The Hands That Feed Us








The Hands That Feed Us





An online exhibit to commemorate women’s role in food provision on the International Day of Women and in observance of Women’s Month.

– Food production and foraging –

– Food processing and storage –

– Marketing and Barter –

– Women’s involvement in social movements and activism –

The importance of Women in food provision

>>>> Click on the thumbnails to launch the slideshow with captions

The work of women is critical to our access to food. Women perform an astounding array of tasks for production, family and social reproduction, different types of care work, and sustaining the social fabric.  These range from collecting firewood and water to producing food, cooking, feeding, sharing knowledge and labor, and wage employment. Across classes, cultures, ethnicities, and generations, women are responsible for the provision and consumption of food, and in ensuring dietary diversity in households. Through the production, foraging, processing, and preparation of food, women keep alive cultural traditions, identities, customs and local cuisines, and maintain the health of their families.


In developing countries, rural women make up at least half of the agricultural workforce. Rural women produce, gather/forage, process, share, barter, and sell much of the food available, making them the primary actors in the provision of food, especially for the poor, the majority of whom live in rural areas. Women produce vegetables, fruit, food and cash crops, and raise and manage poultry, dairy animals, and other livestock for household consumption and sale. In fisheries, women are both fishers and industry workers, catching, raising, processing, and marketing fish.


The proportion of women in agricultural production and post-harvest tasks can range from 20 to 70 percent in different areas, depending on gendered divisions of labor and economic circumstances. Where there is severe agrarian distress, men often migrate in search of work and women take on a larger share of production and post-production work.  In India, the continuing tragedy of farmers’ suicides has led to an increase in female-headed agricultural households.  The expansion of agricultural value chains across Asia has resulted in increasing numbers of women working as labor under contract farming arrangements while simultaneously tending kitchen gardens, poultry, and small livestock in their homes.


Women have a practical and comprehensive understanding of agricultural and natural biodiversity through daily interactions with their eco-systems. They gather plants, fruit, insects, and small animals for food, medicinal use, barter, and sale. They nurture traditional plant varieties adapted over generations to withstand changing weather patterns. Environmental contamination, deterioration, and the loss of local plants, insects, and animals create hardships for rural women since they depend on nature and seasonal diversity to ensure food, income, and health for their families. Women play key roles in protecting natural resources, conserving water, and maintaining soil fertility.


Despite the central role of women in the provision of food, they face tremendous discrimination within the household as well as at broader societal levels. In many societies and especially in poor families, women eat last and least.  In low-income families, boys are educated to higher levels than girls, and the labor of girls in cooking, cleaning, child care, and caring for the elderly or sick family members is essential for family maintenance. Because of lower levels of education, women tend to be concentrated in lower rungs of the labor market and in jobs that require less formal training.  As agricultural workers, women are usually responsible for the least mechanized tasks and are most easily displaced by the introduction of new technologies. Agricultural technologies are not neutral and often not adaptable to the physical forms and operational abilities of women.


Although women manage domestic consumption and earn income through the sale of food, fish, livestock, agricultural produce, and their own labor, they have far less agency than men in making economic decisions, and in secure tenure over land and agricultural resources. Women workers in contract farming and plantations are generally paid less than men, and often do not even know the terms of their work contracts. As agricultural production becomes more market-driven and integrated into global value chains, women are increasingly alienated from their lands and territories, and marginalized from access to and control over all types of resources.


Women play extremely important roles in organizing their communities to ensure food security and sovereignty, and defending lands, territories and environments from destructive investments and development. They have assumed leadership of campaigns and movements for justice and rights in the face of grave threats to their lives and families. Organizations of small scale food producers, agricultural and food workers, and those committed to social, economic, and environmental justice recognize the importance and urgency of addressing the challenges faced by women. They are taking important steps to build societal awareness about the value of women’s knowledge and capacities, end gender discrimination, and build and support women leaders across generations.


Focus on the Global South gives thanks to the generations of women around the world who have innovated and co-created the foods, cuisines, and food systems that sustain the world, and make everyday life possible. We commit to supporting and strengthening women’s roles, capacities, agency and power, and to their movements and organizations.