Women of Corn

In the countries of the Global South, between 60 to 80 percent (50 percent worldwide) of food production is done by women. They are in charge of working the land, safeguarding the seeds, gathering the fruit, and obtaining water. Women are the main producers of staple crops such as rice, wheat, and maize, which go to feed the most impoverished populations. However, despite their key role in agriculture and the provision of food, they are, together with children, the most affected by hunger.


For centuries, rural women have been responsible for domestic chores, care of people, feeding of families, and cultivation and marketing of surplus from their gardens. They have carried this load of reproductive, productive and community work in a private and invisible domain. In contrast, the principal economic transactions of agriculture, the trading of livestock, and the buying and selling of cereals in the market, have been carried out by men. This division of roles assigns to women the upkeep of home, health, education, and family while it gives men the management of land, machinery, and, most significantly, the “know-how,” thus perpetuating the roles allotted as masculine and feminine which for centuries and even today persist in society.


Nonetheless, in many regions of the Global South—in Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa and southern Asia—there exists an evident “feminization” of paid agricultural work. Between 1994 and 2000, women occupied 83 percent of new employment created in the sector of non-traditional agricultural export. But this tendency includes a marked division of gender; on the plantations, women perform the unskilled tasks such as collection and packaging, while men carry out the harvesting and planting.


This incorporation of women into the paid workplace entails a double burden for them as they continue to carry out the care of their families while working for an income. Women can expect worse working conditions than their male counterparts, lower pay for the same tasks, and longer hours to earn the same.


Another difficulty is access to land. In several countries of the South, laws deny women this right. In those that legally concede tenure, tradition and custom impede disposition to them. However, this problem also occurs where many women farmers do not have their entitlements recognized despite working on the land like their male peers. Farm ownership and payment of social security, etc. is usually commanded by men. Consequently, retired women cannot count on a pension or claim assistance payments.


The degradation of farmland in these Southern countries and the increase in migration to the cities has provoked a process of agricultural disintegration. Women are an essential component of this national and international migration, engendering a disruption and abandonment of families, land, and processes of production, while increasing the family and community burden on the women who remain. In Europe, the United States, and Canada, migrant women end up taking the jobs that years back were filled by locals, reproducing a cycle of oppression, burden, and invisibility of care, while externalizing its social and economic costs to the communities of origin of the migrant women.


This intensive and unsustainable neoliberal agricultural model, has resulted in a complete inability to satisfy dietary needs of people and a complete disrespect for nature. An alternative is to establish food sovereignty. This deals with the recuperation of the right to determine the what, how, and source of what we eat—that the land, the water and the seeds should be in the hands of small farmers (male and female) and the fight to end the corporate monopoly of agrifoods.


And it is requisite that this food sovereignty be feminist and internationalist and include full equality between men and women and free access to the means of food production, distribution, and consumption, along with solidarity among people, far from the chauvinistic cries of “ours first.”


We must reclaim the role of women farmers in food and agricultural production and recognize the part played by the “women of corn,” those that work the land—to make visible the invisible—and to promote alliances between rural and urban women from the North and the South.


Esther Vivas is an activist in a variety of social movements in Barcelona and belongs to the editorial board of the magazine Viento del Sur.