ASIA: Food Crisis Adds to Women’s Burden

Published on IPS, by Marwaan Macan-Markar, April 29, 2008.

BANGKOK, Apr 29 (IPS) – As if the burdens they shoulder are not enough, Asia’s women are being compelled to bear the additional weight of rising food prices, say women’s rights activists from across the region.

With increasing prices of rice, oil, fuel transport and all basic commodities, women workers in Asia are the worst hit, declared the Committee for Asian Women (CAW), a regional non-governmental organisation (NGO), at the launch of a campaign here Monday to seek higher wages for female workers.

Workers who produce society’s food, shelter and clothing are, themselves, in a perennially vulnerable hand to mouth existence, added CAW in its statement to push for better incomes for women in the formal and informal sector. This Wage Campaign 2008 is being backed by women’s organisations in 14 Asian countries, among which are Bangladesh, Cambodia, Indonesia, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Thailand …

… Asia is also home to a large body of the working poor, some 900 million people, who live on less than two US dollars a day. This food crisis will hit many of them, living in poor households in urban areas, Kapsos said in an interview. The average poor family in Asia spends a minimum of 50 percent of the household budget on food.

The Geneva-based labour organisation is calling for governments to respond to the galloping rise in prices of staples such as rice through both short-term and long-term measures. In the short term, governments must provide cash transfers to poor households or subsidise the price of food for them, says Kapsos. In the long term, governments must invest more in rural areas, including in labour productivity for agriculture.

The food crisis in the Philippines, one of the worst affected countries in the region, is drawing much attention. After all, it is the world’s largest importer of rice, depending on the paddy fields of South-east Asian neighbours like Vietnam and Thailand. It needs to import some 2.2 million tonnes of the grain this year. Consequently, it has been hit by the rapid rise in the price of rice being traded in the world market.

And to be a female worker in such times is to shoulder a larger burden, Jurgette Honculada of the National Federation of Labour in the Philippines, said at the conference in Bangkok. Nearly 40 percent of the Philippines labour force is either unemployed or under-employed. They are under constant assault.

Women make up the majority of those in the informal sector, some 27 million, in the Philippines. They have no social security, no protection and have to find small jobs that keep them afloat, she added. Workers in this sector are eating less and less these days.

Female workers in Thailand, the world’s largest rice exporter, are not immune from the hike in food prices either. Women working in the informal sector are concerned about the rise in the cost of living. The cost of one meal with rice has almost doubled in some places, said Wilaiwan Seta, chairperson of the Thai Labour Solidarity Committee. Some women say they cannot afford to give birth to a second child because they worry that milk powder will be beyond their reach. (full text).

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