The Agenda for Gender in Food Policy
Source: Adam Cohn (flickr)

By: Mamata Pradhan, IFPRI Collaborator

The 1996 World Food Summit in Rome defined food security as “when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.” As the availability of food is an important element of food security, food production and the manner in which food is produced is fundamental to food security. Global evidence shows that women are responsible for half of the world’s food production. In 2011, the FAO found women accounted for 40 percent of the agricultural labor in low income countries. The latest National Sample Survey surveys indicates some decline in women’s labor force participation in India (ILO 2013), with participation falling from just over 37 per cent in 2004/2005 to a mere 29 per cent in 2009/2010.

Women’s participation in food production, however, often goes unrecorded; and this despite the activity’s criticality to ensuring access and utilization of food in India. Women are commonly recognized as the key to household food security across cultures (Quisumbing et al. 1995). Based on time-use data for India, China, and some parts of Africa south of the Sahara, Yale University’s Cheryl Doss estimated that 60-70 per cent of total labor force for food production is comprised of women.  Furthermore, a study in Nepal by CIFREM’s Sridhar Thapa showed that, compared to men, women farmers are more productive given the same access to inputs and services. Finally, a study in rural India by Bina Agarwal examined the productive efficiency of men and women in potato-digging and found that women in comparison to men were several times more productive-- by several measures-- for the same job.

Still, women in India remain asset poor: as per the Agricultural Census 2010/2011, only 12.8 percent of cultivated land holdings are owned by women, even though amendments to the Hindu Succession Act (1956) in 2005 provided for daughters equal inheritance rights to all property, including agricultural lands. This figure highlights the weak enforcement of a law that could be very important for women. In context of India, they are part of family labor working on farms but rarely have any rights of inheritance. The lack of ownership of assets has a cascading effect; for example, having no land titles makes it extremely difficult for these women to obtain any credit as they have no access to a collateral. Like in many developing countries, in India there exists a substantial gender gap due to poor implementation of laws and due to social barriers like male bias in property allocation within families (Agarwal 2012). Given the social expectation of men as providers, both land and money are often constructed as “male” assets. Women’s association with these assets is seen to be secondary at best, but in some instances, could also be seen as a deviation from the norm, especially as women themselves are seen as a form of male property (Sharma 1980).

This disparity in asset ownership and control over income has several possible effects on household food security.  For example, it can result in misuse of money by male heads for substance abuse, or decreased allocation for basic necessities of the households. Understanding the gendered nature of decision-making and resource allocation at the household level is important, as this often involves trade-offs between short-term well-being and investments in future security, as reflected in large educational expenditures.

Importantly, the disadvantage of women in India is pervasive and not confined to the lower strata of the society per se.  Strikingly, adverse sex ratios, revealing disadvantage of women, are most prevalent amongst the middle castes and classes. The trend in the sex ratio of the under-seven population based on National Family Health Survey shows that in 2005/2006 the under-seven sex ratio had fallen to 918 females per 1,000 males.

With this background, it is important to highlight a gap in the existing literature on gender and food security in India. That gap relates to focusing on women as individuals while the status of women and their outcomes are mostly a function of their place within social institutions. Policymakers need make a shift to seeing women as embedded in power relations across different social institutions. The implication of this would be in incorporating gendered discourse in the following contexts and beyond:

  • Intra-household bargaining and entitlements.
  • Community/social norms around what is legitimate and what is not in terms of divisions of labor and entitlements.
  • Access to markets           

The challenge with previous approaches to establishing a gender-just food security paradigm has been that measures often take a long time to enact and impacts are tenuous. Campaigning for a right to food, for example, started around 1956, but finally came to fruition with the passage of the National Food Security Act (NFSA) by Parliament in 2013. While implementation of the NFSA is yet to occur, the  campaign for it incorporated a gender-just food security vision, including recognizing the adult woman as the head of household and adopting a life-cycle approach (which recognizes differentiated needs at key moments in a person’s life).

In recognition of the need for a comprehensive, evidence-based, gender-aware strategies in understanding the complex gendered causes and impacts of hunger and malnutrition, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) will be collaborating with ANANDI (a Gujarat-based NGO working extensively around issues of gender-just food and nutrition security) on a two-day workshop and policy dialogue December 14-15 that will be programmed around the question: What are the issues and opportunities for policy advocacy and research for gender-just food security in India?

This workshop will employ a highly participatory meeting methodology called Open Space Technology. In this method priority-setting is done using a clearing house approach with no priors on the order of importance or relevance.  This process is best suited for the task at hand as it takes into account the diversity of people involved and the complexity of issue around gender and food security.

Women’s work, both productive and reproductive, has been underestimated, and their contributions to agriculture and food security not properly acknowledged. Policy makers have commonly targeted women in their reproductive roles, yet they have been neglected as productive agents. What seems lacking is a recognition of the gendered power dynamics, within and across social institutions. We look forward to engaging in evidence-based debate among individuals across India that can steer India’s gender-based policy formation in a right direction.

More information on this topic will be available on the India Food Security Portal after the workshop from December 14-15th, 2015 in Ahmedabad, Gujarat (India).

Photo credit:Adam Cohn (flickr)