Anne Bellows, Flavio Valente, Stefanie Lemke & María Daniela Núnez Burbano de Lara (eds): Gender, nutrition, and the human right to adequate food: toward an inclusive framework
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With its focus on the political economy of food systems, this book is highly relevant at a time when the High-Level Panel of Experts of the Committee of World Food Security is looking into critical issues in food security and nutrition. It emerged from a partnership between academia and civil society: the Gender Nutrition Rights group (Syracuse University, University of Hohenheim and Coventry University), FIAN International and the Geneva Infant Feeding Association (GIFA). It bridges discussions of women’s and human rights, and links these to a concept of food and nutrition security as a social process in which women play a central role.
The first chapter brings a detailed account of international human rights and how the concept of the right to adequate food and nutrition developed. The next identifies structural disconnects that frustrate women’s right to food: separation of women’s rights from the right to food, and separation of nutrition from the right to food. Chapter 3 looks at discrimination against women and girls that impedes them from engaging in demanding their right to food and from acting for their families and communities to their fullest capabilities. Chapter 4 looks at women’s control over their own and their children’s nutrition before, during and after pregnancy. It includes a critique of transnational and market-based “solutions” to hunger and malnutrition, such as imported breast-milk substitutes and baby-food supplements. Chapter 5 highlights the importance of local food systems, in which women play a key role. The final chapter introduces a conceptual framework that integrates food sovereignty, nutrition, gender and human rights.
The authors see women’s role in achieving food and nutrition security as being thwarted by discrimination in terms of access to land, property, education, healthcare, employment and political participation. They describe this discrimination as violence against women’s self-determination and ability to claim their rights.
In many societies, structural violence against women is evident in food and nutrition practice, such as customs that women eat last in the family, leading to their poorer nourishment. The situation regarding physical violence is complex, as many women are acculturated to tolerate male abuse: e.g. 60% of Ethiopian women surveyed regarded “burning the food” as an acceptable reason for being beaten by one’s husband. Domestic violence prevents women from claiming their rights, e.g. fear of not meeting family expectations to have cooked food can prevent women’s participation in activities outside the home.
The authors highlight the crucial role that intra- and inter-household relations and social networks play for food and nutrition security, and show how increasing women’s access to resources and control over household income leads to better family health and nutrition. Women’s participation in decision-making—including deciding how natural resources are used, developing local food-security strategies and setting research and development agendas—would lead to greater attention to family nutrition than to profit maximization in food systems. However, the path toward this participation can be dangerous. Well-meaning agriculture, food and nutrition programmes that seek to “mainstream” women by encouraging them to venture into the public sphere and act outside of the cultural norms can provoke retaliation by other family members (not only male). This danger needs to be addressed with sensitivity.
The authors question the focus of nutrition policy on pregnant and lactating women—as if motherhood is the only reason and time for women to be healthy. They call for attention to overall nutritional needs throughout an entire life span.
A critique is made of large-scale commercial agriculture and the “medicalization” of nutrition through nutrient-fortified and highly processed foodstuffs. The authors reject the widespread assumption that global food trade can support food and nutrition security. They argue that market imperfections and power asymmetries suppress local production, leading to a vicious cycle of greater dependency on food imports and food aid. They see a basic conflict of interest between attaining global food security and the aim of the corporate private sector to maximize profits. An important role for the state is to ensure that the private sector respects human rights.
Governments need to fulfil their obligations to guarantee realisation of the right to adequate food and nutrition. Policies should create conditions that allow people to grow, access and purchase a diversified and nutritious diet. They should facilitate inclusive participatory planning and governance of food systems, and provide health and education services as a public good. A state that takes human rights seriously should support strategies that maximize local self-determination in food systems and avoid dependency on global corporate industry.
The book proposes a food-system approach that combines the concepts of human rights, food sovereignty and agroecology. This prioritises sustainable agriculture driven by family farmers operating within local economies and seeking local solutions, nutritional diversity and culturally appropriate and healthy diets. Local food systems are presented as a promising alternative to the current emphasis on industrialized mass production and globalized trade of food. The right to food and nutrition security refers not just to receiving foodstuffs and nutrients. It involves a holistic social process of producing, preparing and eating food and promoting nutritional wellbeing to allow an active life and full development of human potential.
Specifically regarding nutrition, the authors call for more attention in research and development to homestead and urban food production and processing; opportunities for local production of therapeutic and supplementary food products; and local design of education on nutrition and health by sharing information about best practices and integrating them into local food-system structures.
This book addresses important issues for attaining human wellbeing worldwide. It presents a thorough review of literature and of international declarations related to food and nutrition. Each chapter presses for change in international frameworks, instruments and policies related to human rights.
Being jointly written by politically concerned scientists and lobbyists, the book has a mixed style. Some parts are very academic with innumerable references. Other parts make sharp jabs at global institutions and initiatives, such as the international agricultural research institutes, multinational corporations and the Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) Movement, all described as supporting an agroindustrial model that ignores human rights.
The authors regard civil-society movements as key to realising the right to adequate food and nutrition based on a food-sovereignty framework that incorporates women’s rights. They seek to stimulate action to transform food systems. A book with this aim would be expected to target civil society, but it seems to be written primarily for academics. It will be a useful reference for researchers, educators and students who are exploring issues of gender, development, agriculture, food, nutrition and human rights. Its account of the evolution of texts about human rights and its attention to detail will also help lobbyists negotiating the wording of declarations and legal texts.
The expressed intention to “attract the support of social movements to work together toward a unified conceptual framework of the human right to adequate food and nutrition” (p. 383) will be difficult to attain with this book. Many sentences are wordy and convoluted. Strings of adjectives before nouns and a lack of hyphens or commas often make it difficult to discern the subject of a sentence at first reading. Especially the opening chapter is heavy going, with a myriad of acronyms and legal paragraphs and amendments. A shorter and pithier publication would bring across the messages more forcibly—perhaps a next step? Communicating these messages well is crucial in a world where strategies meant to combat hunger and malnutrition exacerbate inequities rather than promoting human—including women’s—rights.