Gender Equality and Food Insecurity—We Need Everyone at The Table
by Lisa Palmer
January 10, 2023
by Lisa Palmer
January 10, 2023
Is this rise in global food insecurity an unfortunate triple crisis, or a predictable shock we’ll see amid gender inequities and insufficient governance and international cooperation?
The public radio reporter took photos from the window of the car of the fertile Ukrainian fields as she fled west from Kyiv on February 24, 2022. She posted images on social media with the caption, “Ukrainian soil is so black and rich. And believe me I’ve seen a lot of it today fleeing the Russians.”
Others were mindful of the missiles, the bomb-shelters and the rush to Poland’s border as the conflict broke out; I instinctively held onto the images of soil the color of midnight. Immediately apparent, this war between agricultural powerhouses would ripple through globalized agricultural markets, affecting all of us but sharply affecting low-income trading partners and people with the least ability to cope: women and girls.
In June 2022, when rain began falling for 8 straight weeks and created a climate disaster that placed a third of Pakistan under water gender, food, and environmental security were again on my mind. I knew this country would deploy early warning systems for the floods. Nearly a decade ago, I had reported on the value of cell phone notifications and television broadcasts that seek to build resilience before disaster strikes. But warnings would only help owners of cell phones, or those who had access to cafes and public spaces to watch the television news—not the women and girls, due to inequities and patriarchal norms in a country that, according to the Global Governance Forum’s Gender Equality and Governance Index is among the worst in the world in respect of gender equity. And in the country’s recovery, women remain left behind as only men have been allowed to travel to seek humanitarian aid.
This month, again imagining the vulnerability of women and girls in Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa living through drought, I asked myself the rhetorical question, “Who carries the water?” Some 26 million people there are facing extreme hunger. The country largely depends on agriculture that is rainfed. Water is not available, or must be carried long distances. Some areas are feeling the effects of catastrophic famine, according to UN reports. Further as the Horn of Africa faces its fourth season of drought—the worst in four decades—more food security disasters loom. Drought, famine, and crop damage from insects such as locusts are no strangers to Ethiopia. Neither are political instability and conflicts. But what remains foreign is gender equity that could at least provide the ability for women and female heads of household to cope with and adapt to climate change and conflict. Women lack access to financing, technical support, land, healthcare, and other resources needed to improve their resilience and to adapt to shocks.
it remains vital to focus on the status of women as an approach to the prevention and management of food insecurity
In the absence of gender equity, there is a convergence of crises: climate change, food insecurity, and public health. Climate change strains agricultural yields, resulting in the exacerbation of pre-existing social systems and the introduction of public health concerns (ie. malnourishment). To handle these shocks, entire communities must be equipped with the resources to handle food instability. However, in societies where women lack proper land and technical knowledge, a significant proportion of the population remains unable to respond to harvest disruptions, worsening conditions of food insecurity and its subsequent health effects for those areas. Improvements in female access to education, particularly in rural areas, would address this phenomenon by giving entire populations the tools for agricultural success as well as promoting community development. Thus, education initiatives specifically targeted towards farming would not only bolster the living standards for women but can integrate more efficient agricultural practices, and thus increase food security. As such, it remains vital to focus on the status of women as an approach to the prevention and management of food insecurity. Because success is determined by the capacity of an entire community, not just of a select few.
Globally, food prices, which reached record highs, have increased food insecurity and raised social tensions. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, global food prices have surged 65% and by over 12% in 2022 since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. As such, government budgets have been strained with rising food import bills. This has resulted in a diminished capacity to fund extra social protections for the most vulnerable, exacerbating conditions of economic inequality. Without such allocations, programs aimed at community development have been undercut, allowing marginalized groups to suffer in addition to facing food insecurity. Thus, food prices mean more than just expensive imports, but result in real repercussions for populations often neglected by public institutions. Furthermore, food markets are globalized: with the events of one region affecting the food security of another. For instance, East Africa relies on a third of its cereal supply from Russia and Ukraine. Since the conflict, the region has further confronted issues of food scarcity from a lack of wheat and fertilizer supplies. Thus, shocks in food prices are not regionally concentrated but carry global consequences, particularly in areas already suffering with food insecurity.
Feeding the world in the face of conflict and environmental uncertainty without degrading the planet are some of the great civilizational challenges of our time. The cascade of effects and relationships across systems are so complex and variable, we need to move beyond a simple story. And, we need to move beyond thinking about global food security as what the environment is doing to agriculture and what food systems are doing to the environment. We must also recognize that societal changes and education can influence the potential for people and food systems to contribute to human health and be more resilient. Overarching solutions include adapting to climate change and managing risks. But we must reframe how we formulate our approaches to food insecurity, specifically by realizing its connection to gender equality. Without every member of society prepared to handle these environmental and food stability challenges, the implementation of effective and equitable resolutions remains impossible. Thus, solutions must begin with the ability for women and girls to gain an education, have gender equality, and build resilience to withstand the extremes of the years to come if we recognize that equity can pay the world dividends in an environment of peace.
Until women and girls hold leadership roles, have representation in societies, hold power to improve their chances at rural employment and agricultural production, we will remain in a cascading crisis. We can solve this, but we need everyone at the table.
In this episode of the Global Governance Podcast, Augusto Lopez-Claros and guest, Lisa Palmer discuss her book, gender equality, climate and the need for multilateral cooperation to address global food insecurity.