Photo: The pandemic has exacerbated the global hunger crisis, but women can be key to fighting back if they are included in the response. In Ghana, so-called “market queens” play a prominent role in managing large markets, which is why they approached the government to come up with actionable solutions to keep markets open safely during the pandemic.
The pivotal role women have in agriculture and the food system is often invisible, which comes at a huge cost to society. A new report from the humanitarian agency Care International reveals how the global community is failing to solve the mounting hunger crisis by ignoring the role of women and girls — and why this important market force and consumer group is the key to solving hunger and securing a sustainable food system.
Care's study analyzed 73 global reports proposing solutions for the international hunger crisis from the most powerful actors in the food system, such as U.N. agencies, governments and research institutions. Nearly half of the reports don’t refer to women and girls at all. None of the reports consistently analyze or reflect the gendered effects of the pandemic and hunger crises. Only 5 reports — less than 7 percent — propose concrete actions to resolve the gender inequalities crippling food systems. The rest overlook or ignore women and girls.
“Fundamentally, it comes back to the challenge of gender inequality and the fact that women are not seen and recognized as key and critical players in food systems; they aren't seen as the leaders that they are," the report’s author, Tonya Rawe, director of global food and nutrition security advocacy at Care, told TriplePundit. "Because they’re not thought about, they're forgotten and left behind. And that is ultimately the issue that we're seeing in our analysis.”
The COVID-19 pandemic is exposing the existing flaws in food systems, many of which stem from gender inequalities and the unfair treatment of women and girls, Rawe said. Women and girls are the majority of food producers and food providers for their households, but their contributions are frequently unseen. Too often, women eat last and least. Further, women lack the access, information, and inputs they need to fight food insecurity and malnutrition.
This is happening against a backdrop of the ever-worsening global hunger crisis. As Care notes, at the start of 2020, 690 million people were undernourished or chronically hungry, and U.N. agencies estimate that figure could increase by over 130 million because of COVID-19. Severe food insecurity or a food crisis could nearly double to affect 270 million people by the end of this year.
Rising hunger and food shortages are also putting additional burdens on women, from mental health risks to gender-based violence. Whether intentionally or by omission, global responses to COVID-19 and related hunger crises are either ignoring women and girls or treating them as victims who have no role in addressing the problems they face.
Rawe cites a number of examples featured in the report. Prior to the warehouse explosion in Beirut that recently destroyed half the city, 85 percent of women Care surveyed in Lebanon were already eating smaller portions, compared to only 75 percent of men. Rawe expects that the latest tragedy has only amplified this illustration of women eating last and least.
In Mali, curfews related to the COVID-19 pandemic restrict the times women work in the fields, but not the hours men work, so women disproportionately struggle with food production. In northeastern Nigeria, women have lost access to the cash-for-work programs that allowed them to buy seeds and grow crops. In Vietnam, women are struggling to buy protein and vegetables to make a balanced diet. In Morocco, women cannot even register for COVID-19 safety net programs unless they are widowed.
For governments, NGOs and the private sector — anyone with a vested interest in a productive and resilient food and agricultural system — this growing global hunger crisis should be a wake-up call, Rawe said. “Women are half the population and play a major role in food systems," she told us. "Unfortunately, our analysis confirmed what we had initially started seeing in our work — that women are really not part of the discussion to solve the hunger crisis.”
Women represent 46 percent of agricultural labor in the developing world, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Yet much of this work is done without training, key farming inputs, secure land rights, and often little or no pay. This lack of equal access to resources and information means that women produce 20 to 30 percent less than men do on the same amount of land, according to Care.
In the context of the pandemic, these barriers can play out with severe impacts on hunger. Women in Mali who can’t get to their fields because of a curfew struggle to feed their families. Access to government safety net programs in Morocco, or even in wealthier countries like the U.S., can “ensure a family doesn’t fall further when it hits a spot of trouble,” Rawe points out.
Care found evidence, however, that women leaders at all levels are finding solutions: from planting crops during curfew, to keeping markets open, to supporting the poorest people in their communities.
In Ghana, so-called “market queens,” who in large part manage very prominent markets in towns, have taken the initiative to approach the government to ensure they and other vendors can still continue to work safely during the pandemic, both to secure income and feed their families. They worked out a system of rotating vendors to have fewer in the market at any one time, for example, and expanded the physical space for the market so that vendors could be more spread out. The market queens, due to their stature, could enforce these rules.
“This is a great example of women playing a critical role,” Rawe explained. “If they’re engaged, they’re able to bring fantastic ideas to the table and help find solutions that work for both sides.”
In its report, Care recommended that governments immediately adopt a gender-responsive approach to the food supply system and solving hunger and increase their investments focused on women and girls in agriculture.
A gender lens is something the private sector should be invested in, too, Rawe added: “Ending hunger and malnutrition is in everyone's interest, and it is going to require all hands on deck. Every sector needs to be stepping up for this challenge. Whether they're producing food or providing it for their households or consuming it, women are a powerful market force.”
As 3p has reported, companies like PepsiCo and Cargill are working together with Care, investing millions of dollars to tackle the issue of gender inequality in agriculture, providing resources and training to women farmers and their families. These firms, and others in the food and agriculture industry, have a vested interest in women being able to improve their productivity to feed a growing world, Rawe noted.
“We had gender inequalities in food systems before COVID, “ she added. “If we aren’t taking the opportunity to address it now, then afterward we’re still going to be in the same place we’ve been for too long.”
Image credits: Care International
Based in southwest Florida, Amy has written about sustainability and the Triple Bottom Line for over 20 years, specializing in sustainability reporting, policy papers and research reports for multinational clients in pharmaceuticals, consumer goods, ICT, tourism and other sectors. She also writes for Ethical Corporation and is a contributor to Creating a Culture of Integrity: Business Ethics for the 21st Century. Connect with Amy on LinkedIn.
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