Women do food

If women stopped their food work, what would be on your plate today?

In Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan, women in rural areas can spend between 8 and 10 hours every day on unpaid care work. In Rwanda, women spend at least 5 hours daily on such activities – men only 1.5 hours. Women do 64% of all unpaid care work in Australia; in South Africa, almost three quarters of the value of household production is done by women; in Argentina, women take up in average twice as much household work than men. It is clear: in all regions of the world, in both urban and rural contexts, women and girls take up an immense proportion of unpaid care work.

What is more, as the 2020 Women’s Global Strike denounces, this type of work is still unrecognized and undervalued, even though the economy would not function without it. Our current economic order is “exploiting women and benefiting from the free or lowly paid care work that we do, from the low wages and precarious conditions of work,” its political manifesto decries. “Women’s Power in Food Struggles”, the latest issue of the Right to Food and Nutrition Watch, underscores this and further makes the link between women and nature arguing they are both “othered” and exploited. More so, the current system is dependent on social reproduction but also rests on an extractivist model which causes ecological destruction.

Our dominant food systems and food work – in other words, who produces, cooks, buys/shares, eats, distributes and disposes our food, and how – mirrors the dynamics of the current economic order. We pose the question: If women stopped their food work, what would be on your plate today? In many communities around the world, women are the bearers of traditional knowledge around plants, biodiversity and seeds. In Malawi, for instance, smallholder women farmers are the ones producing, using, saving and sharing indigenous seeds. In some parts of India, they make up 70% of tea plantation workers. In many places, women are also active in rearing livestock, protecting forests, and weaving nets or catching, trading or processing fish. Across the world, women make up the bulk of food producers and agricultural workers.  

What is more, while many women globally are food producers, almost all women “are feeding the world as food finders, makers and feeders – of men, families and communities.” Women nourish their babies, are more often than not the ones to prepare and cook food in daily life, and in many cultures, are seen as the custodians of healthy food practices. Even when migrating, women are the ones to look for food and cook. When food is scarce, they put their children first. This is not by chance; these roles are socially ascribed and embedded in the capitalist-patriarchal structure of our societies.

Despite all this, women continue to be disproportionally affected by hunger and malnutrition – and their roles in food systems and food work rendered invisible. Especially in rural areas and working class communities, women's work is often seen as a woman's 'duty'. From the home to the countryside, the current neoliberal global food regime could not be sustained without women’s unpaid care work. In this way, gender relations shape food systems, influencing what we produce, how we work, and what we eat. And it is this system that exploits both women and the natural world on which we all depend for our survival.

The first step towards overcoming the unfair relations that shape food systems is to start in one’s own home. We need to make visible the unpaid, unrecognized social reproductive work of women. We must reflect on – and change – the assumptions and values we assign to women’s roles and food work in society. And we can challenge the ways that patriarchy and the hegemonic neoliberal capitalist food system negatively impacts both women and nature, and press for the right to food for all.

Women are at the forefront of the struggle for a non-exploitative society, mobilizing, organizing, and exercising their autonomy worldwide, through both quiet daily resistance and organized social movements: In the fields of India and Mali, growing nutritious food in manner that is socially and environmentally just; In Jinwar in Northern Syria, growing food collectively and building a new society; In the streets of Brazil, demonstrating against agribusiness violence through to the March of Daisies; At the UN Committee on World Food Security, influencing international decision-making on food issues. In today’s context of rising hunger and ecological collapse – when it is more urgent than ever to reimagine food, environment and economies – let us turn to women for answers.

This article has been written by M. Alejandra Morena (FIAN International), Donna Andrews and Kiah Smith, and was first published by the University of Queensland's blog.