Women to play key role in food system – if we work at it

Gender inequality and the role of women in Mzansi's food systems were discussed in a ministerial webinar this week. From left are agriculture, land reform and rural development minister Thoko Didiza, the EU’s ambassador to South Africa, Dr Riina Kionka and Tamara Mathebula, chairperson of the Commission for Gender Equality. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

Women have a significant role to play in providing South Africa with safe and nutritious food. They can also help build resilience in the country’s food systems. We have to work at it, though, and the action needed to get it done was at the heart of a food systems webinar hosted by agriculture, land reform and rural development minister Thoko Didiza.

Hosted on Monday, 16 August in commemoration of Women’s Month, the webinar provided female food producers and women in agribusiness and food systems an opportunity to voice their views.

Discussions centred around pathways to sustainable food systems in South Africa, and leveraging public-private partnerships to scale up food system solutions during and beyond Covid-19.

Opening the virtual session, Didiza said that while she appreciated women’s improved participation in politics, parliament and the legislature, there are still cultural systems that continue to pull women back.

“We still strive for equality in the workplace in all spheres of our lives, as women, not because we are being done a favour [but because] we are actually in the majority in a number of countries and globally. Therefore, we want to claim the space and make sure that the development of our society is inclusive of both men and women.”

Food system barriers

Pointing out the easily identifiable challenges in South African and global food systems, Didiza highlighted access to land and water resources as a major barrier.

In addition, she listed access to credit and finance, markets and market infrastructure, technology and research, transport, logistics and mechanisation as challenges that will remain a constraint for several years, especially for women.

Thoko Didiza, minister of agriculture, land reform and rural development. Photo: Supplied/Polity

“The disruption of the pandemic has shown a number of fault lines and weaknesses; at the same time resilience in our food systems both at national and global level,” Didiza said.

South Africa needs to strengthen its global network for the sake of further resilience, she added. “If one country’s food system is weaker, it means the global food system is weak, so we need to hold each other’s hands.”

SA and EU like-minded

Attendees also heard the European Union’s ambassador to South Africa, Dr Riina Kionka speak on the EU’s commitment to advancing the role of women in food systems.

Kionka said, “South Africa and the EU are like-minded on the issues of gender equality and social inclusion. These are central to the work that we both do within the EU and outside the union through our gender action plan 2021-2025.”

She pointed out that the EU currently funds a gender programme with South Africa’s department of women, youth and persons with disabilities. It also supports local efforts to allocate resources to gender empowerment through gender budgeting, and to improve gender mainstreaming across government departments.

“I am confident that it will also benefit the department of agriculture, land reform and rural development… because women are central to the delivery of safe and nutritious food,” Kionka said.

A complete paradigm shift

Adding to Didiza’s sentiments on gender inequality in agriculture, was Tamara Mathebula, chairperson of the Commission for Gender Equality.

Tamara Mathebula, chairperson of the Commission for Gender Equality. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

Mathebula said that both achievements made in addressing gender equality and challenges which remain unresolved, must be reflected upon.

“I know that strides have been made to ensure a safer and balanced SA for all. However… prevailing ideologies such as gender inequality and patriarchy continue to dominate all relevant laws as well as judicial structures that prevent… gender equality and women’s empowerment in the country,” cautioned Mathebula.

These ideologies, she elaborated, are used to justify the lack of gender equality, and gender-based discrimination, in the food system.

This needs to be addressed.

“A key objective in the process of making sure that gender equality and gender transformation in our country is achieved, is… a complete paradigm shift [from past practices].” This will require policy changes in individual workplaces and the larger business environment.

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