Gender Justice and Food Security
Source: Flickr, World Bank

Multiple studies have shown that a strong relationship exists between gender inequality and food insecurity.  Historically, however, the discourses around food security and nutrition in India have not incorporated or been framed around gender issues.

A recent IFPRI discussion paper provides a review of the pathways and evidence linking gender to food security in India, highlighting gaps in past research and assembles implications for the design and implementation of gender-transformative food and nutrition interventions. The paper introduces the concept of ‘gender justice’ and its relation to food security.  It then provides a brief overview of the role of agriculture in food security and India’s nutritional context. The paper reviews the existing evidence in terms of the linkages between gender and food security and nutrition in India. Based on this discussion, the paper highlights a few emerging issues that have been inadequately addressed from the perspective of gender justice.

The paper notes that “gender-just” food and nutrition security can be defined as “a world without hunger, where women, men, girls and boys have equal access to nutritious, healthy food.” In addition, it would ensure “equal and local access to the means to produce, sell, and purchase food.” The paper also highlights that the term justice refers to actively challenging injustices based on social identity and unequal relationships.

Findings put forward by the National Nutrition Monitoring Bureau in 2012 show no significant differences between Indian men and women in most major nutrition indicators, with around 35 percent of both Indian men and women suffering from chronic energy deficiency. Various studies have shown that malnutrition in India can be divided according to caste and tribes (and incomes) with the lowest castes and tribes recording the highest rates of malnutrition for both men and women. However, according to the 2015 India Health Report, women are more disadvantaged when  compared to men at certain stages in life, especially regarding micronutrient status. For instance, the report found that more than 55 percent of all women of childbearing age across 13 Indian states are anaemic.

Studies recognize that women have a critical role (and increasingly so) in the entire food value chain as producers/farmers, managers and servers of food in India. According to NSSO data male participation in agriculture (either as cultivators or labourers) declined sharply in recent years from 80.6 percent to 66.5 percent between 1977-2008, by contrast, female participation only decreased slightly over the same time period from 88.1 to 83.5 percent. Despite this, however, numerous studies show that women lack recognition. This is best illustrated by women’s limited control over land and resources as compared to men with women owning only 12.8 percent of all agricultural land in 2011 according to India’s Agricultural Census 2011. This is largely because most of the land in India is privately owned and transferred across generations through male inheritance though women are inheriting more land in recent years. However, field studies from various sources indicate that men and women do often view household land as joint property, irrespective of who holds the title. For instance, a study conducted in rural areas in Andhra Pradesh and Bihar in 2011 found that the majority of men were supportive of female joint ownership of land.

Mixed trends are observed regarding gendered access to credit, inputs and extension services, though the evidence suggests that women find it more difficult to access these services than men do. On the one hand, a lack of land titles is clearly a problem for women in terms of accessing credit and other resources from formal institutions. For example, field studies in Jharkhand and Gujarat reveal that only 2 to 4 percent of women are able to access kisan credit cards. However, over the past decade, government emphasis on financial inclusion has been achieved by expanding the institutional infrastructure of formal-sector lending institutions, through both direct lending schemes and credit access. Women self-help groups and micro-financing schemes for women have also proliferated and there is also some evidence on women’s limited access to agricultural information and extension services. For instance, a study on economic returns from farming demonstrated that those with greater landholding size, irrigated land, and better education (all factors that favour men) have the greatest access to information as well as institutional credit.

Regarding incomes, NSSO data also suggests that women’s wages are lower than those of men with women on average earning 71 percent of male wages in 2008 (up from 65 percent in 1993). Additionally, it is widely reported that women work significantly more than men in unpaid work, including the growing and preparation of food for household consumption. For instance, a study by Choudhary shows that around 75 percent of women’s work time remains unpaid while another study in Odisha showed that women worked on average 4 hours more per day as compared to men.

Based on this evidence, the study highlights a number of emerging issues that have been inadequately addressed from the perspective of gender justice. The evidence highlights that agriculture remains key to gender-just food security and women play an increasingly important role in agriculture, as both cultivators and workers. However, the contributions of agriculture and women compared to men are undervalued and the present growth model is more focused on urbanization and manufacturing rather than the rural sector. While several studies point to the importance of nonfarm incomes for food security, how these incomes are actually allocated for different purposes individually and in families have not been adequately researched. Another issue is that gender roles in India both in urban and rural areas are changing but more research is needed into how these changing roles are impacting household food security.

In conclusion, the paper draws out some implications for the design and implementation of gender-transformative food and nutrition interventions. In particular it argues that policies across different sectors (agriculture, credit, labour markets) need to recognize women as equal workers and contributors to household food security and the overall household economy, by ensuring equal entitlements to resources, services, and incomes. Another suggestion focuses on supporting increased control by women over local resources and local governance processes enabling them to mainstream gender issues in the design of programs and their implementation. The paper also notes the need to ensure that agricultural information and technologies are more sensitive to gender-specific needs.

The full paper can be accessed here

By: Bas Paris

Photo credit:Flickr, World Bank