Author, Lucy Pearson, is a Research Coordinator with the Humanitarian Futures Programme, King's College London, and a King’s Masters graduate with special interest in gender and disasters. The opinions expressed are her own.
As the United Nations (U.N.) warns of a global food crisis in 2013, awareness must be raised of the stark disparity between the vulnerability of women and men when crops fail.
Predictions of extreme weather around the globe with its short and long-term impacts on crop yields and rising food prices threaten women in developing countries in particular. It is women who traditionally go without and give priority to feeding children and men.
At the same time, as women are the majority agriculture workers, it is their workloads which increase in crises. Despite greater time burdens, less decision-making power, and more limited access to resources they bear the brunt of the burden when hunger strikes.
World grain reserves are dangerously low and food prices are close to record levels according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
Of course, this will affect everyone. In the UK, farmers have reported reductions in yields of up to 25 percent and supermarkets have finally started stocking ‘irregular’ fruit and vegetables in light of having not much else to choose from. However, the impacts will be far more compounded within poor communities of developing countries, where agriculture is the main livelihood.
In the last food crisis that impacted on a similarly international level, the U.N. World Food Programme (WFP) reported that food insecurity had made women’s role as chief food provider even more difficult throughout the developing world. The upcoming crisis will be no different.
It is also important to note that further differentiation can be made within this divide of genders. Pregnant and disabled women, for example, are even more vulnerable to such food insecurity due to the demands on their health.
However, discussions of the looming food crisis have been gender blind so far, concealing the differential impacts and experiences of such crises. This reflects a general inadequate conceptualisation of gender concerns in crises as well as an insufficient integration of gender analyses in institutions and strategies.
In light of this highly probable food crisis, climate forecasts will play an ever more crucial role. Farmers will need to maximise crop growth. Forecasts can notify farmers when the season’s rains are most likely to be, how long they might last, and if any irregular conditions are expected. This can better inform the communities’ livelihood decision-making and result in reduced vulnerability to food insecurity.
It is crucial that these forecasts come in an understandable format and that they are of use to the specific community. However, equally critical is that these forecasts take into consideration the different needs of men and women. In a recent study, it has been highlighted that in communities in Senegal, the way of life is for men to make use of the first rains of the season to plant produce for their own consumption and income, while women must wait their turn.
Women will plant crops for their children and themselves to consume, as well as to generate their own income separately from their husbands, but only once the men have finished cultivating. This can mean waiting for subsequent rains, which often do not come.
Therefore, while forecasts indicating the arrival of the first rains of the season may be useful for men, for women this is of no help. Women reported wanting to know when the first rains will be over and when the next rains will be, and if there would be a period of drought later in the season. Providing a “one size fits all” forecast is therefore inappropriate and inadequate.
The theme of the International Day for Disaster Reduction was how women and girls are potential drivers of resilience. This theme highlights that women are the backbone of communities in crises. They warn of danger through their vast social networks before a hazard; they look after dependents during the crisis; and often lead recovery afterwards.
Women are not just more vulnerable to crises but are agents of change. It is therefore a vital first step that women, as well as men, are engaged in discussions with climate scientists and humanitarian policy-makers around the specific needs of climate forecasts and their format and delivery. This is necessary both for use in the looming food crisis and for meteorological hazards in general, which are increasing in frequency and severity.
After all, resilience is not an individual property but one of a system, unit, or community, and this must include men and women.