To understand the causes of hunger in West Africa you don’t need to look far. My country, Burkina Faso, is one of the poorest countries in the world. The country had an annual average growth rate of 5.1% between 2000 and 2009. Yet this macroeconomic performance has not triggered a reduction in poverty or inequality, and hunger has intensified. In order to explain the reason for this I will start from top to bottom because I don’t think that the causes stem from the farmers, be they men or women. I believe, rather, that if the farmers had been listened to there would have been no hunger at all.
Like other African countries, Burkina Faso has experienced the effects of global energy, agricultural and economic crises. Each sector of production has undergone significant disruptions, leaving the very poorest in disarray. Agriculture, the key sector of Burkina Faso’s economy which employs more than 80% of the population and contributes up to 32.5% of GDP has been equally shaken. Such disturbances pose a real challenge to initiatives now underway which seek to achieve food security and food sovereignty.
The government of Burkina Faso has adopted several new policies in an attempt to confront these crises. Yet unfortunately these have mainly been designed to respond to the imperatives of the dominant world powers and they have failed to take into account the realities on the ground. As a result, the main concerns of the large majority of the population have been ignored. For example, in 2008 the country adopted a new national strategy on rural development and in 2009 a law on rural land tenure was passed. Despite the participatory approach presented as a key stage in the development of this national framework by those appointed by the government to lead the project, there was very little engagement with the needs and concerns of men and women involved in food production. This was true for both the drafting of these national documents and the process leading to their creation.
There is little common ground between the realities faced by the population of Burkina Faso and international requirements and the shortfall in grain production and worsening of hunger in the past years can largely be attributed to this fact. It is not that farmers are unable to produce a sufficient quantity of food, it is that they find themselves in a political system that will not allow them to fulfill their potential. Not consulted in policy debates and uninvited to discussions, they feel excluded from the system when in reality they are key actors. What is more, farmers do not always understand how policy demands play out in these domains. Yet these are the people who suffer the effects of policy choices. In my view, the problem really lies here at the level of policy.
Women and food security
The new national strategy for rural development fails to recognise that farming in Burkina Faso is based on a traditional model which clashes with the reality that 80% of active farmers in Burkina Faso are now women. Agriculture has long been based on a system of family smallholdings in which the man is seen as the farmer, whilst the woman is expected to channel her labour into childcare. The man is charged with the duty of providing his family with food and income, and the woman must ensure that this is managed in a reasonable fashion, dedicating her creative genius to its transformation and conservation, and to ensuring a healthy and balanced diet for all the family. In this context she has access to provisions, but not control. In the current climate, however, many rural women face a double burden, which is why they are calling for the revision of this model. A number of socio-economic changes such as a breakdown in traditional solidarities, divorces, widowhoods, and increasing pauperisation, have transformed this division of duties and more and more women now have to fulfil the two responsibilities in order to ensure their own survival, as well as that of their children. Women are thus the unrecognised motor of agriculture in Burkina Faso.
In response to their greater awareness of their crucial role as nurturers, and to the sudden inversion of responsibilities between men and women, women are fighting to improve their conditions and their position as producers, managers and nurturers within their families and communities. They organize in associations such as the Banzon Association of Rice Producers, in working groups, and in cooperatives. Take the Women’s Rice Farmers Cooperative in the western region of Burkina Faso. Made up of about 1,000 educated and non-educated women, it is a highly organised and active cooperative of women who are aware of their potential to affect change, and to secure greater access to means of production including land, equipment, training and material inputs. Groups of women like this have been able to obtain larger parcels of land through lobbying local leaders. The needs of these women lie at the heart of these organisations and translate into a wish to see an increase in grain production. This is why women must have secure access to plots of land. But such access still remains largely dependent on the recognition and valorisation of rural women as fully fledged citizens and as producers in their own right, capable of managing a family farm. We thus find ourselves confronted with a major challenge: how do we secure land tenure rights in general and, in particular, how do we secure those of rural women?
The major challenges which rural women face as producers stem from a few key issues: how to ensure that there is intensive and year-round production, how to secure land, and how to be recognized as playing a key role in their function as nurturers? That, on a reduced scale, is the challenge for each woman. At the organisational level women want to have large plots of good quality crop land. They want access to equipment and agricultural technology; they want to receive training to produce more because they are already producing. Unfortunately, however, since compared to men women are already disadvantaged in terms of access to land, they are more adversely affected by the monopolisation of land by foreign investors supported by the state, and by the land-grabbing of men and women involved in agribusiness. Agribusiness is a fashionable concept in Burkina Faso whereby rich men and women seize fertile land in rural areas to harvest a whole range of cash crops for exportation, such as fruit, sesame or other products, at the request of foreign firms. We regularly read in the press that Saudi Arabia has purchased enormous areas of crop land for rice production, and several members of the government possess large areas of land in some of Burkina Faso’s most fertile areas without even being farmers! The recently adopted land tenure law is encouraging the development of these destabilising trends.
Each woman has understood the saying “those who remain lying down will die”. Therefore the mantra that the women have adopted is: let us stand up and fight. There are even groups which have taken the name “Remain Standing” because if you are upright, you can walk and you can run, but when you are lying down it takes longer to sit up and get up. Standing up and speaking out thus become more difficult. This is the symbolism underlying the women’s’ organisations. It tells you the degree of their commitment, “Get up and stand up for our rights”!
At the social level women face two main types of domination. The first, dictated by the patriarchy, is that every woman must be accountable to a man. She is under the domination of a man, be it a father, brother, son or husband. Some women are dominated by all four at the same time. So women must first work to free themselves from this many-sided domination. The second type of domination stems from the nature of political decision-making both at the local and at the national level, which often fails to take into account a vital segment of the population: women. In order to succeed, women must thus struggle against these two obstacles. And this is why they have decided to organise.
In forming “unions”, women believe that they can more effectively play their role in the food production chain. This is crucial, for women are present along the whole food chain, from production to consumption. They produce, they preserve, and they process so that food is available all year round; they are the ones who make choices, who determine the family’s menu; they are the ones who determine food quantities. Unfortunately, such assertion does not always work because the powers that be are afraid. Mostly men, they carry on as if women rising would make the earth tremble! If women rise up suddenly to resist they might fail, so they approach the matter strategically, slowly but surely, with action that will convince the men in the medium and long term. Such actions are grounded in their comprehensive understanding of food security.
It is the women who try to realise food security on a daily basis. In all families, girls are taught how to put something by for tomorrow from a young age. This is the beginning of food security. It is why when women produce they do not sell it all. They make sure to preserve, to keep a little for tomorrow. This is the principle of food security at work. It is in a similar spirit that they are organising themselves today to develop grain banks, that is, granaries or warehouses created to store up grain for hard times when this stock can be sold at welfare prices so that everyone can eat. This is an example of a food security strategy which they hope to build on.
The other strategy is an attempt to diversify grain production and offer a choice of varieties. In addition to rice, for example, they wish to produce maize, small millet and plant vegetable gardens. They already do this on a very small scale, yet local and national authorities pay very little attention to the concerns and coping strategies of rural women. In my view, when it comes to strategies for food security, it is essential to involve these women in debates and strategic choices because they have the knowledge. They have the ideas in their heads and they have them in their hearts. They must be given the chance to speak out.
In our own words
Between these women and the public forums where it is possible to express their views there is always a man who must give his authorization. The strategies which are being developed must therefore also target men so that they can support and side with the women, recognising that the women’s actions are to the benefit of all. If we want to take food security seriously, the women simply must be allowed to speak. In the current environment others speak in their name, others act in their name, allude to their situation in intellectual and political debates - when in reality they can speak so much better for themselves!
Let me give an example. In 1999, a rural Burkinabé woman, Nagbila Aisseta, accepted the Hunger Project Africa Prize awarded to the 'women farmers of Africa'. She was a poor woman aged 35 who had not left her village since birth, had never entered a car, knew nothing at all of modern life, but who, little by little, had developed initiatives to create a large organisation involved in livestock farming, agriculture, and market gardening to tackle malnutrition in her area. She was invited to receive her prize at a ceremony at the United Nations headquarters and asked to submit her speech prior to the event in the national Mooré language. It was to be translated into English, which she did not speak, for another person to read out during the ceremony. But she said “No. If it is me that has received the prize then I should speak directly to those who gave it to me. The way I was brought up, when you thank someone you thank them directly, without a go-between.” She asked the United Nations to find a Burkinabé interpreter who could understand both Mooré and English in order to ensure simultaneous interpretation. And this is how it was done. She knew her rights - in this case the right to speak!
When are the women of Burkina Faso going to be allowed to speak about what they experience, what they want, what they can do and what knowledge and know-how they wish to share? When it comes to food security in particular I am convinced that women have a lot to share. All over West Africa I am convinced of one thing: women have strategies for food security, strategies to combat hunger, and they must be heard.
Translated from French by Jennifer Allsopp
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