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Rural Women Panels Raise Issues on Food Security, Violence Against Women

By Leigh Rogers

In observance of International Day of Rural Women and World Food Day, United Methodist Women co-organized two panel discussions highlighting issues important to rural women around the world at the Church Center for the United Nations, Oct. 14, 2011. 

“Rural women make up more than one quarter of the total world population,” according to the Food and Agriculture Organization. The panels were in advance of the United Nations’ (U.N.) 56th Commission on the Status of Women, where the theme is also on rural women.

Policy experts and on-the-ground activists from around the world spoke on how rural women are affected by issues of food security and gender violence.
 

Food Security: Global Policy and Grassroots Realities

Everyone is grappling with food security around the world, but rural women are “on the front lines of the issues,” says Diana Duarte, communications director of MADRE, a United Methodist Women coalition partner. “It is always good to recognize the vulnerabilities in rural communities, but we need to help women build capacity.”  

To do this, Ms. Duarte trusts local solutions to meet needs of rural communities. Bridging the gaps always begins at the local level, she says. “I’m pushing back on the idea that large scale problems require large scale solutions. Often big solutions come from those who are the source of the problems.”

She challenged policymakers and activists to think about “what ifs” to encourage more people-oriented solutions to food insecurity:

  • What if the majority of female farmers could resist the consumerism of agribusinesses?
  • What if rural families had sufficient land to grow food?
  • What if indigenous peoples’ rights were recognized?
  • What if food aid was purchased locally from farmers within the areas in need?

Land ownership and land scarcity are the least-discussed challenges facing local subsistence farmers, mostly women, says Janaina Stronzake. Offering a grassroots perspective on food security from her activism in the Landless Workers Movement in Brazil, she advocates for agriculture reform laws allowing unused lands to be given over to those willing to work the land for food production.

In Brazil there are laws in place, but they are not enforced. In fact, it serves the interest of the government to purchase unused lands of strategic importance instead of allowing poor farmers to use it for food. “The government is buying up the land, which is usually Amazonian and comes with valuable natural resources such as aquifers,” Ms. Stronzake said.

Indigenous communities that reside in such areas are unable to use the land that has fed them for generations because of government or corporate control. They “have been responsible with the land but when it gets taken from them it gets destroyed,” said Ms. Duarte. “Providing land to indigenous people would also help protect environmental resources.”

Cultural perceptions of women also influence how land is disseminated. In many places around the world, marriage is often a barrier to land ownership since a married woman usually disinherits the land from her family of origin.

Policymakers respond

Sharon Brennen-Haylock, senior liaison officer for the Food and Agriculture Organization’s liaison office to the United Nations, addressed the “what ifs.” “The World Food Programme purchases food locally as much as possible, but there are still a lot of production issues and postharvest losses” that cause shortages of food aid, she said.

She admitted the effort needs to be bigger and involve more grass-roots leaders. At the policy level, member states, researchers and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are participating in a committee to recommend solutions in sync with realities on the ground.

Arrmanatha Nasir, first secretary for the Permanent Mission of the Republic of Indonesia to the United Nations, discussed food security policy at the U.N. General Assembly level. He said that while Brazil is at the front of the land issues work, it is difficult to move forward on land policy because landlords constantly request extensions with governments. 

Rural Communities and Violence Against Women

The panel on “Rural Communities and Violence Against Women” attempted to bridge the gap between policy and grass-roots efforts to help rural women directly affected by conflict.

Aldijana Sisic, campaign manager of UNiTE to End Violence Against Women, stated, “Violence against women is cultural--fostered through political and systemic policies.” Prejudice and power is sustained by misogyny, systems aren’t interested in punishing or implementing laws, and stigma after violence is reinforced by culture.

Women in poverty are more inclined to violence, and rural women in poverty are less able to get social services and medical attention, she said. And, to ensure prosecution, law enforcement needs to be sensitized to all forms of violence against women.

Laws are not enough

From the policy perspective, there’s no prosecution because governments and policymakers often use amnesty for perpetrators of sexual violence as a bargaining chip in conflict to move “peace” forward, says Mavic Cabrera-Balleza from the Global Network of Women Peacebuilders.

“We need to go back to [U.N. Security Council Resolution] 1325 because women need to participate in the conflict resolution process to be less vulnerable to sexual violence,” she said.

Policy’s top-down nature means that enforcement ends there; it never gets down to the local level. Some places are so rural, laws aren’t heard. In places of conflict, armies can do whatever they want, and government is complacent in the violence.

Jenepher Masis, director of a Kenyan grass-roots project called Tears of Women, echoed this sentiment. “Is there a way to know resolutions are making a difference?” she asked. “They are so far removed from the grass-roots.”

Ms. Sisic responded that laws are not enough. “We need social mobilization--to members of congress, celebrities, and other high level people.” We also need to recognize that men and boys are partners, not perpetrators, she said.  

No incentives to end violence against women

Right now, there is not that much movement among nations. “There are only 33 national policies to end violence against women out of 193 nation states,” said Ms. Cabrera-Balleza.

Another problem, said Carol Smolenski, executive director of End Child Prostitution, Pornography and Trafficking (ECPAT), is that the demand for child prostitution and sex trafficking is so high, pimps and traffickers have no incentive to stop.

Trafficking is fed by poverty and demands for cheap labor and bodies for sex. Globalized economic policy facilitates trafficking where firms can move jobs and businesses around the world. This feeds more poverty because it leaves local areas without jobs. People become desperate to find jobs, placing them at risk to traffickers. Children are entered into trafficking market because they’re vulnerable. “Currently, there are more laws that restrict the trafficking of things than people,” Ms. Smolenski said.

Cultural barriers in Ethiopia

Ms. Masis from Kenya and Mahdere Paulos, former executive director of the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association, argued that early marriage and gender roles play a strong role in sustaining violence against women in Africa.

Ethiopia has the highest rates of early marriage, said Ms. Paulos. Ninety percent of girls there are married before age 15, and many marriages don’t involve the bride’s consent. A practice known as “marriage by abduction” abets violence whereby a man forcefully kidnaps and rapes a girl. Because she is no longer a virgin, the girl’s family does not protest the marriage, leaving the girl to live with her rapist for the rest of her life.

Many parents see later marriage as failure and fear abduction so they marry their daughters off early.

Education is crucial to women’s empowerment and ending violence against them, said Ms. Paulos. Girls are supposed to do the chores in Ethiopia, so they are looked over in favor of boys to send to school. Even girls who get the privilege of attending school are more likely to do poorly: they don’t have time for homework since they’re still expected to do the chores.

Once a girl is married, her education (if she had it) stops, and she must cook, clean and raise children. Without education or income opportunities, she is more dependent on her husband.

Conflict and poor governance in Kenya

Kenya’s western province is most affected by war and conflict, said Ms. Masis, and a patriarchal government does nothing to address violence against women.

Government fails to address proliferation of firearms, which come from neighboring countries. International treaties are not internalized by governments because there are not enough mechanisms to reinforce them and the policy frameworks are male-dominated. One third of women are legally supposed to participate in policymaking, but culturally, women aren’t included.

Decision making is too centralized in Nairobi, so uninformed rural areas “are perpetrators of violence because there is no enforcement by central government,” she said.

The lack of infrastructure is key in maintaining the disconnect between policies and implementation on the ground. Without roads, schools and markets, rural areas are left more isolated from cities and women and girls are left without access to education or jobs. 

What We Can Do

All the panelists said we know what we need to do as policymakers, NGOs and activists:

  • We must support local movements and solutions; they know what is best for their communities to garner the most positive change.
  • As a unified body, they have the power to enact laws.
  • Emergency food aid matters. If it is linked to local land movements, it can create speculative markets. (Ms. Stronzake said in Brazil there are local markets, but they are owned by Walmart, so the local communities don’t see any of the benefits or profits. It all goes back to the corporation.)
  • Recognize whose voice is heard in positions of power. Continue contact with policymakers to ensure the right people are at the table. Continually ask whether lobbyists are heard above local women.
  • Include men and boys. Women’s empowerment isn’t just about women but boys and men; it lifts up the whole community. Talk to men about prostitution and trafficking to dissuade the demand.
  • Educate and empower the girl-child. This will help delay marriage and allow more independence from her husband.
  • Target media’s attention on violence against women. In Ethiopia, Ms. Paulos said to combat domestic violence they had a “Best Husband” contest. Without demonizing men, it helped men see what a good husband is.
  • Make the family and community accountable to violence against women. “The first to disown a rape victim is the family,” said Ms. Cabrera-Balleza.

Leigh Rogers is public relations associate for United Methodist Women.

Last Updated: 04/10/2014
 
 

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