What we talk about when we talk about gender
Where the agricultural narrative on equality goes wrong
Over the last several months, we’ve been thinking about the rhetoric around gender equality in agriculture. It’s an undeniably hot topic—every NGO, UN body, or international development agency has programs dedicated to ending gender inequality in agriculture. Upon first glance, their effort seems to be well-placed; after all, agriculture is a sector where these inequities run particularly deep.
A small fraction of all landholders worldwide are women. 60 percent of those who are food-insecure are women and girls. Women have lower access to credit and markets than their male counterparts. They’re also more likely to be employed in low-wage, informal, seasonal, or otherwise vulnerable positions. All of these are problems that need addressing.
But the way that the narrative is positioned has always felt a little bit off. After several conversations, I think we’ve zeroed in on some of the ways that this conversation is ill-framed. I wanted to take some time to talk about those today.
If you google “gender and agriculture,” a lot of similar headlines pop up from various nonprofits and international bodies. Pretty much all of them take on a variation of this framing, exemplified here by the UN: “Women could feed millions more people if given access to means of production.” Another FAO blog post expands on this idea, writing:
“Just giving women the same access as men to agricultural resources could increase production on women's farms in developing countries by 20 to 30 percent. This could raise total agricultural production in developing countries by 2.5 to 4 percent, which could in turn reduce the number of hungry people in the world by 12 to 17 percent, or 100 to 150 million people.”
In this framing, the focus is not on the imperative of ending gender discrimination alone, but in almost all cases we came across, the attention is placed on how many other goals, such as ending food insecurity or improving childhood nutrition, could be helped if we stopped discriminating against women. Consider this other quote, this time from Global Citizen:
“In societies where women and girls are supported and empowered, everyone benefits — families are healthier, more children go to school, agricultural productivity improves, and incomes increase. When women earn more income they are more likely to use their money to feed and support their families. Women reinvest up to 90% of their earnings back into their households by spending money on nutrition, food, health care, school, and lucrative activities.”
It presents this image of women as these resourceful, maternal, dutiful players who use their resources to help their families if only we ended discrimination against them. But it’s not only that. It’s more the implication that lurks underneath all of these sentiments. Former FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf articulated this in a comment about the UN’s State of Food and Agriculture report, which focused heavily on gender inequality: “the report makes a powerful business case for promoting gender equality in agriculture.” (Because that’s what we were missing all along! A powerful business case for ending gender discrimination. Thanks, Jacques.)
The frustrating part about this narrative is that it treats women as instruments to advance a particular pathway in agriculture that will ultimately hurt more than it will help. Take on of the most popular development tools to address gender inequality: microcredit programs. These programs are positioned as a way to help people (especially women, who are most often the target of these programs) escape poverty by giving them small loans to invest in a business or tools for their farm. Sounds great.
And then we look closer. We see that these loans often carry interest rates of upwards of 20 percent, making them difficult to repay. Even more insidiously, the loan programs target groups of women together, each member becoming responsible for the repayment of the group (i.e. if one person defaults, the others bear the responsibility). As Silvia Federici writes in her article “From Commoning to Debt: Financialization, Microcredit, and the Changing Architecture of Capital Accumulation,” women are “far more dependent on steady economic resources for the reproduction of their families and more vulnerable to intimidation,” making them the easy target for these programs. Women rely much more often on networks of social solidarity and commons in order to survive. Repayment is also closely linked to one’s honour; a piece of social capital that is crucial to—especially women’s—standing in a community.
In order to guarantee that communities repay, banks, international nonprofits and agencies have created intricate practices to shame women who fail to pay back their loans — often including threats and physical intimidation. In some countries, photos of women who have defaulted on their debts will be posted on the doors of banks, or around neighbourhoods. In others still, a method called “housebreaking” will be used, where NGO officers will enter a home and take floor planks, roofs, and doors to resell as payment for the loans. Through all of these tactics, these programs undermine solidarity, weaponising these strong social ties to trap people further in debt.
That’s why it has always bothered me when development agencies position themselves as trying to end gender inequality. They use it as nothing more than a frame to promote the same harmful policies that end up expanding industrialised agriculture and furthering indebtedness. It’s another subtle—but insidious—form of greenwashing. But even setting aside the dubious policy implications of this framing of gender inequality, the worst part is the positioning of women as passive victims, stripping agency from those it is claiming to “empower.”
Women have been at the forefront of resisting capitalist expansion for centuries—practically since its inception. Silvia Federici explains this in her essay titled “Feminism and the Politics of the Commons”:
“As I wrote in Caliban and the Witch, in the first phase of capitalist development women were at the forefront of the struggle against land enclosures both in England and in the ‘New World’ and they were the staunchest defenders of the communal cultures that European colonization attempted to destroy. In Peru, when the Spanish conquistadores took control of their villages, women fled to the high mountains where they recreated forms of collective life that have survived to this day. Not surprisingly, the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries saw the most violent attack on women in the history of the world: the persecution of women as witches. Today, in the face of a new process of primitive accumulation, women are the main social force standing in the way of a complete commercialization of nature, supporting a non-capitalist use of land and a subsistence-oriented agriculture. Women are the subsistence farmers of the world. In Africa, they produce 80 percent of the food people consume, despite the attempts made by the World Bank and other agencies to convince them to divert their activities to cash-cropping. In the 1990s, in many African towns, in the face of rising food prices, they have appropriated plots in public lands and planted corn, beans, cassava ‘along roadsides . . . in parks, along rail-lines,’ changing the urban landscape of African cities and breaking down the separation between town and country in the process. In India, the Philippines, and across Latin America, women have replanted trees in degraded forests, joined hands to chase away loggers, made blockades against mining operations and the construction of dams, and led the revolt against the privatization of water.”
The examples are innumerable. Far from being passive victims, women have always resisted, and they have always been violently repressed by those defending capitalism. Now, the very agencies—like the World Bank—who are the modern-day defenders of capitalist expansion are posturing themselves as the benevolent saviours, rather than the oppressor. But all one has to do is look at the solutions they promote and that narrative becomes rather transparent.
This all may seem nitpicky or focusing on the details of a particular narrative, but look at how differently the solutions are in each framing:
A: “Women are oppressed and lack the same opportunities in agriculture compared to their male counterparts. We need to come in and help by providing credit, inputs, and market access to equalise their opportunities, and if we do, millions more will be food-secure and better-nourished.”
Notice how in this framing, the women are the victims; the NGO/development agency are the heroes; and the solution is to promote increased productivity and market access, which are extensions of capitalist agriculture. There is no mention of why women are oppressed, no indication of the broader systems that led to this state of affairs. Now consider this alternate framing:
B: “Women are oppressed because of the wider systems of patriarchy that our current manifestation of capitalism not only upholds but depends on to function. Despite this, women have been at the forefront of resistance for centuries, and continue to lead these efforts. We must turn our attention to the places where they are seeding a different future for all of us, and assist in removing the barriers to their leadership.”
In this framing, women are the heroes; the leaders. Capitalist expansion is named as the root cause of the problem. The rest of us become allies, following their leadership and creating the conditions for their new models of agriculture to thrive. In this framing, both the problem and the solution are completely different.
These characters are always present in the stories we tell about our world: the victim, the hero, the villain. Stories are powerful; they are how we make sense of an often chaotic world. And in this case, we need to promote a very different one. One that does not strip agency from those it purports to “empower.”
The NGOs aren’t going to save us. They aren’t going to save women or “end gender inequality in agriculture.” This is for a multitude of reasons, including their stubborn attachment to addressing symptoms over root causes, but mostly because women do not need saving. They have been leading the fight against capitalist expansion for centuries. The faster we stop allowing them to be painted as passive victims, the closer we come to truly honouring their leadership and creating new ways of living and working with one another. The shift is coming. All I can say is that it cannot come soon enough.
As always, we’d love to hear your thoughts as this is something we’re still talking about internally—is it actively harmful for NGOs to pursue ‘gender equality’ in this narrow framing, or is it a case of something that’s not wrong, just insufficient? How strongly should we critique it, versus kind of ignoring it as a bit misguided and simply try to continue pushing for deeper, more structural change? Feel free to engage in the conversation in the comments or in an upcoming forum on the topic. As always, if you have a question, email email@example.com with the subject line “Ask AGC.” If you have feedback about the newsletter, we’d love to hear that too. We’re always open to growing and doing things differently.
This article from the Disinformation Chronicle, titled “Monsanto’s Ghostwriting to Influence Science and Media.” It’s a great investigative piece about how science can be used as a tool to serve the interests of the most powerful.
Some powerful words on the stories we tell about the climate. It served as a good reminder to remain steadfast in our pockets of hope.
This article in Forbes by Errol Schweizer on why economic justice begins in the food industry. It makes a great case for the importance of fighting for just wages and collective organising within the food and service sectors.
Join us for a webinar series organised by GRAIN and hosted by AGC, unpacking how pensions (workers' retirement savings) are being exploited to fund profit-hungry transnational corporations and private equity funds invested in grabbing land privatising social services, infrastructure, and natural resources. The first webinar is on May 12 at 10 am ET. Register here or at bit.ly/pension-funds.
We also published an article on Medium on modern-day slavery and the ways in which capitalism continues to depend on it. Over on Instagram, we’ve been posting about the Bougainville Revolution, United Fruit, and why we use the terms Majority and Minority World.
This instalment of Offshoot was written by Thea Walmsley, with editing support from the team.