Women Feeding Cities: Mainstreaming Gender in Urban Agriculture and Food Security

Hovorka, Alice
de Zeeuw, Henk
Njenga, Mary
Practical Action Publishing, Rugby, UK, 2009, ISBN: 978 1 85339 685 4,390 pp.
Reviewed by or other comment: 

Kathryn McNicoll
CENDEP, Oxford Brookes University, UK

The importance of making gender an integral part of decision making in all spheres is increasingly recognised. Women have always played a central role in feeding their families, and the need to listen to their voices is acknowledged to be crucial. Much has been written on urban poverty, but the existence of urban farming was largely overlooked for many years. Women Feeding Cities is part of the growing movement that seeks to redress this imbalance.

The authors have two stated aims: to draw attention to the vital role of women in putting food on urban tables; and to provide for practitioners a toolbox of ideas and methods that they can use to promote taking gender into account. The book’s raison d’être is to highlight the need for gender analysis. Gender balance does not necessarily mean gender equality: equal numbers of men and women do not mean equality of choice and decision making. Gender analysis means looking at the division of labour in different cultures and asking what this means in terms of the ability to control one’s own life.

The book is very well signposted, with the main thrust of each chapter briefly highlighted in an introductory summary. The introductory chapter draws together the insights that emerge from the case studies, such as the differences between rural and urban farming, the differences between subsistence and commercial production, and the particular problems of the urban poor. The benefits and the risks of urban farming (resilience and short transport distance versus the potential risks of pollution, for instance) are outlined and, finally, key gender issues are discussed, based largely on the outcomes of the case studies in the book.

Each of the 13 case studies which follow comes from a slightly different angle, which makes straight comparisons between them rather difficult. However, the studies examine the crucial issues for each particular area, such as dealing with HIV and AIDS or ground pollution, and they are therefore more relevant than they would be if they were squeezed into rigid frameworks. It would have been interesting, in some cases, to have been given more background information to explain why particular cities and urban areas were chosen. Chapter 8 on Peru, for instance, gives a very clear and interesting background to the problems that exist there today, which clarifies the choice of the particular urban area for study.

The main problem with this book is the overwhelming absence of people. The format consists of case studies, and case studies should mean people, but in Women Feeding Cities there is very little attempt to show the human beings behind the facts; the low-quality photographs seem to have been added as an afterthought and do not help to personalise the arguments. The exception to this is Chapter 3, on the flower growers in Manila, in which descriptions of four households help considerably to bring to life the dry facts and figures. Occasionally, too, the number of participants seems small, reflecting no doubt the difficulty of gathering information in certain circumstances. Another limitation is the fact that (while they should not be sidelined) men do seem to dominate some of the studies. In Kisumu, Kenya, for example, the Area Chief was consulted on which families should be interviewed and, of the 55 households chosen, 39 were maleheaded and 16 female-headed. The reader is then told that 29 per cent of the respondents were female heads of household, yet the wives of the male-headed households were apparently also interviewed separately. This highlights another problem, which is the use of statistics when the sample size is small. For example, 55 households were interviewed in Kisumu, 60 in Ghana, and 70 in Zimbabwe – and percentages based on such small numbers are of limited use.

At times the figures were unhelpful: for example, Figure 5.1 (Impact on men and women of ceasing to grow crops on dump sites). The numbers do not contribute anything, and the information might have been better presented as text. In contrast, the figures in Chapter 8 on Peru are well presented and, adding a personal touch, quotes from interviewees are included (see Table 8.4). In certain cases, monetary values are quoted, but these are not helpful without reference to other currencies, particularly in relation to a country like Zimbabwe, where inflation is rampant.

Many of the suggestions in the comprehensive tool box in Part II will not be new to practitioners, but it is useful to have them outlined and ordered clearly for the different stages of a study. Anyone interested in initiating a case study can pick and mix, as the authors of the case studies have done themselves. The editors are careful to point out the potential pitfalls in collating information to ensure that women are given the chance to have their say. At times, however, it seems that this advice was not taken into consideration in the case studies themselves.

This book is not for the novice. There is a clear expectation that the reader will understand all the development and gender terminology, as well as the various methods and tools described in Part II, without explanation. However, the book does fulfil its two stated aims and, for the research student interested in issues of urban farming, or for anyone wishing to conduct a case study in an urban environment, this book is a useful and informative tool.