Women's empowerment and agriculture: an interview with Hilal Elver

The nexus between women and food security is extremely important, but we need to consider women as individuals, not only as family members. They struggle every day to feed the family, and through agroecology they earn their living and produce healthy food.
An interview with Hilal Elver, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food.

10 October 2017 - During the Forum on Women’s Empowerment in the Context of Food Security and Nutrition, held in Rome on September 25th at the FAO, Hilal Elver, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, was one of the key speakers. The Forum aimed to promote a shared understanding on how issues related to women’s economic empowerment in the context of food security and nutrition are evolving. It also aimed to contribute to promoting mutual accountability towards the full realization of women’s rights, achieving gender equality and women's empowerment for the attainment of all Sustainable Development Goals - especially SDG1, SDG2, SDG5, SDG8 and SDG17 - and strengthening synergies among these goals in policy and programme frameworks for countries.

Here below an interview with Hilal Elver by Flora Sonkin for Terra Nuova.

Which are the gender gaps preventing from achieving the fulfilment of the right to food?

The gender gap is much larger than the right to food... The role of women in relation to food production and nutrition is extremely important, more and more present in the international agenda, even if it used to be not very much. The woman is mostly considered as a family member (pregnancy, breastfeeding, nutrition) but we have to consider her as an individual, otherwise we can never be able to reach women’s rights.

Can you tell us some significant experiences of women’s empowerment in agriculture which are particularly important to you?

When I’m on the field, I use to go to ordinary people’s house to have first hand information not filtered by NGOs or others. I ask simple questions, for instance who’s sitting first to the table, who eats first – and the answer is always “man eats the first, second children and then woman”, if it stays something... We’re talking about families with 6 to 10 children, very big families and very poor, so women have to compromise. These are families with 1.90 dollars a day – these are the people we’re dealing with, which is right now a billion. If you see the new report on Food Insecurity, hunger is not reducing but is increasing! Why? The policies are not responding, the Governments don’t take seriously, there are kind of extreme drought in Africa for instance, impacted by climate change and big power of agroindustry. We need to go beyond the statistics because when you talk about food security, if based on statistics, you just have to produce and push more and more. So if you produce more you’re going to eliminate hunger. But what happens when you produce more but you CAN’T eliminate hunger? This is very clear in this years’ report. There’s something wrong in this understanding of what food security means, how to respond hunger... It’s basically economic inaccessibility, climate change, ecological problems, and of course the role of women is undermined.

The question is not how much we produce but how and what. Do you think that practices such as agroecology could be a pathway forward?

For instance, there is a myth about women being more environmentally conscious. But, instead of saying this, the way in which women are using resources, because they have very few, has to be environmentally conscious: they don’t have money to buy fertilisers, pesticides, and they need to feed their children, that’s why they plant vegetables. We push women in a position that they have to be care taker. And it helps the nutrition issue. It’s not only economic policies but the policies of resilience, which women sometimes don’t like. When you talk with women about resilience they say “don’t tell me to be resilient, I don’t want to be more and more pushing hard my limits beyond what I’m going”. So that kind of things is important in relation to how to use resources to produce food. That’s why agroecology and organic farming is extremely important for women and actually they’re making more money – there’s a strong market incentive to produce organic and agroecology, this is an opportunity.

Even in my field visit to these poorest people, they’re making much money with agroecology than their husbands in agribusiness, and they’re producing healthier! A woman in Zambia told me she’s earning one day what her husband is earning a month! And now she’s teaching to her neighbours...