Rural Women. Period.

October 15 is the International Day of Rural Women. This year marks the fourth celebration. According to the United Nations, the day “recognizes `the critical role and contribution of rural women, including indigenous women, in enhancing agricultural and rural development, improving food security and eradicating rural poverty.’”

Rural women do a bit more than ”enhance” and “improve”, and the do so in more areas than “the rural”.

Who, and where, exactly, are “rural women”?

On one hand, they are women in rural zones. As such, they are the heart of the current food crisis. They are the women working the sugar farms, or sweatshops, in KwaZulu-Natal and the citrus farms of the Western Cape, both in South Africa, too often overlooked or forgotten by the trade unions, the State, and, to a certain extent, large swathes of the women’s movement. They are also the South African women who comprise Sikhula Sonke and the Surplus Peoples Project, women who struggle, organize, keep on keeping on.

They are the rural and indigenous women in Argentina who speak out about and who organize to stop the environmental and economic devastation of climate change, a process they see and live with every day.

They are the rural and indigenous women across Asia who struggle with the intensification of patriarchal exclusion the emerges from the embrace of local power brokers, national governments and multinational corporations, especially but not exclusively those engaged in agriculture. They are women, like Rajkala Devi, who have broken glass, linen, silk, and concrete ceilings to attain public office in villages, as in hers in Rajasthan, India, and to move more than the village into more than recognition of women’s rights.

They are the fisherwomen like Rehema Bavuma, from Uganda, who struggle, along with their Asian and Latin American sisters, to do more and better than merely stop land grabs, to change the entire system. These women know, without the `benefit’ of longitudinal studies, that girls and women are the key to food security, to well being. They also know that girls and women are the key to food sovereignty, to something more and better than an end to hunger and an end to threat of starvation.

They are women who struggle with patriarchal governments, like Lind Bara-Weaver, a stone’s throw from Washington. Bara-Weaver struggles with the economy, as do all farmers. But she also struggles with the US federal government’s policies concerning loans to women farmers.

They are Dina Apomayta, in the highlands of Peru, the seed keepers, the guardians of diversity, the last station against what some call “Holocene extinction”, the end of diversity. And they are everywhere.

Rural women are not just in rural areas. They are in cities, too. They are women like Somali farmer Khadija Musame and Liberian farmer Sarah Salie, both now living and providing food for residents of San Diego … in the United States. They are women like Jenga Mwendo, founder of the Backyard Gardeners Network in New Orleans, and women like Regina Fhiceka, a garden and community organizer in Philippi, just outside of Cape Town.

Rural women are everywhere. They are in rural areas and they are in cities. They are the world. That’s the message we should carry on the International Day of Rural Women, today, and into tomorrow, World Food Day … and beyond. Rural women. Period.

 

(Image Credit: American Dairy Association of Indiana)

Apartheid haunts domestic work

In Los Angeles County, there is one bus route, the 305, that directly links the low- and no-income residents of the southern suburbs to the wealthy homeowners of the West Side. Millions rely on the 305. Millions of employers, millions of workers. The 305 only exists because of decades-long struggles by people of color, in the streets, in the courts, in the corridors of power, in the living rooms and kitchens of neighbors and family. And after all that struggle, there’s one line. And that line is about to be closed.

It’s called an efficiency. Close the one line that actually serves low-income workers of color, and replace it with `a hub’. How’s that worked for the airline industry? Not so well, but that makes little to no difference. After all, what’s a few more unpaid, and costly, hours in transit in the daily lives of workers of color? It is estimated that the hub system will double the length of commutes and triple the price. Los Angeles doesn’t allow for free transfers from one line to another. It’s called efficiency.

Who are these workers? Janitors, nannies, maids. Women of color, women of color, women of color. Women of color with names. Guadalupe Lopez. Ana Hernandez. Marina Tejada. Silvia Conjura.

Every day hordes of `colored’ and Black women board the buses, and travel for hours, to tend to the needs, desires, idiosyncrasies, and mess of wealthy, more-often-than-not White individuals, families, households, neighborhoods, communities. Every day, women workers of color pay more and get less. Every day their debt increases. Every day their own families, households, neighborhoods, communities suffer the irretrievable lose of time. Every day.

And every day, the State figures out a new way, through efficiencies, of seizing yet another dollar, yet another hour, from the pocket, purses, bodies, and days and nights of these women of color. If this sounds familiar, it should. It was the logic of `public’ transport under the apartheid regimes in South Africa.

For coloured and African women workers, the State made transportation impossible and necessary, unaffordable … and required. It was a clear weapon in the war of some against the many. To this day, the country still struggles with the apartheid geography of impossible and unaffordable transport. As one writer noted yesterday, commenting on the death of his own nanny, Florence Mbuli, “You can now easily replace the word `Bantustan’ with `township’ or `informal settlement’”.

Yes, we can.

Across South Africa, women workers organize daily on the trains that take them to work. They organize domestic affairs, they organize political interventions, as women workers, as women of color. In Los Angeles County, the same is true. Women workers, every day on the bus, are organizing, organizing information, organizing domestic affairs, organizing political interventions.

Florence Mbuli lived to see the apartheid regime end. She lived to see her children grow up into “very successful people”. But the trains remain, the buses remain, the collective taxis remain, because the distances between home and work, the distances created by an apartheid logic of efficiency, remain. In fact, in many places, most notably the Cape Town metropolitan area, the distances have grown greater since 1994.

Today, Florence Mbuli rides with Guadalupe Lopez, Ana Hernandez, Marina Tejada and Silvia Conjura. Together they measure the time, the cost, the distances. Together they organize. The State can claim to reconcile individuals, even communities, but it can’t reconcile space. It can’t reconcile distances. From Watts to Westwood, from Khayelitsha and Mitchells Plain to Claremont and Rondebosch, and beyond, apartheid haunts domestic work.

 

(Photo Credit: Monica Almeida / The New York Times)

Call them, simply, workers

Yesterday was May 1, 2011. Around the globe, millions marched. Among the workers marching were sex workers, domestic workers, other denizens of the informal economy. Today is May 2, 2011. What are those workers today? Are they considered, simply, workers or are they `workers’, part worker, part … casual, part … informal, part …shadow, part … contingent, part … guest? All woman, all precarious, all the time.

Categorizing workers as part of a somehow other-than-formal work force and work space naturalizes their exclusion and subordination. Why should they have full rights when they’re not full workers? Minimum wage? For `real’ workers, yes. For live-in domestic workers? Not yet.

Why should informal workers have full `protections’ when they’re not full partners in the social industrial contract? They didn’t sign on. They’re informal. How could they have? They were coerced, trafficked, seduced, forced into their current jobs. They must have been. Otherwise, how could they have accepted such abysmal working conditions? The logic is impeccable … and wrong.

Over the weekend, sex workers in South Africa and India brought the lie of the informal economy logic to light. In South Africa, three Cape Town sex workers are suing the State for harassment. They say they were repeatedly taken into custody and held for forty-eight hours, after which they were released without being charged. The three women argue that when they were arrested, they were not `on duty.’ They were not arrested as sex workers but rather as women who at some point or another have engaged in sex work.

This some-point-or-another is the main insight of The First Pan-India Survey of Sex Workers, a major study of sex workers in India, released on Saturday, April 30. Over the past two years, Rohini Shani & V Kalyan Shankar surveyed three thousand women sex workers from fourteen states.

They found that poverty and limited education matter, but not in the way many expect. Poverty and limited education push girls into labor markets early on, often at the age of six or so, but not into sex work. The largest principal employment sector for the very young was domestic labor. The majority of women waited until they were somewhere between 15 and 22 before entering into sex work. That means women had been wage earning workers, for nine to sixteen years before they entered into sex work.

Over seventy percent of the women said they entered sex work of their own volition. For the vast majority, income was the reason. Sex work pays better than domestic labor, agricultural work, daily wage earning or so-called petty services.

In other words, from the perspectives of the sex workers, sex work is one of a number of `livelihood’ options, as Shani and Shankar conclude: “Sex work cannot be considered as singular or isolated in its links with poverty, for there are other occupations as well which fit into the category of `possible livelihood options’ before sex work emerges as one of them. Sex work is not the only site of poor working conditions. For those coming from the labour markets, they have experienced equally harsh conditions of highly labour intensive work for very low incomes. It is from these background cases, that the significance of sex work as a site of higher incomes or livelihoods emerges.”

From South Africa to India and beyond, the sex worker story centers on the fluidity of identity. In South Africa, three women argue that sex work is a job. It’s not an identity, it’s not permanent. Like any other job, when the worker leaves work, she gets to become herself … again. As herself, she has rights, including the rights to dignity, security, and the preservation of freedom.

In India, the researchers learned that context counts. They had to accept women’s multiple work identities if they wanted to depict and understand women’s choices and situations. As women sex workers described their working lives, they moved fluidly among various occupations, often in the same time period. For Indian women struggling in an unforgiving economy, no occupation is an island entire unto itself.

South African sex workers suing the State, Indian sex workers discussing their lives have something to say to workers, trade unions, researchers, and allies everywhere. Sex workers are not like workers nor are they labor lite. They are workers. While it may be true that none of us is free until all of us are free, they tell us that none of us can talk about women workers’ freedom until all of us recognize the fluidity of women workers’ identities. But for now, as a start, call them, simply, workers.

 

We two too

 

We two too

We two too
would have been
out Blomvlei Primary way
had we remembered
to be

We two too
Lansdowne librarian Ian Gordon
and left-handed I, David Kapp

We two too
support the cause
of Equal Education’s
Campaign for School Libraries

1 school 1 library
less than 1%
of the education budget
is all it would take

less than 1%
of the education budget
for a library in every school
in the country (over 10 years)

We two too
then read about
your home from home
(out Hanover Park way)
where you will grow
after the school day

We two too
the two of us
we too
forgot

How many more
have forgotten
(or not yet discovered)
the joy of books
and libraries too

Quite mortified am I, at our forgetfulness, reminded by the Cape Times article “Equal Education opens another library” (CT, February 28 2011) of the grand event.

 

(Photo Credit: Equal Education)

 

Women’s survival economies and the questions of value

In Cape Town, South Africa, women are growing community urban gardens to sustain themselves, their families, and their communities in the face of food vulnerability. As one woman says, “I had no choice. I had to start farming because I had no money to buy vegetables from the shops. I also realized that if we farmed as a group, we would have more than enough food to eat and that we could generate an income from selling the rest.” Some of this produce grown in the gardens is sold but much of it is used to feed families and add nutrition to family’s diets. These gardens are, in part, a response to the current global food crisis but they’re also part of particular ongoing legacies of racism and apartheid where rural populations were moved to cities.

Maria Suarez, a Costa Rican journalist, who gave a talk in Washington, DC with Just Associates on January 26th, calls rain harvesting and urban community gardens “survival economies” or “care economies” where women improvise, share, generate, develop relationships, draw upon old and new knowledge, to sustain themselves and their families. Women create survival economies in the face of increasing economic inequality and impoverishment and food insecurity. Survival economies are built on women’s relationships with each other, within communities, and are tied, but not directly, to formal economy or formal market systems. Home gardens and rainwater collection does not receive a wage but rather goes directly to women and their families and members of the community. A better term might be women’s survival economies: alternative economic systems where women create ways to survive that are not directly part of market economies in response to pressures from neoliberalism.

The urban gardens are a response to local and global food crisis but they’re created from women’s shared knowledge, and shared labor to make and create their own lives, their family’s and community’s lives, outside of the market economy. In response to Suarez’s talk, someone in the audience asked her how we might find alternative models to the market economy which, in the neoliberal era, has impoverished women and their families. Suarez responded that we need change the ways we see “value”. “Value”, she says, is when our work, or creativity, and our lives are turned into money. In a market economy, only things that can be turned into money are “valuable,” anything else (like household work or raising children, garden growing, or any work is that is unwaged) is not “valuable.” When our dominant economic and discursive models see “value” as just money or markets or waged labor, we don’t value (in the other meaning of value which is to find something worthwhile or meaningful) economic structures and relationships that women live by. In this context, we might also note with William Aal, Lucy Jarosz, and Carol Thompson that in the context of the global food crisis and the inefficiency of commercial production, “small-scale urban agriculture in the form of community gardening is becoming increasingly important in seasonal food supplies and local forms of food security.”

Aal, Jarosz, and Thompson also point out that in predominant analysis of the global food crisis, women’s voices are not sought out or valued. As they argue, “The barefoot woman bending over her cultivated genetic treasure is not ‘scientific’, even though such farmers have cultivated genetic biodiversity over thousands of years. These free gifts do not fit into the corporate logic behind commercial agriculture, where only profit can be an incentive, not curiosity nor sharing. Yet indigenous knowledge provides us with all our current food diversity and is the basis for 70 per cent of our current medicines. Americans, for example, need to know that every major food crop we use today was given to us by Native Americans. In contrast, commercial agriculture makes a profit by depleting the gene pool, the result of valuing only very specific traits” What would it mean to talk about how urban space is used in the context of the global food crisis and women in the same paragraph? What would it mean to value women’s knowledge, women’s ingenuity, women’s labor, and, women’s lives?

Activist and eco-feminist Vandana Shiva writes about women in India who over generations have developed knowledge of seed diversity. Shiva advocates an approach to the food crisis that values the experience and knowledge of women.  The values – the ethics that women live by and, also, the different relationships to survival, for themselves and for their families – that women have developed that are outside dominant language and mechanisms of market economy. The independence, creativity, and shared knowledge that women have are, Shiva says, something worth preserving. In response to corporate efforts to patent seed knowledge that women have developed in India, Shiva says: “We will never compromise on this great civilization, which has been based on the culture of sharing the abundance of the world and will continue to maintain this trend of sharing our biodiversity and knowledge. We will never allow your culture of impoverishment and greed to undermine our culture of abundance and sharing.”

 

(Photo Credit: CNN)