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HomeMixed GrillBiting the hand that feeds us: A feminist analysis of food rights and food politics in Kenya

Biting the hand that feeds us: A feminist analysis of food rights and food politics in Kenya

Women are being excluded socially, politically and economically because of their gender. Yet, women are the key to eliminating hunger and poverty.

If global poverty had a face, it would be a woman’s. Women account for half of the world’s population, but 70% of its poor (UNDP, 1995). In 1978, Dianne Pearce coined the term “feminisation of poverty” to indicate that there is a phenomenon where women experience poverty at rates that are disproportionately higher than those of men. This term means one of three things, or a combination of them: that women have a higher incidence of poverty compared to men; that women’s poverty is more severe than men’s; and/or that over time, the incidence of poverty among women is increasing compared to men (Catagay, 1998).

If poverty in Africa had a face, it would be a woman’s. The roots of poverty for African women are found in a myriad of interrelated issues, including restricted property rights, weak governance and frequency of civil conflict. Women have weakly defined property rights with regard to major productive assets, such as land or cattle. In many countries, a combination of custom and laws restrict their ability to own and manage land (McFerson, 2010). Yet, women are the main cultivators of food, undertaking about 90% of the work of hoeing and weeding, 80% of the work in food storage and transportation, and 60% of the work in harvesting and marketing (IFPRI, 1995). Weak governance interacts with traditional patriarchal structures and customs to perpetuate women’s poverty by denying them property rights and use of essential economic assets, perpetuating a system in which African women have diminished citizenship that is in turn reflected in gender-based violence.

If poverty in Kenya had a face, it would be a woman’s. Although the overall poverty incidence declined from 56% in 2000 to about 47% in 2005/06, the poverty headcount was higher among women in both rural and urban areas (50% and 46% respectively). Female-headed households (50%) were slightly more proportionately than male-headed households (48.8%), and although poverty prevalence among all socioeconomic groups in urban areas was lower than that for rural areas, female-headed households exhibit higher poverty incidence in both rural (50%) and urban (46.2%) areas (vis-à-vis male-headed households which had a poverty incidence rate of 48.8% and 30% respectively) (IEA, 2008). Women and children are more vulnerable to both absolute and food poverty (both of which occur mainly in female-headed households) because tradition gives them less decision-making power over assets than men, while at the same time their opportunities to engage in remunerated activities, and acquire their own assets, are more limited (Blackden, C. & Bhanu, C., 1999).

Agriculture is a key pillar of the Kenyan economy. It is the primary source of livelihood for the majority of the Kenyan population, in terms of food security, income, employment creation and foreign exchange earnings. The agriculture sector directly contributes to approximately 25% of our annual GDP and accounts for 65% of Kenya’s total exports. Small-scale agriculture and pastoralism also account for about 42% of the total employment in Kenya (UNEP, 2014). Eighty per cent of rural populations rely on smallholder farming for their livelihood, but this labour is provided disproportionately by women, despite them not having ownership and control of the farms they work on. Women provide 80% of farm labour and manage 40% of the country’s smallholder farms, yet they own only roughly 1% of agricultural land and receive just 10% of the available credit (KNBS, 2017).

Kenya is a particularly drought-prone country – only 11% of the country’s landmass receives high and regular rainfall. The other 89% (29 out of 47 counties) is classified as Arid and Semi-Arid Land (ASAL), where annual rainfall is low. ASAL counties are home to about 36% of the population, 70% of the national livestock herd and 90% of wildlife (GOK, 2018). Still, Kenya relies on rain-fed agriculture for 75% of total agricultural output as opposed to irrigation, despite the aridity of the land (UNEP, 2014).

As a result, there is a high risk of crop failure, hunger and even famine. Biamah (2005), observes that rain-fed crop farming in the semi-arid areas have a 25-75% risk of crop failure while the arid regions have a 75-100% risk of crop failure due to drought. Drought is a key challenge to the achievement of food security in Kenya as it frequently leads to famine. To make things worse, drought events associated with climate change and climate variability have become more pronounced in Kenya in recent years, adversely affecting agricultural production (UNEP, 2007).

We are what we eat, and women simply aren’t eating enough. More than 16% of Kenyan women live in households that go without food at least once a week (NGEC, 2016). Pregnant and lactating women are most affected by food insecurity, and women, in general, are considered low priorities for household food intake in drought situations in ASAL regions, with men and children being high priorities. Women and girls are responsible for water collection, fetching water twice daily for between 30 minutes and two hours each day. This strenuous work not only creates a high demand for calories which is frequently not adequately met, the longer trips in search of water also means that women and girls are more exposed to sexual, domestic and street violence as well as prostitution during drought (Dometita, 2017).

Kenyan women’s right to food is secured in Article 43(1) (c) of our Constitution, which states that every person has the right to be free from hunger and to have adequate food of acceptable quality. Yet, given that we know that women face challenges peculiar to them when it comes to food security, it is surprising that not enough focus is put on achieving it for all women.

Existing policy, such as the National Food and Nutrition Security Policy (NFNSP, 2011), provides a progressive and detailed framework for the realisation of the right to food/ food security which recognises that young women and girls face challenges such as iron, folate and other micronutrient deficiencies. The policy also mentions that hunger reduces school attendance (more for girls than boys) and impairs learning capacity. However, its greatest focus when it comes to women is on maternal and newborn nutrition.

The following example is provided: A typical ‘poor nutrition’ scenario applicable to many women in parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, including Kenya, is that she enters pregnancy undernourished, suffers from or develops iron deficiency anaemia or other micronutrient deficiencies. Her poor micronutrient status may adversely affect foetal development in different ways ranging from brain development (iodine deficiency) and neural tube defects (folate deficiency). Her overall poor nutritional status is likely to predispose the developing foetus to nutritional consequences in infancy, childhood and all the way into his or her adult life. Poorly nourished women often give birth to low birth-weight infants, who start life at a disadvantage that is likely to affect their nutritional status and development through childhood and adolescence.

Proposed legislation, such as the Food Security Bill (2017), does not make specific provisions for the intersectionality of food security and gender except when it comes to pregnant and nursing women who are food poor, which fits directly into patriarchal norms that only find women valuable when giving service to the patriarchy – in this case when procreating and being a caregiver. It states that every woman has the right to adequate food during pregnancy and lactation. But what about all the other times of a woman’s life?

Patriarchal norms and institutions also belie women’s hunger and poverty. They are the reason women work so hard but have so little to show for it. In patriarchal societies, opportunities and resources are allocated on the basis of gender – women simply do not have the same access that men do. Social patriarchal norms dictate who works on farms (women) and who reaps the reward (men). Who owns the land (men) and who merely tends to it (women). Who eats first (men) and who eats last (women).

In addition to food poverty, women also experience time poverty, which manifests as the expectation that women contribute time and labour to (typically) unpaid domestic work and forego education. This reduces the time they have available to participate in more economically productive work, rendering them unable to take full advantage of economic opportunities and participate in income-generating activities while also impeding their ability to expand their capabilities through education and skills development, which would enhance their economic returns in the marketplace (Catagay, 1998).

Women are being excluded socially, politically and economically because of their gender. Yet, women are the key to eliminating hunger and poverty. Kenya’s gender equality index is 38% (NGEC, 2016). The index consists of three aspects of human development: reproductive health, empowerment, and economic participation – all of which are directly affected by food security. To fix this, we need to expand access for women – to assets, to opportunities, and to means of income.

While recently enacted laws such as the Constitution of Kenya (2010), the Matrimonial Property Act (2013), and the Marriage Act (2014) cement women’s property rights, they do not address the customary restrictions on women’s land ownership and control, nor do they provide a framework to increase women’s awareness of their property rights so that they can challenge past and present injustices. Rights to property increase women’s status and bargaining power within the household and community and provide them with greater incentives to adopt sustainable farming practices and invest in natural resource management (IFPRI, 2003). We must invest more in the civic education of women and our society at large on property rights for women, to shift these norms and beliefs.

We need to ensure that women have public and political representation so as to be able to advocate for their rights, including the right to food. At the moment, this representation remains lower than the constitutional requirement, which states that no more than two-thirds of the appointees of elective or appointive bodies shall be of the same gender. A majority of elective and appointive offices, such as cabinet secretaries, members of the National Assembly, senators, members of the diplomatic corps, governors, deputy governors, sub-county commissioners, Supreme Court judges, Kadhis, chiefs and assistant chiefs have fewer than a third women in their personnel. Only principal secretaries, county commissioners, High Court judges, magistrates, practising lawyers and members of county assemblies meet the constitutional requirement (Economic Survey, 2017).

Lastly, we need to ensure that women have means of income with which to acquire assets such as land and cattle and to expand the opportunities available to them, and most importantly, to access food. One way to do this is through education. If women farmers are given the same levels of education, experience, and farm inputs as their male counterparts, they increase their yields for maize, beans, and cowpeas by 22%. Educating women is a key method for boosting agricultural productivity as well as income. Simulations using data from women farmers in Kenya suggest that yields could increase by 25% if all girls attended primary school (IFPRI, 2005). The state must also take measures to achieve gender equality in both the private and public sectors. Men are employed at double or more the rate of women in all sectors excluding the education and service sectors (Economic Survey, 2017).

We have to place women front and centre in our efforts to eliminate hunger and poverty as a society. It’s time that we stopped biting the hand that feeds us.


This article was written by Brenda Wambui, who is a young Kenyan woman working at the intersections of technology, media, feminism and identity. She hosts and produces Otherwise? (, a podcast whose focus is current affairs, policy and active citizenship. She speaks and works in online activism and feminist advocacy, and has been an advisor at FRIDA | The Young Feminist Fund for the past three years.

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