Women across the world are responsible for affecting the manufacture, growth, and functioning of almost all the points of the continuum that takes food from farms or factories to our tables. The irony, however, is that women themselves are deprived of the same food when distributed for consumption, even while distributing it themselves.
This lack of empowerment, as far as the distribution & consumption of food goes among women, is often self-imposed. It’s the result of long-term and even cross-generational cultural conditioning which has made women internalise the belief that as women, they are expected to eat last, or if nothing remains, not eat at all. Something “natural” by now, nobody stops to think that this has resulted in severe anaemia and malnutrition among women leading to sickness and even early death, across generations. Many women aren’t even aware that they have the right to food as much as the other members of the family.
According to a detailed study in 2011, “women comprise about 43 percent of the agricultural labour force globally and in developing countries. But this figure masks considerable variation across regions and within countries according to age and social class. Overall, the labour burden of rural women exceeds that of men, and includes a higher proportion of unpaid household responsibilities related to preparing food and collecting fuel and water.
The contribution of women to agricultural and food production is significant but it’s impossible to verify, empirically, the share produced by women. Women’s participation in rural labour markets varies considerably across regions, but invariably, women are over represented in unpaid, seasonal and part-time work, and the available evidence suggests that women are often paid less than men, for the same work.”
Women form a major slice of the world’s food production — around 60-80% of farm labour in Asia and Africa, and more than 40% in Latin America. According to Census 2011 data and the latest round of National Sample Survey (NSS), rural women make up around 81.29% of India’s female workforce — including both marginal and main workers. The Census describes main workers as those who are employed for most parts of the year. Most of these women are employed in agriculture.
Gelia Castillo, one of the most outstanding social scientists, feminists and authors who passed away in 2017, had noted that around 60% of rural women in the Philippines were engaged in farm or related activities like fishing. In Gambia, women form a big percentage in the field of wet-rice cultivation. In Cameroon, over 60% of the labour force in food-crop production are women. In Zimbabwe, women contribute both to market-oriented cultivation and to subsistence farming. In Arabic Islam, it is common for a boy to be nursed till he is two years while a girl is nursed only till she is one-and-a-half years of age.
Lisa Leghorn and Mary Roowdowsky, in their classic work, Who Really Starves? Women and World Hunger ([Friendship Press, 1977], have stated: “Some Asian countries forbid fish, seafood, chicken, duck and eggs along with certain nutritious vegetables to women on the flimsy plea that they are ‘hot’ for women. In some cultures, women are not permitted to drink milk because of the belief that it causes sterility.”
The practice of fasting, especially among Indian widows is a cultural practice disguised with ritualistic excuses, which in reality is a clever strategy to keep women off food as much as possible. Most communities throughout Africa have food taboos for pregnant women. Often these taboos exclude the consumption of nutrients essential for the expectant mother and foetus. In Nepal, menstruating women are barred from consuming milk, yogurt, butter, meat, and other nutritious foods, for fear that their impurity will cause cows to become ill. The typical diet during menstruation is dry foods, salt, and rice. (Gender Discrimination in Access and Consumption of Food Across Cultures, April 17, 2019)
In India, girls fast or sacrifice food from a very young age, hoping to get married or to get a good husband — Shivratri is a national example among Hindus. For Karva Chauth and other similar ritual practices, wives whose husbands are alive fast for several days each year for the latter’s health and well being, and mothers for the welfare of their children, mainly sons. Some rituals insist on Hindu women to fast from dawn to dusk, sometimes even without a drop of water, praying for the long lives of their husbands, sons, or brothers. Husbands are traditionally considered and treated as “Semi-God”and the male family members are entitled to the most nutritious and desired food.
Depriving women and girls of food is the most common and the worst form of “punishment” meted out to them. Problem is, this practice has gotten internalised so deeply that they are hardly aware that this will lead to a disastrous impact on their health, physical well-being and life. In fact, this is too is domestic violence, prolonged for a stretch of time, because of its relative invisibility.
For widows, the situation is worse, differing from region to region and faith to faith. Girls and women across the country and the world are so socially conditioned to these practices that they feel any diversion from these will draw “punishment” in the hereafter!
As a consequence, women and children remain largely ignored by policy makers and governments of different nations because according to patriarchal institutions, women’s ill health do not pose any threat to the political stability of the state. They forget that women’s hunger itself creates a vicious circle that stalls development, because the undernourishment or malnourishment of women and children contributes directly to political instability. The physical stability of men depends on and is determined by women;their economic and political status are also indirectly in the hands of women because in most societies, it is women who are made to nurture them.
This writer conducted a field survey on the “Order of Eating” covering 1056 urban families in and around Mumbai in 2010. The findings revealed that:
- The mother did the daily marketing in 78.22 of the families;
- The housewife/mother did the cooking in 93.56 of the households;
- She served food in 91.48 of the households;
- She cleaned the table in 62.78% of the households;
- She controlled the finances in only 22.44% of the households;
- Only 34.47% of the children attended to the mother when she was eating;
- 58.62% of the housewives/mothers received some kind of help daily from other family members;
- In only 5.86% of the families did the mother/wife eat along with the family.
If this is the situation in a metropolitan city like Mumbai in 2010, one shudders to think of the prevailing situation in the whole country and that too, in 2020, when the entire world is hit by a pandemic.
Women therefore, have no decisive power over the control of the allocation of their own food and survival needs but most women are not even aware of this gross injustice of which they are themselves also a part. Leghorn and Roowdowsky point out that men get preference over women in the consumption of food, simply because they are wage-earners. This may have been true in 1977, when they wrote the book, but no longer today, because according to an ILO study, there has been a steady rise in female-headed families in developing countries headed by women. These women have relatively greater control over their access to a nutritional diet. At the same time, their socio-cultural conditioning continues to make them prefer their children’s over their own nutritional needs.
Besides, single mother households are critical in understanding the feminisation of poverty — these are at the highest risk of poverty for women due to lack of income and access to resources. There is a continuing increase of single mother households in the world, resulting in higher percentages of women in poverty. This goes on to prove that single or married, widowed or deserted, women are the last and the least to eat. The “feminisation of poverty” is a rising problem in all economies around the world.
It would be apt to quote from Pablo Neruda’s The Great Tablecloth in which he writes:
Let us sit down to eat with all those who haven’t eaten; let us spread great tablecloths, put salt in the lakes of the world, set up planetary bakeries, stables and strawberries in the snow, and a plate like the moon itself from which we can all eat. For now, I ask no more than the justice of eating.