Price Hikes and the Feminization of Food Insecurity in Bangladesh

Article excerpt

Holding her nine-month-old baby in one arm, Salma Khanam braved the chilly morning breeze to buy subsidised rice at the Open Market Sales (OMS) point... She had to wait for more than four hours for her turn. 'I am here for the first time. I dared not come here carrying my baby. But I had to change my mind for the soaring prices of rice,' said Salma wife of a bus helper, who earns Tk 5,000 [CAD 70] a month. (Parvez, 2011)

The Daily Star, one of the leading newspapers in Bangladesh, recently carried this story along with a photograph showing hundreds of poor people, a large number of them women, queuing up in front one of the government-initiated sales outlets for buying coarse rice at a subsidized price.

The current rice price increases came on the heels of the 2007-8 food crisis, which according to a 2008 Food and Agriculture Organization/World Food Program (FAO/WFP) study, rendered an additional 7.5 million Bangladeshis as food insecure. Since the crisis, rice prices have been extremely unstable in the domestic markets. This poses a serious threat to the food security of the 56 million absolute poor in the country. According to Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics estimates, rice accounts for nearly 70% of the total calorie intake and 50% of the protein intake in the country. This means that a stable rice market is a precondition for maintaining food security in Bangladesh.

The situation is particularly dire for women who bear the heavy brunt of the wild swings in food prices. The FAO/ WFP study that was conducted during the peak of the crisis found that many women at that time skipped meals so that other members of the family could eat properly. It revealed that in 58% of the total surveyed households, the women skipped more meals than the others.

This is hardly surprising in the context of Bangladesh where women continue to shoulder the responsibility of preparing and serving food. Although many women have recently entered the labour market to support their families, they are still expected to perform their traditional roles as cooks. It is a social custom, especially among rural Bangladeshis, that women eat after the male members have consumed their meal. Women are thus left with little choice but to skip their meal in case of a food shortage.

Another important finding of the FAO/WFP study is that female-headed households are more vulnerable to food insecurity threats. The study reports more than one-third of female-headed households consume two meals a day as compared to less than one-fifth of male-headed households.

One factor that may explain this high incidence of food insecurity among female-headed households is that, in most cases, women become the head of the household through divorce or desertion, or because of an absentee husband.

Ironically, it is a common practice in Bangladesh to divorce or desert the wife, leaving the children in her custody without the husband extending any chiidcare support. Very few divorce cases are legally settled through the courts of law. This allows the husband to escape with no settlement payments toward his family.

When men migrate to cities in search of better work and wage opportunities, the responsibility to raise the children falls squarely on the women in the households. The added responsibility of chiidcare, in addition to regular household work, limits the ability of the female household head to spend sufficient time at the workplace, thus lowering her income opportunities. The fact that most of these women possess little or no formal education or skills training also makes them more vulnerable to workplace discrimination. Fortunately, female enrolment in schools has been steadily increasing over the past two decades.

The gender wage gap is significant. A 2008 International Labour Organization working paper authored by Steven Kapsos revealed that women earn 2 1 % less per hour than their male counterparts. …