In southern Africa, women keep their families – and in fact whole nations – fed. Without them, there would be no food security, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation. They produce up to 80% of food in developing countries, which accounts for about half of the world’s food. But poor women in South Africa and Africa as a whole are some of the continent’s most vulnerable people.

In celebration of Women’s Month, Food & Trees for Africa (FTFA) thanks its female beneficiaries, employees, and sponsors for all they do to put food on the nation’s tables. At FTFA, a leading Section 21 Non-Profit Social Enterprise that addresses food security and environmental sustainability, the majority of its beneficiaries and staff are women. 

Food security is a human right

Section 27 of the Constitution notes that everyone has the right to access sufficient food and water, and women are at the heart of working to feed South Africa’s people.

The right to food is linked to one’s right to life and dignity, writes the South African Human Rights Commission in its Right to Food fact sheet. “The right to food requires that food be available, accessible and adequate for everyone without discrimination at all times.”

FTFA actively works to include women in its programmes, recognising they fulfil many people’s – notably children’s – right to food, while facing many obstacles.

Women are in charge of most households and providing food

Women are mostly responsible for feeding and caring for children, according to a 2011 policy brief by the Human Sciences Research Council. A 2016 study found that agriculture contributes more to food security in female-headed houses as opposed to those headed by men. The gender gap is wider in rural areas than in urban areas, the study found.

“At the end of the day, women have to make sure that their children and families have something to eat,” says Thando Jafta, a ​​Trees and Carbon Administrator at FTFA. She says she is constantly awed by the women with whom she engages every day.  Thando is in regular contact with beneficiaries to make sure that FTFA’s many food security projects are running smoothly.

Women farmers seldom own the land that they work – compromising regional food security

In Africa, while men cultivate cash crops, women’s agricultural work is primarily in subsistence crops, write the authors of “The pervasive triad of food security, gender inequity and women’s health”.  But while women are at the front line of ensuring food security for their families and communities, they are at a significantly greater disadvantage when it comes to land ownership and their ability to access assistance. 

“Women farmers are disadvantaged and constrained in many ways,” write the authors of the paper. “They own only 1% of the land, receive less than 7% of farm extension services, and receive less than 10% of the credit given to small-scale farmers.” 

These structural disadvantages are part of why FTFA prioritises women and youth in all its programmes. This prioritisation is primarily true when it comes to selecting beneficiaries, says FTFA’s head of programmes Robyn Hills. 

Gauteng Ecopreneur Nunzi Nyangala says it is important to get more women involved in farming. “Farming is not for the faint-hearted,” she says. “If a woman goes out and farms, it shows her strengths and that she sees the importance of feeding the nation.”

Women farmers are at the battle lines of climate change 

Climate change is making an already difficult situation even harder for Africa’s women farmers. The planet’s changing climate is entrenching existing inequalities, researchers say. Most of southern Africa is already experiencing climate change: agricultural patterns are shifting, and there has been an uptick in the frequency and severity of extreme weather events.

“Women, especially poor women, are one of the groups most vulnerable to the effects of climate change, and least likely to have the resources to cope with them,” according to the African Climate Reality Project’s report, A Gendered Lens: Mainstreaming Gender into South Africa’s Climate Change Response. “For example, climate change increases the likelihood of natural disasters. Women are 14 times as likely as men to die during a disaster, and to be negatively affected in the aftermath by stress-related or health issues, gender-based violence, depression, and loss of livelihoods.”

The African continent is particularly vulnerable to climate change because many of its inhabitants are one catastrophe away from extreme poverty – and the continent’s most vulnerable people are its women and children.

In order to address this vulnerability, policy initiatives need to support, assist and educate female farmers. Such interventions will help them become more resilient in the face of climate change – and the challenges it brings with it.

Women are at the heart of food security – on the farm, in NGOs and sponsoring organisations

Women are not only ensuring food security in the garden, but also in the organisations that fund this humanitarian work. Robyn is responsible for the organisation’s fundraising and says that she mostly engages with women. “The heads of corporate social investment at trusts and foundations are often women,” she says. “Many are deeply aware of why social development needs to prioritize women, who are often the nurturers of the communities that they head.”

At FTFA itself, two out of three staff are women. KwaZulu-Natal branch manager Bharathi Tugh, who has been with FTFA for more than 20 years, says that most people who come to her workshops are women. “The majority of our beneficiaries and trainees have been women,” she says. “There’s a strength that lies in individual women. These women are growing enough food so that they can earn an income to provide for their households.”

Bharathi says that over the years she has also noticed that women in communities tend to support each other. “It’s a multiplier effect,” she explains. “There is one champion woman who is bringing on the other women in the community.” This knock-on effect can transform whole towns –– and ultimately ensure the food security of a nation.

Donate to FTFA this Women’s Month, please click here. 

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