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An acre for every woman

March 08, 2011

IN his famous essay Poverty and Famine, the Nobel Laureate for economics, Amartya Sen, writes that contrary to popular belief, famines are not caused by food shortages.

He adds, “Harvest failures, reductions in food imports, droughts, etc, are often contributing factors — but far more important are the social systems that determine how a society’s food is distributed. Absolute scarcity — insufficient food to feed everyone — is extraordinarily rare. Vastly more common is for an adequate supply of food to be beyond the reach of those who need it most.”

In other words, people starve not because there is not enough food to feed them but because food is unaffordable. It is also important to note that starvation is not the extreme condition of going without food. It also implies insufficient food intake as to cause malnourishment.

Where does Pakistan stand today in this context? According to the World Food Programme’s data of 2008, 77 million Pakistanis suffer from food insecurity. Food security is said to exist when people have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food at all times.

The plight of these 77 million hungry people, including young children, should be a blot on our collective conscience. We have seen this happen a number of times — remember the sugar crisis, the wheat crisis, the onion crisis? — but nothing causes a stir in government circles whose duty it is to ensure an adequate supply of affordable food to the people.

Against this backdrop, I found the move by the Green Economics Initiative of Shirkat Gah to launch a campaign for ‘an acre for every woman’ extremely inspiring.

Najma Sadeque, the head of the Green Economics Initiative, is firmly of the belief that if women are given the title to a little land they will grow enough food to feed their family and sell the surplus they produce. Thus they will meet their other needs. The idea is not far-fetched because at present 80 per cent of the work on farms is performed by women in the form of unpaid female labour. It receives no formal recognition.

To provide an acre to every woman would call for some kind of land reforms which amounts to asking for the moon in Pakistan today. Hence Shirkat Gah’s slogan ‘an acre for every woman’ also offers an alternative, ‘or at least 16 square feet’. What use will 16 square feet be for agriculture, one may ask.

The answer came in the daylong workshop to mark the launch of the campaign. Experts who have spent a lifetime growing vegetables, flowers and trees gave very practical and simple step-by-step instructions on how very limited space — even flowerpots, bins and crates — can be used to grow various plants. It seemed doable and offered many advantages.

Mahmood Futehally, whose experience and skills in growing flowers and plants have made him a leading practitioner of organic farming in Pakistan, made a claim that doesn’t appear to be exaggerated. He said at the workshop where his talk focused on composting, “If people take to growing vegetables in their garden, balconies and other open spaces available to them, the food situation in Pakistan will be transformed within a year.”

His Sohana farm that fell victim to the Lyari Expressway in Karachi and was badly truncated provides ample testimony to the validity of his claim. Demonstrations by Rahat Haq, an ardent devotee of farming and gardening, made the process of growing and nurturing plants appear to be simple. Rahat’s lively personality is enough to motivate people to take to gardening.

Another inspiring presentation came from Naween Mangi who is seeking to set up a model village in Khairo Dero under the aegis of the Ali Hasan Memorial Trust she has set up to honour her grandfather. With less than Rs1,000,000 this young volunteer has set up a sewerage system that has transformed the sanitation in her village while providing extra water for irrigation.

These initiatives should be encouraged for several reasons.

First, they show the way to people to seek a solution to their problems through strategies that are based on the principle of self-reliance by seeking indigenous approaches.

Second, they are low-cost and can be undertaken by the people themselves with minimal financial assistance and support.

Third, they are feasible and do not call for radical changes in the status quo or high-tech machinery. It is likely that a campaign to get people to grow their vegetables in their home gardens would act as a catalyst and reduce food inflation in the country.

As for the human impact of this campaign it would be tangible. As Rahat Haq pointed out, the vegetables that will be grown and consumed will be organic and fresh and will therefore have a positive effect on human health. The women growing vegetables will feel a visible impact on their self-esteem and dignity as they will gain control over their lives and will be empowered. Vegetable farming by wives of small cultivators would loosen the grip of the landowners on the peasants.

If the campaign is to really take off Shirkat Gah must take more people on board. Above all, it must enlist the involvement of community-based organisations and perhaps some government agencies too. The idea is not just to disburse financial assistance. The need is also to disseminate the idea. Technical guidance and assistance can also be provided by using the electronic media to mobilise women.

Let this be the message for International Women’s Day, 2011, observed yesterday.

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