Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Faced with hunger: durable households or resilient networks of women?

 by Ayesha Mysorewala  

A mother feeds her children - field site in Dadu, rural Pakistan. Credit: Collective for Social Science Research
A collaborative study between the Collective for Social Science Research, IDS and Oxfam on food price volatility and its impact on the poorest, has highlighted the importance of social networks and the role of women in particular in tackling and managing hunger in times of crisis.

One of the study's findings was that for the poorest, in rural and urban areas alike, economic activity as well as social interaction revolves around the acquisition of the basic staple food – roti (wheat flour bread). Close as well as extended social networks ensured that individuals did not go hungry beyond a day or two. Besides reciprocal arrangements between relatives and neighbours, food was also accessed through more hierarchical channels such as from employers and patrons, or through charity and begging.

Adverse shocks affect family bonds within and beyond households impacting the most vulnerable
In the food economy of the poorest, the boundaries of the household itself appeared to be fluid and shifting. Social programmes as well as policy research often treat the household as a robust unit of intervention and analysis. It is usually defined as the group of persons who share a dwelling and who normally eat from the same kitchen.

But amongst the poorest, children are often sent to eat at a relative’s home on a hungry day. Hungry days come about when there is an adverse shock to the family, such as a bout of illness or the breadwinner losing his/her job.

As we discovered through repeated visits to the same communities, there was a close association between adverse shock and changes in family bonds within and beyond the household, such as:
  • A dispute with a distant relative can lead to marital breakdown and eviction;
  • Inability to pay rent can cause a family to disperse and come together again; and
  • Death of a spouse can cause an individual to return to the city with his/her children and rejoin the rest of the family.
So while we already knew about the importance of social networks extending beyond the household, particularly in providing insulation against adverse shock, we now began to learn more about how these networks might actually work.

After all, a ‘social network’ cannot be treated like a black box. It must operate through specific connections between particular individuals.
Two girls interact with their neighbours over a household boundary at Karachi field site, Pakistan. Credit: Collective for Social Science Research 
We found that when it came to support on hungry days this was usually provided by women.For example, when there was no food in the house, women would ensure children did not go hungry by sending them to their maternal grandmother or aunt. They also thought little of exchanging a plate of food or raw vegetables with their neighbours when there was enough to spare.

One relatively better off female respondent to our research distributed food every Thursday to poorer households in exchange for blessings. Domestic workers could count on their female employers for rations and loans. In the urban site, a group of women had formed an informal savings committee to set money aside for emergencies.

Women (especially mothers) remain a linchpin in the community during times of crisis
Traditional gender roles establish men as the breadwinners but hold women responsible for feeding the family. It is no wonder that when crises hit, women rally and turn to those on whom they have depended on for support from a very young age – other, perhaps senior or more established women, such as their mothers and sisters.

In another study I was involved with, it appeared that adolescent girls relied overwhelmingly on their mothers when they faced any crisis and then took on the roles their mothers had performed as they approached their late teens. Younger boys also seemed to rely on their mothers but then turned to diverse, mostly male, sources of support as they grew older.

Women's networks are almost completely independent of the support systems on which their husbands rely. For example, we found that it was more common for women to depend on their own mothers rather than their mothers-in-law for food and childcare. In one case, a woman’s increased reliance on her in-laws resulted in instances of domestic violence. This was in stark contrast to another married woman's experience in the same area - she could easily count on her mother when her husband was unemployed.

Our case studies contest existing narratives of poor women being isolated and lacking agency
The experiences of our respondents show that women have the ability to develop strong networks that help to see them through hungry days. Women’s networks persevere despite numerous social limitations on their mobility and are critical in the sustenance of the family.

We found that when the conventional male-headed household faced a crisis – either because of a hungry day, or due to a breakdown in family bonds – food security was often predicated on the resilience of a woman’s ties with other women.

 This post originally appeared in the IDS Blog