Governments Must Step Up so Women Arenâ€™t Forced to Step In
What We Can Learn from Egypt's Food Crisis
What role should governments play in providing basic necessities for their people? And who fills the gaps when governments fall short? The aftermath of the 2007-2008 bread crisis that erupted in Egypt highlights that women compensate when governments and others can't supply basic necessities such as health care, education and social services. However, when social provisions are strengthened, women are able to thrive and make numerous contributions, including economic ones.
Egypt is the world's second largest importer of wheat, and most Egyptians count on bread in their daily diets. When the price of wheat and other grains skyrocketed on the world market during 2007, it sparked a global food crisis. The Egyptian government spent millions to subsidize the cost of flour for public bakeries, but supply shortages meant that people--mostly women--stood in line for hours every day to get bread for their families. Girls were pulled away from school and women from other responsibilities at home and at work to secure daily supplies of bread.
Egypt's bread subsidy is one of the last universal food programs in the world, providing the public with a basic staple. While Egypt should be admired for making sure no one goes hungry, the situation is complicated: there are reports of widespread corruption; the government uses the program to prevent large-scale social and political unrest; and, as the price of wheat rises on the world market, the program is costly to maintain and comes at the expense of other social needs.
Women: Coping, Compensating, Caretaking
Global shifts and economic volatility are making it increasingly difficult for governments to provide basic necessities, including food. Policies that encourage growing crops for trade and export rather than for local consumption, price hikes in staple foods and fuel, and worldwide environmental changes all increase this climate of uncertainty. Women - as the world's care-givers - are the ones who have to step in and compensate when basic provisions fall away.
Rural women in developing economies produce half of the world's food and 60% to 80% of the food in their own countries(1). In most families around the world, women are responsible for growing, purchasing and preparing meals. Often they must ration the household budget and each day's portion to make ends meet.
To feed their families when times are tough, women substitute more expensive foods with cheaper, less nutritious ones; spend more time in line waiting for rations; prepare things from scratch when pre-made options are too expensive; take small jobs for extra income and make do with less food, less sleep and little, if any, leisure time. It is usually women who go hungry when there is not enough food for everyone. In fact, even before the recent global food crisis hit, an estimated 7 out of 10 of the world's hungry were women and girls(2).
In addition to providing and preparing food, women worldwide are typically responsible for other domestic tasks. They walk miles for water and firewood when there aren't enough resources nearby. They care for sick relatives and friends when there is no money to pay for doctor's bills or hired help. They take care of each other's children when paid care is out of the question, and they tutor their own kids when teachers are overburdened. And many women do all of this as widows or single mothers, sometimes caring for large extended families.
A Better Way?
The fact that household and care-giving challenges fall mostly on women has a huge impact on their economic participation, particularly because these responsibilities expand exponentially when crises hit. Solutions are needed on a societal, rather than an individual, level. While food subsidies help ensure that people don't go hungry, poor families need other building blocks to achieve social and economic independence-- including access to education, living wages, job training and freedom from violence.
An often touted model is the Scandinavian blend of state capitalism and mixed market economies--which balances free enterprise with government provision and regulation. In countries such as Denmark, Norway and Sweden, business and entrepreneurship are allowed to flourish, but not at the expense of the welfare of citizens.
In these nations, the governments levy higher taxes on citizens and, in exchange, provide many public sector jobs, free education and subsidized childcare, universal health coverage and adequate pensions for retirement. These provisions allow women to play a more active role in employment outside the home if they choose. While women's entrepreneurship also flourishes in traditional market economies, social supports nevertheless enable more women to manage companies, start and run small businesses, and lead public sector agencies as well as pursue traditional "care" jobs in hospitals, nursing homes and schools.
Some critics argue that Scandinavian countries have relatively small and homogenous populations and the model may not be replicable in more diverse nations. They also point out that, as basic costs rise, it's difficult to sustain benefits for the entire population.
It's important to note that people's demands and expectations of their governments influence the types of policies that get enacted, and these vary widely from one country to the next. In the United States, for example, the rhetoric of individual responsibility trumps a more collective ideology, regardless of which major political party is in power. In Scandinavia, people pay higher taxes and expect a robust welfare state in return.
In Egypt and many other developing nations, citizens' relationship with their governments is best characterized as "ever skeptical and ever hopeful"--hopeful that their needs will be met, but skeptical that governments can or will do so. In such countries, fewer women are employed in the paid workforce, and the majority have been embedded in social welfare and care roles for generations.
Regardless of approach, there is no question that the diversity of perspectives that women have to offer strengthens work environments and the economy as a whole and that women's economic participation increases when they are allowed to flourish.
Providing for Women Provides for Everyone
Fundamentally, governments are entrusted with the welfare of their people. Although they may not all be able to provide the same social services, they do have a role to play in helping citizens to fulfill basic needs and access short-term and long-term opportunities, whether through state agencies and programs, the private sector or civil society organizations.
Where there is a common understanding that everyone has a right to certain basic necessities as well as the right to work and earn a living wage, citizens - and their countries in turn - will thrive. Imagine what people can do creatively, economically and socially when they have dignity and a sense of security.
For women, this means receiving support for their role as caretakers in the home and also having the choice to step outside these traditional duties. They should not be left to fill the gaps when shortfalls occur.
Both women and men should have opportunities to contribute to the welfare of their families and countries. Support for child care, health care, food preparation and other domestic work should be provided; women or men should also be allowed to stay home as care-takers if they choose, free from fears of poverty, hunger and violence. In the long run, allowing both men and women to contribute to society in skilled, meaningful and balanced ways is one of the best methods of recovering from--and preventing--crises.
(1, 2) Womenthrive.org, Food Crisis Impact on Women, http://www.womenthrive.org/images/food%20crisis%20%26%20impact%20on%20women.pdf (May 2008).