Intersectional approaches to food and gender politics in Kenya
What difference would the concept of intersectionality make to the way we think about the gendered dimensions of the Right to Food in Kenya? There are no conclusive answers if any were at all possible. But there are different entry points for engagement that (may) reframe how we approach food and gender politics in the country.
The Right to Food is a concept that is similar and connected to other food-related concepts such as food justice and food sovereignty, which overall are in opposition to particular understandings and articulations of food security. State, aid and development agencies and UN bodies such as the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), use food security in its ‘strictest sense’ (Escobar, 1995). Food security is often concerned with how to ensure the availability, access, stability and utilisation of food for the world as a preventative measure to ‘global security threats’ such as the uprisings and mass migration of hungry people (FAO, 2011). The Right to Food, on the other hand, has a different starting point and while this piece will not be able to fully get into the nuances of food rights, food security and food sovereignty, it will briefly discuss the origin of the concept of the Right to Food as well as the rationalisation for it.
The framing of food as a human right is in direct contrast to the understanding of food as charity. In other words, food is a right in the same way that the right to vote, adequate shelter, freedom from torture and so on are universal rights connected with what it means to be human (UN, 1948). This framing has allowed activists and critical academics to make the case that the provision of food is not something that should be left to charities, or individual well-wishers with a heart for helping the less fortunate, as is often the case in Kenya. Rather, it places the duty on the state to create the structural conditions that enable full access to adequate food for all Kenyan citizens.
If food is understood and respected as a right in the Kenyan context, how would this reframe how we discuss poverty and the poor, women’s rights and most importantly, how is the Right to Food connected with the upholding or violations of other political, economic and socio-cultural rights? While the language of rights has been empowering, it has its limitations. To begin with, it can be argued that the progressive realisation of socio-cultural rights, of which the Right to Food is one, may allow states to willfully ignore their institutional responsibilities, which are necessary to ensure that these rights are realised by all citizens.
Writing as a feminist lawyer and scholar, arguably a rights framework over-relies on legal mechanisms for the prevention of and remedies to rights violations. This is problematic because it creates the tendency for rights-based dialogues to absent explicit critical discussions on who is constructed as a human in the first place (McKittrick, 2015). In other words, there is often a failure to explicitly discuss how white supremacy, capitalism and patriarchal structures, together structurally and systematically have shaped who is considered ‘human’ across the world, and therefore determining who has the right to have rights (Hooks, 1982).
This filters into the very construction of the judicial system – as critical race theorists, black-feminists and more recently, the Black Lives Matter movement (BLM) have reminded us – legal systems are not built with the dignity of black (female) life as a priority for example. In fact, it is the opposite (Gilmore, 2007). Black women are often repeatedly and systemically absent from and let down by judicial structures around the world.
What are the consequences of beginning from a human rights-centric framework that draws on legal systems and conceptualisations that are built to fail us? Might it be a case of trying to use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house (Lorde, 1984)? This leads us to conversations about intersectionality, a concept coined by Kimberle Crenshaw, an African-American black-feminist legal scholar, after observing the repeated systemic failures of the American legal system with regard to black female survivors of sexual assault (Crenshaw, 1991).
Crenshaw observed that the law provided redress either on the basis of race or on the basis of gender, but not both. As a result, violations against black women were rendered invisible, because these women could not establish whether the violations they faced were only to do with race, or only to do with gender. An intersectional framework argues that amongst others, racial, ethnic, gendered and classist systems of oppression are always interlocking and overlapping. In simpler terms, this negates the idea of universal womanhood – that is that all women are the same because we are all women (Collins, 1991). In fact, it problematises mainstream and patriarchal definitions and categorisations of ‘women’.
As such it would be disingenuous then, to speak of ‘Kenyan women’ and their experiences on food, as though we are all the same – as though ‘Kenyan woman’ is a monolithic category. For example, as a Kikuyu able-bodied woman in my early thirties who has grown up in Nairobi, the levels of hunger that have become commonplace for Turkana women in Turkana are not only alien to me but will probably never be part of my future experiences. The fact that Turkana is constantly in the news as a result of perennial drought and famine, at scales that are unlikely to occur in Nairobi, or experienced by those from other ethnic communities in Kenya, is not neutral. Pointing this out is not divisive – as Audre Lorde reminds us, “it is not difference which immobilises us, but silence. And there are so many silences to be broken” (Lorde, 1984, p. 111).
From an intersectional approach, the answer as to why some Kenyan women perpetually go hungry would not be because they are ‘lazy’, ‘undeserving’ or ‘culturally backward’. Intersectionality prompts us to have rigorous conversations about the ways that our differences as (Kenyan) women impact our experiences of power inequalities related to ethnicity, sexism, class and other social relations. If done well, this will ultimately create solidarity and progress in ensuring the Right to Food.
To conclude, here are reflections as to what a rights perspective to food in Kenya that took intersectionality seriously might look like. Again, this is not an exhaustive list, but the beginning of a dialogue and perhaps, of a research prioritisation process. Questions of food and black (African)
women tend to either be willfully ignored or only spoken about in the context of agriculture, food production, land tenure and hunger (Williams-Forson & Wilkerson, 2011). Indeed, these remain crucial topics particularly because the labour of many African and other women in the Global South continues to revolve around deep inequalities in food production – usually as tillers of land but rarely as owners (Allen & Sachs, 2007).
However, food production and consumption are inseparable. We need to think of food politics and associated power relations, playing itself out from farm to fork/flush. So for example, we need to pay attention to food preparation spaces such as kitchens (Hayes-Conroy & Hayes-Conroy, 2008). Who is in the kitchen and why? Who does the cooking and washes up the dishes and why? Often kitchen spaces are simultaneously empowering and oppressive to different women (Abarca, 2007). What does this look like in the Kenyan context?
An additional suggestion would be to talk about the often taken-for-granted food taboos and customary dietary laws experienced by different Kenyan women. How do different food-related taboos hinder Kenyan women’s access to culturally appropriate and nutritious foods in comparison to their male counterparts? Might food customs be acceptable because they’re rooted in the past, or do they contravene the rights of black African women?
To realise the Right to Food in Kenya, we must be bold enough to talk about food justice within the context of feminism and vice versa. We must connect the Right to Food as a human right with the understanding that there are different forces acting on what defines us as human in the first instance. With this in place, we must then be courageous enough, to hold each other and our elected leaders to account for chronic food insecurity and related systemic injustices.
Beth Kamunge is a black-feminist doctoral researcher at The University of Sheffield’s Department of Geography. Prior to her return to academia, Beth worked for 5 years as a program officer with an international human rights organisation, advocating with and for refugee girls and young women, and later with Indigenous communities in East Africa who were undergoing ‘development’ induced displacement. Her particular focus was connected to the management of Indigenous natural resource rights. Her current research explores the contributions of black women’s everyday food experiences to (Black-) Feminist Theories.