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Rural women and girls suffer most in South Africa’s hunger games of food insecurity and land ownership

Rural women and girls suffer most in South Africa’s hunger games of food insecurity and land ownership
From left: Livestock raised by the group of young farmers on land they occupy outside Robertson in the Western Cape. (Photo: Sheriff Ramoabi) | Sheriff Ramoabi tends to a chilli plant on the land they occupy. (Photo: Kashmir Lesnick-Petrovicz) | Spinach and lettuce are carefully cultivated by the group of young farmers on land they occupy near Robertson. (Photo: Sheriff Ramoabi)

October 15 is the UN’s International Day of Rural Women — a day that highlights the struggle of rural women and girls — but the South African Rural Women’s Assembly says there is nothing to celebrate while many rural women face a daily struggle with food insecurity.

The first International Day of Rural Women was observed in 2008. The day is meant to recognise “the critical role and contribution of rural women, including indigenous women, in enhancing agricultural and rural development, improving food security and eradicating rural poverty”. 

This year’s theme is “Rural women cultivating good food for all”. The UN says the theme “highlights the essential role that women and girls play in the food systems of the world”.

Mercia Andrews is the regional coordinator of the Rural Women’s Assembly (RWA), which describes itself as “a self-organised network or alliance of national rural women’s movements, assemblies, grassroots organisations and chapters of mixed peasant unions, federations and movements across 10 countries in the SADC region”.

The UN has for some time been calling attention to the fact that while in many countries women make up most of the agricultural sector’s labour force, very few own land and many work without pay or for food in family settings.

But as Andrews attests, calling attention to a problem and affecting the problem are two different things.

“As the Rural Women’s Assembly, we will celebrate International Rural Women’s Day and World Food Day, but for us, the UN themes and slogans are often not appropriate — it’s not meaningful to the real issues that poor people face and often assumes that the obstacles that exclude people from accessing food have been dealt with — the structural obstacles of access to land … access to water, etc, have been dealt with.”

Andrews is emphatic that for rural women life is getting harder and uses the example of women who have killed themselves and their children “because they have been excluded — do you think they wanted to be excluded?”, denied access to land, food and food production systems.

Andrews says if SA had a slogan for international rural women’s day it would be “We are the producers of food and yet we are landless and hungry”.

“That, for me is the issue that I think we must be focusing on. I am of the view that if the UN, the FAO [Food and Agriculture Organization] and our government are serious about celebrating International Rural Women’s Day and World Food Day, then they must make bigger steps and strides to give women access to land.”

Andrews adds that the campaign for One Woman, One Hectare — launched in 2014 to ensure that women have access to at least one hectare of land with water to grow food on — has fallen on deaf ears.

“Our government has no regard for poor people’s access to land so I don’t think we have much to celebrate … except for our agency, our organisation and our right to articulate our own issues and demands.”

Decisions born out of poverty

Sheriff Ramoabi is one of a group of young people occupying land in Zolani, just outside Robertson in the Western Cape. She tells Daily Maverick that for years they have been farming on land they have been unable to lease or buy, but not for lack of trying.

 “This is our eighth year farming on the land that we have occupied as a group of [young people].”

The 25-year-old says the decision to farm stemmed from desperate poverty.

“The community of Zolani, like many other rural communities, is facing high levels of unemployment and poverty … there is no work in the town so people are dependent on surrounding farms and canning factories for employment.”

She says making money is not their goal, but being able to feed and educate the community is what is important — the money they make from selling at markets goes towards sustaining infrastructure, like their irrigation system which they built themselves.

“We do this for the community at large. Many community members exchange seeds for spinach or exchange their own produce, like beetroot, for example, for mielies … our produce is also free from pesticides and toxins … we have to buy pipes and some of the irrigation material.”

Ramoabi says they “engaged with the municipality” to find out who owned the land to have a conversation about leasing or buying it, but are still waiting for a response.

“We’ve been on the land for eight years, and for three years we had to prepare the land to get it to the point where it could grow produce.”

Ramoabi is also a member of the Rural Women’s Assembly, which she joined in 2019.

“They combat issues that affect not only the youth but women daily and challenge the government to take responsibility and accountability — especially on gender-based violence and all forms of violence.” 

A small-scale female farmer in Gauteng, Wendy Tsotetsi, told Daily Maverick that she had successfully farmed livestock and vegetables on leased land. Until her lease ended.

She advises: “If you have a passion to farm, then you will overcome all obstacles. Don’t farm to be rich, farm to survive. Working the land will give its own rewards, but explore all channels to be able to own the land.”

The former paralegal says if you don’t own the land you farm on, you will always be on the back foot.

“Not having land is the biggest challenge; you will be working someone else’s land, and at any time they can tell you to go.” DM


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