March being Women’s Month, it behooves us to celebrate the efforts of the women who are actually and busily working on the ground to produce food for the world. They touch, dig and caress the earth to make it yield flower and fruit. They are a class all their own. They are the unsung heroines who have gone beyond rocking the cradle. They work from seeding time to harvest time, from the rising of the sun to its setting.
Fecundity becomes them. They are key to food security.
From the International Food Policy and Research Institute (IFPRI) comes the good news on the launching of the “groundbreaking index” to empower women to fight hunger. The “Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index” (WEAI) is a first. It is “the first measure to directly capture women’s empowerment and inclusion levels in the agricultural sector.”
The WEAI focuses on five areas: decisions over agricultural production, power over productive resources such as land and livestock, decisions over income, leadership in the community, and time use. Women who have adequate achievements in four of five areas would be considered “empowered.” The Index also takes into consideration the empowerment of the women as compared with the men in the same household.
The Index is being piloted in three countries—Bangladesh, Guatemala and Uganda—which have diverse socioeconomic and cultural contexts and will track the change in women’s empowerment that occurs as a direct result of the US’ Feed the Future initiative to address global hunger and food security. The Index will be used for performance monitoring and impact evaluations across Feed the Future focus countries.
The Philippines is not included in the Index. But a Philippine NGO was ahead in this department.
Some years ago Centro Saka Inc. (CSI) did a study of women in agriculture in the Philippines. CSI had observed then: “The exclusion of women food producers from official statistics and industry profiles means that they are likewise invisible in rural development processes.”
CSI published “Who are the Women in Agriculture?” by Maria Daryl L. Leyesa in its 2008 Rural Development Review. The CSI study answered the question, “How empowered are the women in agriculture?”
There are statistics and graphs galore, but the human side is revealed in the women’s answers to questions that are close to home. Among the interesting findings were about gender issues and the women’s aspirations—for the self, family, farm, community and nation.
“The women explained that the high rates of participation in decision-making could be attributed to the fact that often the task of deciding is being delegated to them by the men in the households. In the women’s words, ‘iniaatas ng aming asawa’ (it is being delegated to us by our husbands). And there are varying motivations on the women’s part to ‘accept’ the task and responsibility. One of the motivations identified was the stereotypical role of women as household financial managers. This role has often been equated with women’s empowerment in the household, but in the context of poverty and scarcity, such a role can be problematic rather than emancipatory.”
The CSI study explained that during times of scarcity, the highly male-dominated relations between men and women undergo changes. “These changes coincide with survival strategies often employed by the women that could result in a combination of women’s dependence on and autonomy from the men. Such autonomy, however, can be considered as mere small areas of freedom but not necessarily freedom from oppressive structures related to gender or class.”
The CSI study hoped to prompt government and development stakeholders “to review their mechanisms in involving women as individual players in agriculture and rural development.”
WEAI’s new survey findings should complement CSI’s. For example, having money or being educated does not guarantee that women are empowered. IFPRI senior research fellow Dr. Agnes Quisumbing said: “Identifying gaps in empowerment is especially useful for designing interventions that are appropriate in terms of context and culture.”
Already WEAI has some surprising findings: A sample from the Western Highlands of Guatemala showed that wealth is a poor indicator of empowerment—three quarters of women in the wealthiest two-thirds of the population are not yet empowered. The southern Bangladesh sample showed that more than half of the women are less empowered than the men with whom they share the same house, yet they are usually confident speaking public. A sample from rural parts of Uganda showed that lack of control over resources and time burdens contribute most to the disempowerment of women.
Last year, I wrote a magazine feature article about women food producers who were paired with celebrity chefs at Oxfam-Philippines’ “The Good Food Lunch.” The lunch was not just a culinary event, it was a mind-opener that stressed the importance of growing food the right way, in the right places and by the right people (the empowered women who farm). It was about food justice in a world with limits.
There are solutions to the grim food scenario, it was stressed. Women are a big part of the solution. If only more women are empowered—truly and decidedly. Life givers and nurturers, they rock the cradle and the world and are key to feeding a hungry planet.
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