Tuesday, 6 August 2013

For food security to work, women and men in Africa need more open and flexible policies, not stereotypes

Siera Vercillo, Institute of Development Studies
Future Agricultures Gender and Social Difference theme

Interest in linking smallholder crop production, food security and nutrition in sub-Saharan Africa has surged recently, along with renewed calls to place women at the center of agriculture and food security policies. But who are these women? Are they likely to fulfil these (unreasonable?) expectations, and under what circumstances?

At the same time, there have been parallel – if not conflicting - calls for women to engage in ‘new’, often regional and even global markets, or at least to commercialise their farm production. But longstanding, well-documented concerns about women’s workloads, their comparatively poor asset base, and gender bias across a range of institutions and organisations are yet to be addressed.

To address these problems, it is useful to separate out the day-to-day provision of food for the table (for which women are in large part responsible in many cultures) from other aspects of food security.

It is within the context of food production for own consumption rather than for sale, frequently referred to as ‘subsistence production’, that the link between women and food security (including nutrition) is probably most often made, and used to place women centrally within programmes.

According to this discourse, women prefer to protect their own subsistence production rather than seek attractive alternatives that could help them ‘move up and out’ and contribute to food security in various ways.

'Add women and stir'?

FAO’s Food Security Framework (see Table 1) permits this separation between day-to-day food provision and other goals. The Framework is divided into four inter-related but separate dimensions of food ‘availability’, ‘access’, ‘utilization’ and ‘stability’ - each of which can be linked to policy priorities. It also highlights the fact that achieving food security requires more than just to ‘add women and stir’. Rather, it requires a wide range of policy actors - state, commercial, and non-commercial - to move beyond simply thinking about food production.

Table 1: Gender analysis of the FAO, 2006 Food Security Framework
Food availability
Definition: Sufficient quantities of food of appropriate quality available nationally through home production or imports, and at domestic/ household level through own production or purchase.
Comment: Enabling women to access productive capacities (land, technical and other inputs, and markets) so that they are not disadvantaged in food production, and can commercialise/ intensify their production, is logical but has not occurred. Enabling their alternative earning capacity – possibly engaging in work outside the household is a practical and potentially transformative strategy since it involves a renegotiation of roles and a re-evaluation of women’s work.
Food Access
Definition: Individuals and groups having adequate claims to tangible and intangible assets (such as social relations and human capital) for acquiring appropriate foods for a nutritious diet.
Comment: The ability to make claims over food allocations within households and states (e.g. social protection programmes) is critical for food access and depends substantially on accepted notions of rights to make claims. This requires examining gendered dynamics, power dimensions and control both within and outside the household or domestic domain.
Food utilization
Definition: The means by which individuals reach a state of nutritional well being where all physiological needs (clean water, sanitation, health care) are met.
Comment: This broader dimension of food security implies the engagement of a wide range of actors working towards greater overall equity in the distribution of benefits required for meeting all physiological needs i.e. creating the environment which enables women to ‘grow’.
Stable food supplies
Definition: Access to food at all times without loss of assets to sudden shocks.
Comment: Over the long term, stable supplies depend on the ability of individuals and groups to build assets. However, strategies designed to meet present consumption patterns leave no room for growth.

Most crucially, action on any of these dimensions must be transformative for women. It must focus on creating or supporting institutions that allow women and men jointly or separately to work towards food security in different ways. Rather than conflating social, but especially gender, relations in a view of women as victims and men as aggressors, we need a paradigm which acknowledges the often complex social inter-dependencies and negotiations that are actually involved in feeding households and communities.

Within such a paradigm, transformative policies would be those that seek to change the scope and value of women’s work - offering a wide range of opportunities for women and men as active agents able to negotiate for change in their lives. This would also avoid embedding women further in stereotypical, often disempowering roles, in the hope and expectation that they will meet the international development community’s own interests.

Flexible roles

Women and men engage in the agricultural sector in flexible ways, as illustrated by ethnographic studies from sub-Saharan Africa (see Table 2).

For example, women frequently play significant roles in food processing and marketing, and/or engage in commercial production when the opportunity arises. Men play various roles in providing for the food security of households. And, while there are likely to be some gendered commonalities in the ways that women and men contribute to food security, these are not fixed.

Table 2: Challenging gender narratives through learning from ethnology
Reliance on women’s labour Calls on women’s labour are not open-ended, and observed sex differences are underpinned by a set of norms and complex negotiations and bargaining between the women and men involved. These processes relate to local norms about the legitimacy of the calls that depends on the context within which labour is provided. Under certain circumstances both women and men will demand legitimate payment for labour provided (Guyer 1995)
Diversifying livelihoods and family farms Investment in agricultural livelihoods is more complex than the ‘family farm for food model’ suggests. What is being grown as food for consumption, and for sale, and by whom, where, involves diverse responsibilities and a range of decision makers (Whitehead 2002)
Relying on the community Individuals may rely on spouses, offspring, grandparents and other kin and non kin for support when they are under pressure to secure food (Guyer 1995)
Women's agency to access landThe implications of land being owned by ‘foreigners’ arouse accusations of land ‘grabbing’, yet we are willing to engage in a process of disinheriting rural communities in the name of women’s rights (Berry 1993)

We argue that knowing more about how these roles are constantly negotiated and re-negotiated is essential for arriving at the socially transformative policies that are a necessary part of ‘providing sufficient quantities of nutritious foods at all times for everyone’, rather than an elective add-on.

We are not arguing that pushing for increased production at a time of massive food insecurity should be dismissed. But simply adding women to existing policies is both impractical and unjust.
Instead, it is time to open up the way we think about food security. This means creating policies that provide a framework within which women and men can choose to meet their needs and responsibilities from a wide range of different possible options.


 Berry, S. (1993) No Condition is Permanent: The Social Dynamics of Agrarian Change in Sub-Saharan Africa. University of Wisconsin Press.

Guyer, J. 1995. ‘Women’s Farming and Present Ethnography. Perspectives on a Nigerian Restudy’. In Bryceson, D. F. (1995) Women Wielding the Hoe: Lessons from Rural Africa for Feminist Theory and Development Practice. Oxford: Berg Publishers: 25-46.

FAO. (2006) “Food Security” FAO Policy Brief, Issue 2. Rome, FAO.

Whitehead, A. (2002) ‘Tracking Livelihood Change: Theoretical, Methodological and Empirical Perspectives from North-East Ghana’, Journal of Southern African Studies. 28, (3):576-598.

This post first appeared on the Future Agricultures blog.