Mind the Gap

Cli­mate change, food se­cu­rity and women farm­ers in Asia

Asian Geographic - - Culture -


change will af­fect all of hu­man­ity: men and women, young and old, rich and poor. If there’s one thing that looks past race, re­li­gion, age and in­come sta­tus, it’s the ef­fects of cli­mate change. Of course, let’s not over­look the other liv­ing or­gan­isms – all flora and fauna. The im­pact of our chang­ing planet will af­fect them, too.

But these ef­fects will be felt quite dif­fer­ently by women – fe­male food pro­duc­ers in par­tic­u­lar. Due to tra­di­tional gen­der roles that en­force that women col­lect water, wood for fuel, and care for fam­ily mem­bers, women farm­ers have very lit­tle op­por­tu­nity to learn new skills, ac­cess de­vel­op­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties, or even at­tend to their own health needs.

In the midst of the ex­pected (and un­ex­pected) changes in cli­mate vari­abil­ity and its im­pacts on an­thro­pogenic sys­tems – such as our water sup­ply and food pro­duc­tion – it is heart­en­ing to note that the pre­am­ble of the Paris Agree­ment stresses the im­por­tance of help­ing devel­op­ing na­tions re­duce emis­sions and cope through adap­ta­tion, from the small­est to the largest changes. How­ever, or­gan­i­sa­tions such as Ox­fam have come out to say that the agree­ment falls short in pro­tect­ing ru­ral women farm­ers.

Speak­ing at the Sus­tain­able Busi­ness Fo­rum in Sin­ga­pore, Jean­nette Gu­rung, Ex­ec­u­tive Di­rec­tor of Women Or­gan­is­ing for Change in Agri­cul­ture and Nat­u­ral Re­source Man­age­ment (WOCAN) said that the great­est chal­lenge is the lack of recog­ni­tion and value of women’s in­puts to farm­ing sys­tems across Asia and the devel­op­ing world. In light of this bias, which con­trib­utes to the per­sis­tent and dom­i­nant view of the farmer as male, and to gen­der-spe­cific con­straints, women farm­ers are nor­mally seen as “farm­ers’ wives” rather than eco­nomic pro­duc­ers in their own right. Women are responsible for be­tween 60 to 80 per­cent of agri­cul­tural pro­duc­tion across Asia, and yet re­ceive a frac­tion of the land, credit and in­puts (such as im­proved seeds and fer­tilis­ers), agri­cul­tural train­ing and in­for­ma­tion com­pared to men.

The question arises, then, what can be done to pro­tect and aid fe­male food pro­duc­ers in Asia in the face of an un­cer­tain cli­mate fu­ture? Small-scale farms pro­duce around 80 per­cent of South­east Asia’s food, and women ac­count for 43 per­cent of the agri­cul­tural labour force. In some coun­tries, such as Thailand, they ac­count for the bulk of agri­cul­tural labour, per­form­ing al­most 90 per­cent of the work car­ried out in rice fields. And yet, women farm­ers are not eas­ily com­pen­sated in times of nat­u­ral or fi­nan­cial crises with re­source al­lo­ca­tion in the forms of land and cap­i­tal. They also tend to be ex­cluded from re­build­ing and re­ha­bil­i­ta­tive strate­gies.

It would be in­cor­rect to say that this ex­clu­sion of women has been de­lib­er­ate, for cul­tural or other rea­sons, in agri­cul­tural de­vel­op­ment. As a mat­ter of fact, re­search points to how South­east Asia’s fe­male food pro­duc­ers fare much bet­ter than their coun­ter­parts in other parts of Asia or Africa. There are vary­ing de­grees of em­pow­er­ment across the re­gion, with the Philip­pines and Thailand dis­play­ing greater lev­els of em­pow­er­ment ini­tia­tives for fe­male farm­ers.

In short, re­gional trends seem to run counter to nar­ra­tives that paint fe­male food pro­duc­ers as dis­em­pow­ered mem­bers of ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties.

De­spite these pos­i­tive rev­e­la­tions, there are some trou­bling com­mon­al­i­ties across the re­gion. These in­clude un­der­es­ti­mat­ing the na­ture of the work women do, and ig­nor­ing their lim­ited ac­cess to re­search and de­vel­op­ment, such as new in­no­va­tions in agri­cul­ture.

“Women’s work” re­mains un­der­rated and not fully, if at all, ac­cu­rately priced. In ru­ral ar­eas across the re­gion, women are al­most ex­clu­sively responsible for food and nu­tri­tion se­cu­rity for their fam­i­lies. A large pro­por­tion of work on farms is done by women; in ad­di­tion, women are also in­volved in post-har­vest ac­tiv­i­ties such as stor­age, han­dling, stock­ing, pro­cess­ing and mar­ket­ing.

Em­ploy­ment sur­veys of­ten tar­get the for­mal sec­tor, which means that most of the data col­lected pri­mar­ily re­flect men’s ex­pe­ri­ences, as much of the agri­cul­tural work that women do may not be clas­si­fied as “for­mal” sec­tor labour, in­clud­ing the work they do as farm work­ers. This leaves a sig­nif­i­cant gap in knowl­edge, which makes for poor plan­ning in man­age­ment strate­gies. Such in­com­plete in­for­ma­tion be­comes dan­ger­ous when plan­ning for cli­mate change mit­i­ga­tion and im­ple­ment­ing adap­ta­tion ef­forts. Not only will such skewed data cre­ate un­sus­tain­able poli­cies that un­der­mine the eco­nomic se­cu­rity of half the pop­u­la­tion, it can also se­verely com­pro­mise the house­hold food se­cu­rity of ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties. Women spend a sig­nif­i­cant pro­por­tion of their in­come on food, in ad­di­tion to what is cul­ti­vated by them for their fam­i­lies. A loss of their in­come could trans­late not only to re­duced food, but also to re­duced health­care and ed­u­ca­tion op­por­tu­ni­ties for their chil­dren.

Ad­di­tion­ally, tech­nol­ogy in­clud­ing cli­mate-smart agri­cul­tural de­vel­op­ments, is not of­ten ex­tended to fe­male farm­ers, and it is mostly men who have the op­por­tu­nity to at­tend work­shops and train­ing pro­grammes. Of­ten, the as­sump­tion is that the head of the house­hold is male, and he is then au­to­mat­i­cally in­vited to par­tic­i­pate. This idea is flawed, es­pe­cially when we start to ex­am­ine the ru­ral-ur­ban mi­gra­tion trends; men in­creas­ingly leave farms for cities in search of jobs, leav­ing women in the ru­ral ar­eas to tend to the land to pro­duce food.

Un­for­tu­nately, agri­cul­tural re­search and de­vel­op­ment pro­grammes that aim to ad­dress is­sues of cli­mate change in food pro­duc­tion do not of­ten take into con­sid­er­a­tion the per­cep­tions and con­cerns of both men and women. There is, how­ever, some hope in the form of in­sti­tu­tions, such as the

Women are responsible for be­tween 60 to 80 per­cent of agri­cul­tural pro­duc­tion across Asia

In­ter­na­tional Rice Re­search Institute (IRRI). In­creas­ingly, the IRRI has been look­ing at the gen­dered im­pact of agri­cul­tural tech­nol­ogy (linked to pro­duc­ing cli­mate-smart rice) on fe­male and male farm­ers in the re­gion. This is a pos­i­tive sign that leaves much hope for women farm­ers to in­crease their knowl­edge on rice pro­duc­tion in light of cli­mate change's im­pact on food se­cu­rity.

Ac­cord­ing to the United Na­tions Food and Agri­cul­ture Or­ga­ni­za­tion (FAO), we need to in­crease our food pro­duc­tion by around 60 per­cent from recorded 2007 lev­els if we are to feed the 9 bil­lion peo­ple es­ti­mated to in­habit the planet by 2050. And, as Gu­rung ex­plains with op­ti­mism, “giv­ing women the same ac­cess as men to agri­cul­tural re­sources could in­crease pro­duc­tion on farms in devel­op­ing coun­tries by 20 to 30 per­cent.”

In South­east Asia, al­though there has been de­vel­op­ment in ru­ral ar­eas, much re­mains to be done, es­pe­cially in terms of set­ting up sus­tain­able cli­mate-smart agri­cul­tural poli­cies in­volv­ing both men and women. Which­ever mea­sures are taken, they will not only have to pos­i­tively im­pact fe­male food pro­duc­ers and the re­gion’s food se­cu­rity, but they will

Women have a sig­nif­i­cant role in feed­ing the world’s pro­jected nine bil­lion by 2050

also have to have sig­nif­i­cant global im­pli­ca­tions in terms of con­fronting and work­ing to coun­ter­act cli­mate change. Such an ap­proach would be the most cost-ef­fec­tive and “green” way to help women, and help the planet.

Ideas con­tinue to be raised and dis­cussed, but they re­quire the nec­es­sary po­lit­i­cal will and fi­nan­cial back­ing. One such idea is to use a form of biomimicry to pre­vent food in­se­cu­rity, em­power women and pro­tect the planet si­mul­ta­ne­ously. Stud­ies of how the hu­man body re­acts in hot en­vi­ron­ments might pro­vide some in­sights into cre­ative de­signs that could do this. One such tech­nol­ogy is called the Evap­tainer, a de­vice that uses evap­o­ra­tive cool­ing to keep food from rot­ting, with­out the use of elec­tric­ity, work­ing in the same way that the hu­man body cools it­self through per­spi­ra­tion.

My col­league, Christopher Lim, and I have pro­posed that a sim­i­lar mech­a­nism be in­tro­duced in ru­ral South­east Asia through the de­vel­op­ment of cot­tage in­dus­tries to mass-pro­duce these low-cost con­tain­ers, cre­at­ing jobs to sup­ple­ment agri­cul­tural work. This could help em­power women farm­ers by of­fer­ing them much-needed in­come as a means of es­tab­lish­ing bet­ter eco­nomic se­cu­rity. The ben­e­fit of these mea­sures could al­low us to se­cure a sus­tain­able source of green en­ergy, fo­cus­ing on ru­ral de­vel­op­ment and ca­pac­ity build­ing, and ef­fec­tively nar­row­ing the gen­der gap in sus­tain­able cli­mate-smart agri­cul­ture.

To this end, any worth­while at­tempt at strength­en­ing the re­silience of com­mu­ni­ties in the face of cli­mate change and food se­cu­rity needs to reach out to women. In this re­gard, the As­so­ci­a­tion of South­east Asian Na­tions (ASEAN) has es­tab­lished a re­gional com­mis­sion to pro­tect women’s in­ter­ests. The ASEAN Com­mis­sion on the Rights of Women and Chil­dren (ACWC), es­tab­lished in 2010, im­ple­mented a four-year work plan, which con­cluded in 2016, study­ing the so­cial im­pacts of cli­mate change on women and chil­dren, among other ar­eas. These types of plat­forms are work­ing tire­lessly to bring the is­sue to light, and im­ple­ment pro­grammes of change. The work plan for 2016-2020 is cur­rently in progress.

Be­yond be­ing moth­ers, wives, daugh­ters and sis­ters, women have a sig­nif­i­cant role in feed­ing the world’s pro­jected nine bil­lion by 2050. A bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of the role of women in food pro­duc­tion is des­per­ately needed. The women of Asia have time and again re­vealed their re­silience, es­pe­cially in times of cri­sis. It is time to har­ness that strength. ag above left A woman car­ries cat­tle feed for her live­stock near the Thar Desert in Jaisalmer, In­dia left Women dry fish near Mui Ne in Viet­nam. Im­prov­ing women's ac­cess to re­sources could in­crease pro­duc­tion by 20 to 30 per­cent

In ru­ral ar­eas across the Asian re­gion, women are al­most ex­clu­sively responsible for food and nu­tri­tion se­cu­rity for their fam­i­lies

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