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Roots of Justice, Green Shoots of Hope

5 March 2012 One Comment

Salwa Altayeb. Photo credit: Nadra Mahdi

-By Mary Liepold
Editor In Chief

The priority theme for this year’s UN Commission on the Status of Women is the empowerment of rural women and their role in poverty and hunger eradication. Nothing is more basic than food, and hunger is a women’s issue for some basic reasons.

  • Women grow the largest share of the world’s food and own only a tiny fraction of the land where it is grown. (Across Africa, it’s 1%, according to a 2007 World Bank report.)
  • The total value of women’s unpaid work―much of it in small-scale agriculture―adds one-third to the world’s gross national product.
  • And on this hungry planet, those rural women who grow our food are the ones most likely to be hungry.
  • Their children are hungry too, though mothers everywhere go without to feed their families. In developing nations, child malnutrition is twice as common in rural areas as in urban areas.

Those last statements seem paradoxical to me as a middle class American, raised on images of apple-cheeked farm families in the brimming breadbasket of my rich country. In fact, though, even in the US today, farm families are struggling. In many other places the situation is more dire. The prices consumers pay for staples are steadily rising with no commensurate gain to the ones who grow it.

Globalized agribusiness is partly to blame: Food Inc., in the title of the 2008 US documentary. Climate change is another factor. Cultures that devalue women play a big role too. That’s why the most effective solutions are gender-sensitive. But according to the Secretary-General’s report prepared for CSW56, of the USD 7.5 billion that the international community contributed to assist rural development and the agricultural sector in 2008–2009, only 3% was allocated to programs where gender equality was the main objective. Sandra Akpéne Freitas, a delegate representing the Women’s Environment and Development Organisation (WEDO) at the 2010 UN climate change negotiations in Bonn, Germany, deplored what she called “the incomprehensible absence of women in global environment policy.”

In solving the food crisis, as in kicking the war habit, women’s role is essential not only because we’re the ones most affected by the problem but also because we hold a big piece of the solution. According to that same Secretary-General’s report, based on a September 2011 Expert Group meeting in Accra, Ghana, “Rural women hold much of the knowledge needed to increase food security, prevent environmental degradation and maintain agricultural biodiversity. They are custodians and users of traditional knowledge, including on climate resilience, and managers of seeds, and often rely on native plants, including medicinal plants, and native food varieties and practices for their sustenance, health and well-being.”

Overworked, Isolated, and Dispossessed

Unfortunately, that knowledge is honored more in UN documents than in the daily lives of rural women. Many do the same back-breaking work as men while also preparing family meals, preserving food, cleaning and maintaining the home, and caring for children, elders, and the sick.

If her husband is abusive, a rural woman may have less recourse to help and information than her city sister. Media are less likely to penetrate rural regions, whether they’re without electricity, beyond the reach of a radio frequency, or just lacking high speed internet. The nearest neighbor may be 50 miles away. Conversely, in a village or small town, the professionals or authorities she could turn to for help may be neighbors, people she sees in the market, or even relatives, so shame and family honor become barriers. If her family has deep roots in the community, leaving her home would mean leaving her identity in a way that isn’t true for more mobile citizens.

If she’s widowed or abandoned she may be turned out, losing all claim to the land she helped to improve. The in-laws and uncles who cheat widows of their land are responding to more than cultural pressure. Hectares of arable land per capita are declining everywhere in the world. Between 1975 and 2005, India lost 45% of its total and the US 25%. Africa, where per capita grain production dropped 25% in 20 recent years, has the world’s highest rate of urbanization, according to the UN Environmental Program (UNEP).

Change for the Better

International assistance, wise government policies, and citizen activism are improving conditions for rural women in some parts of the world. Malawi, which ranks 171 of 187 countries on the 2011 Human Development Index, cut child mortality in half between 1990 and 2009, putting it on track to achieve at least one of the Millennium Development Goals.

The UN Secretary-General’s report says that putting women into leadership positions in Tajikistan increased women’s registrations of dekhan (collective) farms from 2 to 14 per cent between 2002 and 2008.

And ecofeminism is gaining ground among Arab and Muslim women in the Middle East. Poverty and hunger are not widespread concerns in Saudi Arabia, though most foodstuffs are imported. Water IS a concern, though. The Global Institute for Water, Environment, and Health gave its 20111 Scientific Creativity Award to Her Highness Princess Prof. Mashaèl Bint Mohammed Al-Saud, a professor of geography at Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah City of Science and technology, for her pioneering research on landforms and water.

Masoumeh Ebtekar, who directs the Peace and Environment Center in Tehran, was Iran’s Vice President and the head of its Environmental Protection Agency from 1997 until 2005. In 2006 the UNEP named her a Champion of the Earth.

Norah Magraby with Mona Othman, Muna Alamer, Elham Uthman, Reem Oudah, Amal Aljuhani, Wafaa Aljuhani and Shaima’a Alhajj

Karin Kloosterman’s upbeat blog The Green Prophet tracks “clean tech” and environmental activity in the Middle East. Norah Magraby, featured in one Green Prophet interview, founded an environmental initiative in Saudi Arabia with two woman friends “because it is an Islamic duty.” They focus primarily on educating young people about the threat from water shortages, pollution, and over-consumption, but they also work with organizations and companies to help them adopt recycling and other green practices.

Another Green Prophet post tells what happened when Bedouin women in Jordan learned how to generate power and light. Barefoot College, which originated in India in 1972, provides women selected by their communities in Asia, Africa, and Latin America with six months of hands-on training, after which they go home as Solar Engineers, Water Engineers, Doctors, Social Entrepreneurs, or perhaps Communicators, prepared to educate children and adults about clean water, the caste system, the rights of women and children, and economic justice. Women who may have been powerless and illiterate before the program become heroes to their communities, irreversibly raising the status of other women and girls. The program and its founder, a disciple of Gandhi named Bunker Roy, have changed countless lives and received numerous international awards.

Though Barefoot College has begun training men, it gives women first priority. Men expect too much, Roy explained in one online interview. “They are restless. If they’re young, they’re impatient. The first thing they ask even before the training starts is, do I get a certificate? They will use that certificate to get the worst job possible in a city, whereas if we take middle-aged grandmothers to be trained I don’t have that problem of migration.”

For better and for worse, we’re all earth women, with roots in our native soil. Later this week we’ll profile two who are bringing forth shoots of hope.

 Also in the March PeaceTimes

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About the Author

Mary Liepold is the Editor-in-Chief at Peace X Peace. To reach Dr. Liepold, email
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One Comments to “Roots of Justice, Green Shoots of Hope”
  1. [...] Women put in the most work and reap the least benefits in agriculture. Women grow the largest share of the world’s food, but very few women (1% in Africa) own the land they farm on. Sadly, rural women who grow food are actually the most likely to be hungry, and their families have higher rates of child nutrition compared to families in urban areas (Source). [...]

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