What Rainforest?


Rural Women – Invisible and Isolated
October 17, 2008, 7:23 am
Filed under: Indigenous People, Media Reports

By Irene Fernandez
from Malaysiakini.com

The rural and indigenous women of Sarawak are struggling against the rape of both their bodies and of their land.

Yesterday, the world remembered in a special way, International Rural Women’s Day.

Rural women around the world contribute to 60 percent of labour and tasks in agriculture production. Yet, they remain the poorest and most marginalised and exploited group.

The rural woman remains invisible and isolated as she is seen as an ‘informal’ agriculture worker or as part of collective family labour.

In Malaysia, recent reports highlighting the plight of Penan women reveal the real struggles of indigenous peoples to protect their land, livelihood and dignity of their communities.

The alleged rape of the women and consequent denial of such incidents by the Sarawak government reflects how the state works in collusion with rapists involved in logging, to create fear in the community to get rid of them from their lands.

The rural and indigenous women of Sarawak are struggling against the rape of both their bodies and of their land.

The theft of the indigenous people’s land to pave the way for pure profits – through conversion and control of land for logging and cash crops especially oil palm – is an organised threat to food security of the rural communities and Malaysians as a whole.

Malaysia in its greed to make quick money with the demand for bio-fuel through palm oil production and jatropa cultivation has taken up land for food production and the land of the indigenous peoples.

Thousands of hectares of land are leased to large companies for oil palm with absolutely no respect for the indigenous peoples’ native customary rights to the land and other resources.

Rural women were promised a bright and better future when Malaysia began to implement its New Economic Policy and industrialisation programme 30 years ago.

Today, the industries are moving out and the situation will worsen when large numbers of our women, especially in the textile and electronic factories, lose their jobs. Many are eking out a living by taking on two jobs or through the sale of food.

With the increase in food prices, women without decent wages are each day finding it more and more challenging to ensure food on the table, especially in urban centres. Though the food crisis is not very visible in Malaysia, it is being experienced in homes.

A large number of women in the urban areas find that they have little choice but to sell their bodies to make ends meet and to pay off debts or loans.

Many women especially from Sabah, Sarawak and Johor are being trafficked for prostitution and as labour to Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, Europe and the US. But the government remains in a state of denial.

The country today imports more than US$20 billion of food alone, and has a a food trade deficit of more than US$8 billion. This high dependency on food imports including rice, meat and vegetables, milk and milk products poses a severe security threat to food security and stability.

Recently the world community saw various food riots as people scrambled for food rations. The Philippines experienced the same situation when rice prices increased and there was shortage of rice, as Vietnam placed a temporary export control over rice.

The Philippines was a country that enjoyed food self-sufficiency but sacrificed land to cash crops and liberalised trade of food.

Food crisis ahead

The sovereignty of a nation does not lie in independent political control but also in its agenda to be self-sufficient in basic needs, including ensuring food sovereignty for its people.

This goal and concept must mean that food is not just made available through trade but also that the government must have in place a policy on food sovereignty.

Such a policy would encompass the local community’s right to land and control over other resources like water to ensure food production and self-sufficiency.

Malaysia has a reactive policy whenever it smells a crisis. Globally, there is a food crisis. Both the UN and the World Food Programme have admitted that they cannot contain it.

Governments were warned of this when the World Trade Organisation pushed through its agenda of full liberalisation of trade in food and agriculture products, in the agreement in agriculture. Farmers protested and some committed suicide to send a message to the global community.

But the rich countries together with the transnational companies – especially agrochemical and agribusiness multinationals – drove forward their agenda of profits and control.

Today, the reality is that there are more hungry people today than ever before – over 150 billion. The UN warned recently that it no longer has enough money to keep malnutrition at bay this year in the face of a dramatic upward surge in world commodity prices, which has created a “new face of hunger”.

Malaysia is not immune to this reality. If left unchecked, the majority of people will eventually have reduced accessibility to food in the near future.

In the Ninth Malaysia Plan 2006-2010, the agricultural sector was earmarked as the third pillar of economic growth. The irony is that the governmen’s policies are flawed.

In Budget 2009 proposals, the government deceived Malaysians when it stated that full exemption would be given to several food items which currently attract import duties of between 2 and 20 percent. These include vermicelli, biscuits, fruit juices and canned sweet corn. These items are not staple foods that are a necessity.

The government proposed that RM5.6 billion will be provided under the national food security policy from this year up to 2010. This is to provide incentives to agriculture entrepreneurs to reduce production costs and encourage higher agriculture output.

Will this policy help the poor or entrepreneurs interested in using land for cash crops?

It also said RM1 billion will be set aside for rice farmers. Will this be to subsidise the use of more pesticides and agrochemicals, or guarantee farmers’ right to land and food production?

Initiatives needed

We are happy to note that the Selangor government has begun to address the importance of food production with safety standards. It also intends to get the youth involved in food production.

This strategy will bring about an interest in farming among the youth and in the long term ensure food security. We hope similar initiatives will be taken by other state governments and that young women have a equal share in the land ownership and food production.

It is when a woman is involved in food production that there is a holistic approach to farming and to ensuring food for the whole family.

Food sovereignty and food security should be guaranteed in these ways:

– State governments should respect and uphold native customary rights to land and resources.

– The corporate sector should deliver on social responsibility by not infringing on the rights of people, especially women, to food and resources; food security; and food sovereignty.

– The government should institute a clear and transparent policy on food security and sovereignty with political commitment to ensure food is accessible, safe and available especially to the poor.

The government should also be transparent in thoroughly investigating complaints of rape by Penan women and ensure that rural women are not trafficked for forced prostitution and labour, especially in Sabah and Sarawak.

A new law is needed to guarantee a minimum wage so that women and their families have access to safe and nutritious food and a healthy life.

IRENE FERNANDEZ is Tenanganita director.


1 Comment so far
Leave a comment

Nice article… thanks for sharing….keep it up ^^

Comment by Tim




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