Time for a wider conversation about life in a time of food price volatility

Alexandra Wanjiku KelbertA Kelbert photo

In the past few days, I have come across a couple of great articles looking at masculinities, or rather the need to talk about it. Laurie Penny’s recent Comment article in the Guardian looked at masculinities in a context of recession, stating that ‘Nobody seems to have bothered to ask men and boys whether they actually want to be “breadwinners” […]’. ‘Spot on!’, I thought.

In January, I was invited to speak at a conference in Berlin and share some of the gender-related findings from the IDS-Oxfam project Life in a Time of Food Price Volatility. The conference was titled Agriculture and Sustainable Rural Development in Times of Crisis Critical Engagements from a Gender Perspective. In my presentation, after exploring the different ways of understanding the importance of care, I highlighted what was starting to emerge from our research: that the care economy is increasingly squeezed as women are undertaking more paid and cost-saving work.

Given the depth of the data we’ve been able to collect with the project, my presentation ended up being rather ‘quote-heavy’. Some of the ‘best’ ones included accounts of the life of women in some of the communities we conducted our research in. One notably, from a woman in Dhaka, transcribed with lots of exclamation marks starts with ‘I am a machine’. The woman then goes on to list all of the care and non-care activities of her day. The quote itself sounds like a race and finishes with: ‘Where should I get time for gossiping or partying!!!! A domestic maid is in service 30 days in a month. […] No off day.’

Another finding is that the pressure on women to contribute to household incomes often means that others (typically grandparents and older sisters) have to do more of the care work.

Domestic harmony is also affected by food price volatility, as relationships between couples and parents and children are strained by the external pressures to deal with an uncertain environment.

In other words, on the one hand carers have less time to ‘care’ and providers face increasing pressure to ‘provide’.

Gym kenya

Men at the gym in Mukuru, Kenya

My final point after that was the impact on men and masculinities. To give a bit of context, I should say that I was the first speaker on an early Saturday morning. I had no idea how well a point about men would go down at a feminist conference. Still, I talked about the pressure of being a breadwinner, of having to provide for the family. I looked at changing roles, with some men stepping in to help with chores or taking on new responsibilities such as going to the market. I went on to talk about shame (see a previous post on the topic), embarrassment for assuming unmasculine roles, and pride. I also talked about violence, frustration and blame, again with much use of quotes.

‘I more often do the shopping than my wife, it’s normal. My wife has to work. Doing it later in the day… I wait until the shop gets empty… I am rather embarrassed’. (Man in Cianjur, Indonesia)

‘[Males] are proud and have difficulties asking for help because they must think other will criticize them for doing so […]’ (Participant in Bolivia)

In the question and answer session that followed, the first hand raised was to say how much we needed to talk about masculinity.

Going back to those articles published last week, they made me wonder how long it would be before a wider conversation emerged, linking findings from our project, and the arguments made by feminists in Britain. If we’re saying the same thing, it’s probably time to talk to each other.

Many of us are starting to be more vocal about the need to look at the similarities between ‘development’ and other political arenas. A lot of our year 1 project findings are somewhat relevant to people living in hardship in Britain, as Naomi Hossain explained in her recent blog. The people whose benefits are being threatened may not have to eat caterpillars like some of the vulnerable focus groups interviewed in Zambia, but there are clear patterns between increasing risks of undernutrition and people resorting to eating ‘dangerous’ foods in the ‘Global South’, and some of the debates that emerged following the horsemeat scandal about coping strategies and switching to ever cheaper food products in the ‘Global North’. I think it’s time for a wider conversation linking what happens ‘here’ to what happens ‘there’.

NB: Our first year project findings are free to download online, see SQUEEZED: Life in a Time of Food Price Volatility, Year 1 Results.

Alexandra Wanjiku Kelbert is an MA graduate in Development Studies at IDS. She is currently working with Naomi Hossain on the ‘Life in a Time of Food Price Volatility’ project, a collaborative project between the Participation, Power and Social Change team at IDS and Oxfam.

Read other blogs by Alex Kelbert:

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