Food price hikes, food security, and gender equality: assessing the roles and vulnerability of women in households of Bangladesh and Ethiopia

Food price hikes, food security, and gender equality: assessing the roles and vulnerability of women in households of Bangladesh and Ethiopia

This article, based on research into the effects of the sudden rise in food prices from 2007 – 2008, shows how women responded to food insecurity in farming households in areas of Bangladesh and Ethiopia. In 2008 these two countries were listed by the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) as two of the 37 considered in crisis owing to food price hikes. This situation resulted from significant global changes such as falling food stocks and droughts, increased use of grains for feedstock and bio-fuels, and changes in consumption patterns in emerging economies.  It argues that gender inequality often makes women more vulnerable to food price hikes due to expectations and pressures on them to feed families, whilst having multiple demands on their time and limited access to resources, services and information. This prevents women from increasing agricultural or income generating activities needed to create household food security. Although many poor women face this disadvantage they also show great resourcefulness for coping with food insecurity.

The research took place in five locations within Bangladesh and Ethiopia, involving 209 women and 164 men, and focused on food consumption patterns and household decision-making. Women interviewed in both Bangladesh and Ethiopia felt that the price hikes had increased their workloads, many spending up to 20 percent more time looking for cheaper food, processing different or unrefined food, gathering wild food, or working for more income. As a result 21 percent of respondents in Bangladesh and 16 percent in Ethiopia withdrew children from school to help with the extra work. The research identified 11 coping strategies used to manage food insecurity shared in both countries, which varied according to the seriousness of the food shortage. For example, in extreme circumstances the whole family would skip meals for a day or send children to eat with neighbours. In less extreme cases adults would skip meals, borrow food, or reduce their food intake. Although these activities affect the whole household it was women who were more likely to adopt these strategies first to ensure other family members ate well.

The author recommends that the lessons learnt from this crisis period should feed into disaster prevention and preparedness policies and interventions. She also calls for policymakers and development practitioners to support women in strengthening and sustaining coping mechanisms, by helping them to access, retain and recreate assets.