general had decreased over the last decades in the region, in the same period the proportion of poor women had increased.

“In Latin America, 40 percent of rural women over 15 years old do have their own income, and half of female rural workers live under the poverty line,” deplored Benitez.

These socio-economic inequalities are detrimental to food security, and delay economic and agricultural growth, he added.

According to the FAO report, if female rural workers enjoyed the same conditions as their male counterparts, 150 more million people could be fed in the world.

In this sense, the FAO representative highlighted the crucial importance of its “gendered policy” - a policy that takes into account the differences and inequalities between males and females. It encourages governments in Latin America to introduce gender equity in their programs, emphasize the role of women, especially in rural areas, and promote the idea that equality between men and women means progress for every one.

“In order to reverse this pattern, we must change the archaic and deeply rooted ideas about the role of men and women that keep women from participating fully in the decision making processes and in socio-economic development,” he explained.

On the same day, the general secretary of the UN, Ban Ki Moon, also released a message emphasizing the role of rural women in the world. “They live at the first line of poverty, natural disasters and other threats,” he recalled. He stressed the importance of empowering them, giving an equal access to resources and opportunities, so they can develop their full capacities, especially in food production, which would benefit to every one.

Unequal Access to Food and Gender Studies

The UN is only recently focusing on gender issues; for instance its General Assembly declared October 15 the International Day of Rural Women in 2007.

However gender studies in various fields of social sciences have been documenting the causes and effects of these inequalities between men and women for a relatively long time.

For example, many academics have unveiled in detail the impact of these “archaic and deeply rooted ideas” mentioned by Benitez, which contribute to perpetuating these inequalities in societies.

Anthropologists especially, have documented the cultural features underlying the unequal access to food in many societies of the world, for example Sandy Harcourt (University of California), quoted in a documentary for the German-French TV channel Arte, “In Siberia, after the killing of a reindeer, the wife presents the food to her husband. She gnaws the bones. If you are a woman, you eat the crumbles. In Uganda, when the family sits down to eat, men are always served the first. By the time little girls get a chance to eat, nothing is left. In Morocco, men eat before women and children. Women learn to refuse meat. In India: during the meal, the woman serves food to her husband, then to the children, boys before girls. It is frequent to see homes with vegetarian women, but not men. In Auvergne [one of the poorest and rural regions in France], women did not sit down at the table. They spent their time from the kitchen to the table, in order to serve the patriarch. They would eat whatever was left. If there was a chicken, they would eat the carcass, if there was rabbit, they would eat the head.”

As French anthropologist Francoise Heritier (College de France) demonstrated, women are themselves conditioned by women into thinking in this prejudicial way – girls are conditioned by their mothers. During her fieldwork in Burkina-Faso, for instance, mothers explained to the anthropologist that the reason they would give food immediately to their boys was because their body would “explode” otherwise; however, they provided a social and psychological reason to explain why they would let the girls cry and wait before giving them food, “As girls will be frustrated their whole life, better that she learns now,” therefore conditioning men to obtain immediately what they want, and girls not to expect anything.

Unlike other animal species, in this way, humans perpetuate such inequalities by themselves. Both men and women may perpetuate inequalities unconsciously, because they have internalized these social rules since their childhood.  

In this sense, the anthropologist Priscille Touraille (University Paris Diderot) spoke about a “social organization of shortages” at the expense of women, perpetuated through the generations because of cultural prejudices. Surprisingly, however, “natural selection” in biology would favor access to food for women more than men, as some women need much more energy for pregnancy and lactation, while men stop needing calcium and iron (especially present in meat) after puberty. For this reason, the biggest mammal in the world is... female whales.

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