This study argues that women are bearing a disproportionate share of the burden of the 2008 food price crisis, both as producers and consumers. The impacts of the crisis have changed and/or magnified pre-existing vulnerabilities and shaped the range of coping strategies available to men, women and children. International and national responses have not given sufficient consideration to gender dynamics. Greater attention needs to be paid to intra-household gender dynamics, women’s time poverty and strengthening opportunities for women’s voice and agency in food security policy debates.
The first half of 2008 saw the peak of the international food price spike, with effects on food prices in many countries. Since then, the global economic crisis has compounded the situation, threatening hundreds of millions of people with worsening impoverishment and destitution. Although international food prices have since fallen, prices remain high in many domestic markets.
Many families are already living in circumstances of heightened vulnerability because of the coping strategies they had to use during the height of the crisis (such as distress sale of assets, reduced food consumption and greater time poverty because of additional work required to meet basic consumption needs). This has been exacerbated by interactions with pre-existing stresses and crises (such as HIV/AIDS, political conflict and a lack of living space).
Women have borne the brunt of the food price crisis. They are primarily responsible for the management of food in the household, and are often induced by social norms to decrease their own consumption so as to cushion the impact of the crisis on other household members. Women (particularly pregnant women) and children are especially vulnerable to the nutritional effects of high food prices, as they are more likely to develop micronutrient deficiencies when driven to consume less diversified daily diets. Further:
- Women’s assets are frequently the first to be subject to distress sale.
- Women suffer higher levels of time poverty than men because of their dual responsibilities for productive and reproductive work.
- Despite changes in the labour market, women’s participation in economic, social and political life remains limited.
- Pro-poor and gender-sensitive agricultural development and policy lag behind the rhetoric, especially in terms of funding and the ability to mainstream gender in the development portfolios of large international financial institutions and multilaterals.
- Micro-enterprise development programmes are rarely gender-informed, with lending criteria holding that members must have previous business experience and not employ family members, excluding many women.
- Institutional changes have not brought more awareness of gendered needs in planning processes, or generated greater and more equitable participation of women.
The crisis could provide transformative opportunities to invest in the wider enabling environment for women. However, for this to happen, timely and coordinated action is needed:
- The gendered nature of poverty and vulnerability, and the gendered dimensions of the crisis must be recognised, so as to support effective policy responses and avoid the possible compounding effects of the global economic downturn.
- Long-term strategies to increase agricultural productivity and sustainability needs to focus on increasing women’s access to and control over productive assets, such as land tenure and water.
- Access to credit and microfinance, extension services and markets need to be strengthened for female farmers in order to support them in the longer term.
- Social protection programmes and food security safety nets need to be designed so as to mitigate gender power relations, and scaled up.
- Policy responses to food insecurity must not burden women with time-consuming processes but alleviate the time burdens they face.