Women’s Month 2019 | Sex selection: an ordinary or violent act? by Christo Gorpudolo

Women’s Month 2019 | Sex selection: an ordinary or violent act? by Christo Gorpudolo

According to the United Nations Population Fund, there is a variation in the ratio of male to female birth—since the 1990s, 25% more male births than female have been recorded ...

Women’s Month 2019 | ‘Empty’ laws and Peruvian women’s ongoing struggle for therapeutic abortion by Zoya Waheed and Romina Manga Cambria

Women’s Month 2019 | ‘Empty’ laws and Peruvian women’s ongoing struggle for therapeutic abortion by Zoya Waheed and Romina Manga Cambria

Laws and regulations are policy tools that are seen as strong and effective in securing rights, but should we assume that this is always the case? Looking at therapeutic abortion, ...

Women’s Month 2019 | Seed keepers, memory keepers: native women and food sovereignty by Leila Rezvani

When North America was colonised, the relationship of indigenous people with food was also colonised. But a group of women acting as seed keepers for their communities are fighting back, practicing decolonisation in their daily work and addressing the legacy of food colonisation through the reclamation of seeds and the traditions, practices, and affective relations that nurture human-plant-environment relationships and keep Native communities thriving, healthy, and connected.


Understanding the colonisation of North America begins with understanding food. Europeans thought that Natives could be ‘civilized’ through their stomachs. Targeting Native diets and methods of food provisioning was a way to control and disempower. Native populations of humans, non-human animals, and plants were decimated due to disease and violence. In what is now called the United States, native groups were forced onto individual allotments, often marginal land away from ancestral homes. Sedentary farming was viewed as the rational form of land use, shaping the native in the white yeoman farmer’s image.

And in residential schools, Native languages, dress and diets were forcefully repressed and replaced with English, European clothing and foods like wheat and dairy, which were largely absent from Native diets previously (Vernon 2015).

The legacy of this physical and cultural violence is clear: today, at least 60 Native reservations struggle with food insecurity, and Native families are four times as likely as other US families to report having not enough to eat (PWNA 2017). This places many Native communities in a relationship of dependence with the US Government: the USDA provides canned goods, powdered milk, processed cheese and white sugar, contributing directly to high rates of diabetes, heart disease, and obesity (Vernon 2015).

Fighting back

Native women are addressing the legacy of food colonisation by asserting their communities’ right to grow food for themselves—food that nourishes human bodies, cultural tradition, and the wider web of non-human species and environments. These women and the groups they work with not only promote food sovereignty but practice it: Winona La Duke of the Anishinnaabe founded the White Earth Land Recovery Project, which bought back 1,200 acres of tribal land that had been appropriated by the US government and began a project to revive the collection of wild rice, an important traditional food.

Rowen White of the Mohawk Nation founded Sierra Seeds, a company selling locally adapted and heritage varieties, and directs the Indigenous Seed Keepers Network (ISKN). In the winter of 2018, the ISKN came to an agreement with Seed Savers Exchange, a public access seedbank of rare and heritage varieties, to identify and rematriate[1] varieties of corn, beans and squash that originated in Native communities (White, n.d.).

Rufina Juarez, a Chicana Indigenous woman, helped organise the 14-acere South Central Farm, maintained by 350 primarily Central American families as a space to grow culturally appropriate, nourishing food in 20-by-30-foot plots. The farm was a haven for immigrants to grow food that connected them to the places they left behind: nopales, corn, squash, tlapanche and papalo greens, lettuces, strawberries, cabbages (Mark 2006). The farm was bulldozed in 2006 even after farm advocates were able to raise money to meet the $16 million asking price. (Juarez 2010, Gordon 2006).

And still, new challenges constantly arise: climate change alters traditional migratory routes of important game animals like caribou, land grabbing for industrial monocropping or extraction removes land from indigenous stewardship, and biopiracy[2] and corporate consolidation of the seed industry deteriorates crop biodiversity (Cultural Survival 2013). Native women continue to organise in the face of these challenges, recognising that colonisation is an ongoing, evolving process, deeply tied to the machinations of globalised capital.

Enduring practices

The work of seed keeping and the maintenance of community tradition it entails is often, but not exclusively, spearheaded by women. Collaboration between many stakeholders, Native or not, young and old, male, female, or otherwise, is key. I chose to highlight these initiatives because women are central and powerful, but are not burdened with speaking for ‘nature’, from an essentialised, gender-based position. Rather, their work builds on traditions of care, affectivity, and community network building that women and others have performed for generations, throughout the trauma of colonisation and the attempted, but unsuccessful, erasure of native foodways.

[1] “Rematriate” means returning the seeds to their place of origin. “Repatriate” is more commonly used, but here I chose to retain the word used in White’s article, which consciously imputes a feminine quality to the seed and the land to which it is returning.

[2] Biopiracy describes the process by which biological or genetic material (commonly from medicinal or crop plant or animal species) is obtained and exploited for commercial use without the knowledge or consent of the original ‘owners’ or stewards of the material. The most common situation is multinational pharmaceutical or agrochemical/seed companies using indigenous plant knowledge to locate commercially valuable species, stela them, and then patent them so they become exclusive property of the corporation. The term was originally coined by Pat Mooney of the ETC Group and popularized by Vandana Shiva of Navdanya.


References
‘Combating Food Insecurity on Native American Reservations'(2017) , pp. 1-4Partnership with Native Americans and Northern Plains Reservation Aid.
‘Maintaining the Ways of our Ancestors: Indigenous Women Address Food Sovereignty’ (Last updated 13 October 2013) (a webpage of Cultural Survival). Accessed 16 February 2019 <https://www.culturalsurvival.org/news/maintaining-ways-our-ancestors-indigenous-women-address-food-sovereignty>.
Alvarez, L. (Last updated 2019) ‘Colonization, Food, and the Practice of Eating’ (a webpage of The Food Empowerment Project). Accessed 13 February 2019 <http://www.foodispower.org/colonization-food-and-the-practice-of-eating/>.
Gordon (14 June 2006) ‘LA’s South Central Farm Shut Down and Bulldozed’ Tree Hugger. Accessed 16 February 2019 <https://www.treehugger.com/corporate-responsibility/las-south-central-farm-shut-down-and-bulldozed.html>.
Mark (9 June 2006) ‘Could the battle for South Central Farm be coming to a close?’ Grist. Accessed 25 February 2019 <https://grist.org/article/mark2/>.
Juarez, R. (2010) ‘Indigenous Women in the Food Justice and Sovereignty Movement: Lessons from the South Central Farm’, NACCS Annual Conference: Chicana/o Environmental Justice Struggles for a Post-Neoliberal Age, 1 April 2010. San Jose State University pp1-10.
Vernon, R.V. (2015) ‘A Native Perspective: Food is More than Consumption’, Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development 5(4): 137-142.
White, R. ‘Indigenous Seed Keepers Network: The Long Way Home; Seed Rematriation at Taos Pueblo’ (a webpage of Native Food Alliance). Accessed 13 February 2019 <https://nativefoodalliance.org/indigenous-seedkeepers-network/>.

This article is part of the series `Women´s Month 2019´, in which members of the ISS gender committee reflect on women´s issues on Bliss.


Image Credit: https://www.stopthewall.org/apartheid-wrong


About the author:

leilaLeila Rezvani is a Master’s student in the AFES major. She comes from Southern Vermont, USA, and is interested in the politics of scientific knowledge production, seed systems, plant breeding and thinking about how the agro-food system could be more just for plants, people and non-human animals. She misses the mountains and hopes to work for a small seed company or farm someday (soon).  

 

Women’s Week | Feminist political ecology in research and action by Wendy Harcourt

Women’s Week | Feminist political ecology in research and action by Wendy Harcourt

On 8 March 2018, Professor Wendy Harcourt will be inaugurated at the International Institute of Social Studies, becoming one of the few female professors at the Erasmus University. This blog ...

Women’s Week | Challenging humanitarianism beyond gender as women and women as victims by Dorothea Hilhorst, Holly Porter and Rachel Gordon

Women’s Week | Challenging humanitarianism beyond gender as women and women as victims by Dorothea Hilhorst, Holly Porter and Rachel Gordon

Problematic assumptions related to women's position and role in humanitarian crises are unpacked in a special issue of the journal Disasters on gender, sexuality and violence. The main lesson drawn ...

Women’s Week | The power and limits of women’s collective agency in fragile contexts: from pastoralist communities to refugee environments by Holly A Ritchie

Women’s groups and networks have been cited as key instruments for fostering women’s pathways of social and economic empowerment. Yet, with limits to collective agency, Holly Ritchie argues that the emergence of broader women’s movements and struggles remains cautious and constrained in a context of fragility.


The need for empowerment in fragile contexts

In rising above the #MeToo Movement and championing change, women’s groups and networks have been cited as key instruments for fostering women’s ‘individual and collective journeys of empowerment’ (Cornwall 2016), and opening up critical space for cultural transformation and development. Such strategies may be particularly vital in fragile environments where strong patriarchal norms and attitudes persist.

For women in such contexts, ‘gender-transformative approaches’ are urged to appreciate both evolving gender norms, as well as power relations that underpin gender inequalities. Williams et al. (1994) indicated that understanding different types of power was crucial to unwrapping women’s empowerment. At an individual level, ‘power-to’ is the capacity to act, permitting agency and creativity. ‘Power-within’ relates to inner strength, referring to self-confidence, self-awareness and assertiveness. Meanwhile, ‘power-with’ involves collective power, such as through women’s groups and networks that may provide strength to their members through solidarity and support.

Collective action promoting pathways of empowerment

Beyond an activity or intervention that is carried out on women, or for women, traditional feminists and recent empowerment researchers highlight the importance of women’s recognition of their own power alongside women’s active collaboration in promoting pathways of empowerment (Cornwall 2016). In particular, women’s collective action and organisations is emphasised as a ‘force for positive change’, at both a local level, and through their influence on laws and policies that can promote gender equality (Htun and Weldon 2010).

At a grassroots level, women’s organisation through savings groups, such as Self Help Groups (SHGs) and Village Savings and Lending Associations (VSLAs), are viewed as fundamental tools for stimulating women’s empowerment and market development. Beyond facilitating access to assets, they are described to be ‘gender-transformative’ in opening up opportunities to challenge discriminatory gender norms and barriers, for example domestic labour inequities, sexual violence, and unequal access to education and health services, reinforcing gender inequalities, and inhibiting inclusive growth, and development.

IMG_5735
Somali women attending a ’16 days of Activism’ event in Eastleigh, Nairobi, Kenya. Photo: Holly A Ritchie

In marginalised rural communities in East Africa, NGOs such as CARE have established VSLAs, predominantly with women (20-25 per group). In my research in remote parts of Somaliland[1], pastoralist women’s social organisation in VSLAs was shown to boost women’s skills and financial literacy, as well as enhance women’s confidence to be household contributors. This has both encouraged petty trading activities and business initiatives, and triggered women’s greater involvement in household and community decision-making.

For pastoralist women that have often missed education, participation in such groups was described to be the ‘largest driver of change’ in women’s lives, influencing control over their livelihoods, changing perceptions of women, and even fostering new self-beliefs amongst women that they could be community leaders: “Before women’s roles were confined to the household but now we are outside of the house, in public, creating role models for other women…there is a big change in community attitudes”.

Women’s empowerment in fragile settings

In practice in fragile settings, women’s empowerment may often be more subtle and gradual however, and one dimension of empowerment (e.g. participation in decision-making) may have knock-on effects to other dimensions of women’s lives over time (e.g. access to resources and markets) (Mahmud 2003), particularly if there is contextual receptivity and space for individual and collective agency. Yet with instability and a lack of trust, there may also be structural setbacks to individual achievements and collaborative endeavours, and non-linear pathways of change.

Meanwhile, insights from my refugee research have illuminated tentative trends of women’s ‘forced’ empowerment in displacement contexts, and links to collective action (Ritchie 2018). Prompted by circumstance, refugee women elaborated various cultural challenges as they endeavoured to support their families through forging new social and economic norms. Yet such new practices – including women’s increased public mobility, and new work norms in enterprise – remained uncertain, without a process of negotiation and agreement with male family members, and with little environmental support.

My research looked at the precarious nature of changing gender roles and relations for refugee groups, particularly as men remain excluded with little access to acceptable work, and struggled for their own identity and authority (Kleist 2010). In protracted refugee environments however—such as Somali refugees in urban Kenya—the research highlighted women’s own cooperative strategies boosting solidarity and support for new practices through the development of organised groups, and even engagement in social activism.

The need for a ‘critical consciousness’

Yet with situational fluidity, my recent refugee research in Kenya indicates that women’s refugee groups may be vulnerable to a loss of leadership and momentum, as group heads are granted asylum in the US and elsewhere, curtailing the development of refugee groups, women’s cooperation and a broader movement for social change. Ultimately, for women’s own growth and development, Kabeer (2011) highlights the importance of a ‘critical consciousness’ amongst women that may unleash women’s greater struggles for ‘gender justice’. But arguably with limits to collective agency, the emergence of such movements and struggles remains cautious and constrained in a context of fragility.

[1] Ritchie (forthcoming)  ‘Trends in Gender and Pastoralism in the Horn of Africa’.Synthesis paper. CARE International.


References

Cornwall, A. (2016) ‘Women’s empowerment: what works?’ Journal of International Development 28 (3): 342–359.

Htun M, Weldon L. (2010) ‘When do governments promote women’s rights? A framework for the comparative analysis of sex equality policy’, Perspectives on Politics 8: 207–216.

Mahmud, S. (2003) ‘Actually How Empowering is Micro-credit?’, Development and Change, 34: (4): 577-‐605.

Kabeer, N. (2011) ‘Between Affiliation and Autonomy: Navigating Pathways of Women’s Empowerment and Gender Justice in Rural Bangladesh’, Development and Change 42(2): 499–528.

Kleist, N. (2010) ‘Negotiating respectable masculinity: gender and recognition in the Somali diaspora’, African Diaspora. 3(2): 185–206.

Ritchie (2018) ‘Gender and enterprise in fragile refugee settings: female empowerment amidst male emasculation—a challenge to local integration?’, Disasters, 42(S1): S40−S60

Williams, S., Seed, J. & Mwau, A. (1994) Oxfam Gender Training Manual. Oxford: Oxfam.


Picure_Holly_R_2

Holly A Ritchie is a (post doc) research fellow at the ISS, with a strong interest in gender, norms and social change in economic development in fragile environments. Her work has spanned Afghanistan, East Africa and the Middle East. Ritchie’s blog article titled  Hyper-masculinity: a threat to inclusive community development in fragile environments can also be viewed on the ISS Blog.