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In countries where women are most marginalized, discriminated under the law and where gendered norms prevent women from owning property and resources, people are also the hungriest. This is because gender equality and food systems are intertwined.
However, too often, we only focus on the roles that women play in production, processing, trading of food and in making decisions about consumption and purchase of food at household level.
A just and equitable food system will require the recognition of women as farmers, with rights to the land they cultivate, technologies that reduce the drudgery of agriculture and policies that ensure women can make a living wage from agriculture
And while this is important, we must also focus on whether the food system as organized is just and equitable and whether it promotes the empowerment and livelihoods and health of women and girls.
The UN Food Systems Summit, to be convened by the UN Secretary General 2021, provides the world with a unique opportunity to reframe the global conversation on gender and food and ask the hard questions of how the food system can be structured in a just and equitable way.
Reframing gender and food systems
While there is recognition that food systems transformation is a political, economic and environmental issue, we must also recognize it as a gender justice issue; stark gender inequalities are both a cause and an outcome of unsustainable food systems, unjust food access, consumption and production.
Tackling gender injustice and truly empowering women is not only a fundamental prerequisite for food systems transformation but also a goal.
So, what should a gender just and equitable food system look like?
A gender just and equitable food system is one which guarantees a world without hunger, where women, men, girls and boys have equal access to nutritious, healthy food, safe food, and access to the means to produce, sell and purchase food.
It is a food system where the roles, responsibilities, opportunities and choices available to women and men – including unpaid caregiving and food provision – are not predetermined at birth but are developed in line with individual capacities and aspirations.
It is a food system where countries, communities and households and individual men and women are equipped to produce enough food for their own populations through environmentally sound processes, while also being able to participate in gender-equitable local, global and regional food trading systems.
So as food systems transform, the goal should be to ensure that they transform in ways that are equitable, that ensure meaningful engagement and benefits to all, women, boys, girls, men, indigenous groups amongst others.
Towards a just and equitable food system
A just and equitable food system requires a rethinking of the role of women as producers and consumers and a move from “what are women’s contributions in agriculture” toward “how can food and agricultural systems transform in ways that are equitable and that empower women”.
Achieving this will require systemic innovations in the food system and the use of a feminist lens.
First, at agricultural production level, a just and equitable food system will require the recognition of women as farmers, with rights to the land they cultivate, technologies that reduce the drudgery of agriculture and policies that ensure women can make a living wage from agriculture.
Women in many different contexts continue to have their rights to independent control of land denied, and access to agricultural inputs, credit, and other essential resources due to cultural norms, assumptions by governments and programs that farmers are male, because ‘men are the providers’.
A global movement like the “Me Too” movement that raises the consciousness and triggers action towards women’s rights to resources and to a living wage in agriculture is needed.
Second, it will require trade, market and finance policies and processes that do not discriminate against women, and that explicitly engage women in formulation and implementation.
For example, the African Continental Free Trade Agreement – AfCFTA – framework agreement includes an objective of gender equality that recognizes the full, equal and meaningful participation of women in an integrated continental market. Monitoring of this
Third, it will require gender standards that include workplace dignity for women and equal pay with monitoring and accountability mechanisms for the food industry, whether large farms, food factories or the service industry. In the US, women food processing workers made 74 cents to the dollar men earned in 2019.
And in 2018, ILO put a spotlight on sexual violence, harassment and poor workplace conditions of women workers in commercial agriculture. Such standards are being discussed in some industries such as the garment industry.
For example, the Gender Working Group at ISEAL aims to improve the working conditions of women in textile and apparel supply chains by promoting tailored, evidence-based strategies, tools and systems, with lessons that will be more broadly applicable to other standard organizations.
And finally, it will require strengthening and amplifying the voices of women in all levels of the food system. This will require funding women smallholder farmers organizations, women business networks, women workers unions, women’s consumer organizations to engage at different levels and in different conversations to influence food systems.
And for the industry, it will require adoption of a set of principles or a women and food systems manifesto for women’s representation and inclusion in food system, similar in nature to the Chef’s manifesto.
Our food systems need to change to nourish all in a sustainable way that protects our planet. Equally important is that they must be just and equitable and guarantee the needs and priorities of those that depend on them, including women.
Dr. Jemimah Njuki is the Custodian for Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment for the UN Food Systems Summit 2021 and a Food Systems Champion. She is an Aspen New Voices Fellow and writes on issues of gender equality in food systems. Follow her on @jemimah_njuki