Linking Gender, Food Security and the Environment

Linked with our presentations Rosalina Tuyuc Velásquez – Guatemala, and CONAVIGUA.

By Rosalina Tuyuc Velásquez, CONAVIGUA, Guatemala – Speech hold during the World Food Summit: five years later, 10-13 June 2002:
A fraternal greeting to all of you. I would like to thank you for inviting me to share our thoughts on GENDER, FOOD SECURITY AND THE ENVIRONMENT.

I represent an indigenous Organization of Mayan women and survivor women from the genocide that occurred in Guatemala. Our husbands, fathers and relatives were kidnapped, tortured, missing and abandoned in clandestine cemeteries. We are women who have suffered discrimination, poverty and, in many cases, even extreme poverty. In my country’s history there has not been a government interested in investing in women in general, nor in rural women, in particular. We were also considered women unable to contribute to development because we had no access to formal education.

We rural women are the crucial force for human development, despite the fact that public policies have not guaranteed us subsistence, nutrition, health, and just salaries. Our permanent contribution to our household, culture, society, and country has never been valued, nor even recognized.

In Guatemala more than 50% of the population is female, and we struggle to eliminate the huge differences between men and women. Our contribution has been continuous and is characterized by concrete proposals and demands to use and to have access to land and tenure security. We have also demanded access to economic resources to support projects for women in order to achieve food security for us, our sons and our daughters.


We need to understand gender as equal rights for men and women, which means eliminating “machismo”, exclusion and imposition, and conceding more spaces of control, management and leadership.

Many people associate gender only with women. Nevertheless we understand that it is also talking about shared responsibilities, work and projects with a consideration of both men and women. If we understand gender in this way, we could share a new future vision with equal opportunities and rights.

Gender means that women have to claim their rights that have been denied to them historically both in legal and practical terms. And here we are discussing how to promote the implementation of the agreements related to the elimination of the inequalities in the use of, access to and control over natural resources.

Nowadays, we are asking for more opportunities to formulate, develop and manage programs that benefit women, and this means that men have to concede more spaces to women. A lot of men think that women are not prepared; nevertheless, we can say that in practice women have demonstrated capacity, honesty, transparency, efficiency and effectiveness in implementing different activities.

I know that there have been some changes in gender issues and that the concept is creating awareness and changing minds, but we need to move further to achieve equality. For many men, it is still hard to understand that gender does not mean women, and that gender is not only a woman’s issue. In this regard it is important to highlight the permanent work of thousands of women all over the world and their effort in formulating concrete proposals to eliminate current disparities. Our governments have signed important agreements and conventions. If there were political will to implement them, the development and benefits to women would also be a step towards combating the problems we face in different parts of the world.

If we want to talk about gender, we need to start promoting policies that benefit women, and this does not mean that women just have to be mentioned in programs and projects. To include effectively women in those programs and projects, it is necessary that women fully participate and benefit from development activities. We do not want women suffering hunger; we do not want malnourished women; we want to be builders, and we want to transform our lives with gender equality and equity. Women will continue to promote and pursue a better future.

Poverty, exclusion and hunger are a shame for governments that have never thought of the welfare of their societies. But this new millennium cannot go by without the participation and leadership of women. We are women who have even risked our lives, and we are convinced that the development policies are not going to change without our participation, our work, our dedication.

Women and men need to help each other and be more organized to change inequalities between rich and poor people. Struggling against gender inequality is fundamental to achieve sustainable development, since not only men but also women have made important contributions to the development of our countries.

Food security

This issue is about satisfying hunger. It is widely recognized that food insecurity affects particularly women and children. In addition, women face social exclusion and mistrust. In Guatemala, as in many other Latin American countries, the percentage of female-headed households is increasing as a result of armed conflicts, abandonment and single motherhood. We have a lot of widows as a consequence of violence. Those women live without any support from governments, institutions or donor agencies.

Rural women are therefore often illiterate, malnourished; they do not have a decent house, nor access to resources and receive inadequate salaries for their work. In some communities a number of public and private institutions have implemented projects for women; nevertheless, in some cases, women were not able to repay loans to banks and other credit institutions and so have lost all their personal belongings. They are desperate because they do not have any collateral for repayment of loans.

Women in rural areas, with their hands, produce vegetables and fruits. They are involved in all areas of crop production from seed selection to planting, harvest, storage, processing and marketing. Nonetheless, they face limitations in accessing markets and obtaining just prices for their products and services. Women are responsible for providing food for their families and they also have to guarantee their wellbeing. Moreover, some women farmers face risks in some work places because they are in contact with insecticides and other hazardous products which threaten their health.

Many of you know that Guatemala is one of the poorest countries in Latin America and most of its inhabitants live in extreme poverty. A lot of women, boys and girls die of hunger and malnutrition. This situation affects especially people who live in rural areas and indigenous groups.

But this is not just in Guatemala where boys, girls and women die of hunger. This happens in many Latin American countries where external debt impoverishes poor people and where some governments exacerbate even more the situation by plundering national resources.

Food insecurity, hunger and malnutrition affect the more vulnerable groups, particularly indigenous peoples and women. The situation of indigenous peoples is particularly serious where starvation is widespread. This situation could change if governments and donors were willing to support and invest in women’s projects in order to guarantee adequate food supply.

The environment

I have to say that the contribution of rural women to the preservation of the environment stems from our culture, our respect for the earth, for our mother nature. In the history of indigenous peoples, this special consideration for the natural environment has been the cornerstone of the equilibrium among men, women, God and nature. Based on that, thousands of women produce, provide and prepare food for their families based on the relationship and respect for the environment.

Rural women and indigenous groups develop their activities in a sustainable way, although often they have been accused of the depletion of natural resources. They do not know that we have a deep respect for the environment and this means respect for our Mother Nature, for the air, water, sun, moon, rivers, animals and plants.

Women plant and cultivate according to the moon cycle. With our hands we produce and guarantee food for our households and communities, although this effort is not sufficient to achieve food security. Our lands do not produce enough to meet our needs; but better lands are not cultivated, since they are in the hands of people who do not work on them. Our lands are exhausted or even overexploited, but we are aware of our responsibilities in the preservation of our environment.

Unfortunately, technology, globalization and neo-liberal programmes are depleting our scarce resources. We have seen that in the name of development, our environment, our communities and our cultures have been polluted and destroyed.

We are not against development; we are only requesting that development programs guarantee harmony with the environment and respect for our cultures. If these issues are at the root of development policies, then our communities will overcome poverty and underdevelopment, and our environment will provide all the resources necessary to sustain human life.

The harmonious relationship between human beings and the environment depends on ourselves.

Finally, I would like to tell you that I wish there were agreements signed by governments, institutions and civil societies to consider and recognize the contribution of women and indigenous people to food security. I would also like to share with you the following reflections:

  1. It is necessary to guarantee food for women who feed babies because they generate life, and this is food security.
  2. It is right to ask rich countries to avoid producing food for animals, because I believe it is worthy to give that food to poor men, women and children who die of hunger.
  3. It is important to request an agreement to preserve our earth, because it is our mother, our life and a guarantee for producing safe food. We do not have to see the land just as a means of trade and wealth for a few people. We should recognize the equal rights of men and women to access the land, water and our other resources.
  4. It is necessary to respect the right to produce according to our traditions and cultures. But it is also important to recognize that we face problems on how to use and conserve natural resources. If you want to produce food, you need land and money, and poor people do not have money and land. Since we do not have money and land, we cannot produce food nor generate income. If we do not generate income, we do not eat. The result is a vicious circle of hunger and poverty.
  5. In this new millennium it is urgent to call for the right to self determination of peoples, in order to define the best way to use and conserve natural resources to achieve food security and sovereignty.
  6. In order to guarantee the achievement of food security, it is necessary to combat the current disparities, since there are a lot of people who get sick or die because they eat a lot, and on the other hand there are millions who die because they do not have enough food.

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