The new campaign that Oxfam is launching next week will have a big focus on gender – almost every issue in development looks very different depending on whether you are a man or a women. I saw that in graphic form last week in Tanzania, during a training session for 40 ‘farmer animators’ – local activists who are helping to galvanize their communities in Shinyanga, one of Tanzania’s poorest regions. Men and women split into two separate groups to discuss the causes of hunger, its impacts, and how people respond. Here’s what they came up with. First the men:
Causes: lack of fertilisers, infrastructure and seeds; drought; environmental mismanagement
Impacts: hunger; sickness; death; street kids; rising crime and poverty
How people respond: reduce the number of meals; do more day labour on other farms; sell off cattle and assets; borrow money and as a last resort, split the family up and send members to places where they can find food (eg with relatives elsewhere in Tanzania).
Compare this with the women’s list:
Causes: drought; deforestation; lack of tools; infidelity, prostitution and drunkenness (which all deprive families of income)
Impacts: disease; divorce; ignorance (kids dropping out of school)
How people respond: women look to friends and family for support, men try to find other women; women forced to start unprofitable petty businesses; children forced to beg
At which point a largely good-humoured battle of the sexes broke out (nothing livens up a meeting more than a discussion of gender differences). The men accused the women of stealing food for their lovers, while the women told stories of men sneaking out of the house off to their mistresses with the family rice stock down their trousers (with a hilarious mime of a man caught in the act). Eventually an animator who was also a (male) pastor intervened and said ‘men have to acknowledge the problem’ and was awarded with a loud ululation from the women.
What differences emerge from this? Mainly that women place much more emphasis on intra-household relationships as both cause and consequence of either hunger or survival. Men prefer to stick to talking about stuff – seeds, roads, fertilizers. Beyond this particular conversation, the gender differences include the mass exclusion of women from owning land, accessing state support services like agricultural extension, or getting credit. Despite these obstacles, they already grow much of Africa’s food. Simply equalizing their access to such things would provide a substantial boost to the food supply. Gender issues matter not just because of equality and human rights, but because the uphill battle facing Africa’s women farmers entails a horrendous waste of human and economic potential.