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Kitchens, gender and unlearning feminism

Urban Food Futures research results presented at CSW67

by Caroline Peters, Nicole Paganini | 2023-03-07

Kitchens, gender and unlearning feminism
Preparing a meal at a kitchen supported by Callas Foundation in Cape Town. Photo: Sanelisiwe Nyaba

The 67th session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW67) is taking place from 6-17 March 2023 in New York. With Sustainable Development Goal 11 (SDG 11 on sustainable cities and communities) one of five SDGs under review at this year's High Level Political Forum (HLPF) in July, it provides an early opportunity to highlight women's contribution to the SDGs, and specifically SDG 11. We are therefore honoured that our work on coping with crises will be presented during the CSW67 Local and Regional Governments Day on 7 March by our partner, Food Agency Cape Town (FACT).

Caroline Peters at CSW67 plenary hall: Start spreading the news. I′m leaving today. I want to be a part of it. New York, New York
Caroline Peters at CSW67 plenary hall: Start spreading the news. I′m leaving today. I want to be a part of it. New York, New York

Caroline Peters, Callas Foundation - which participates in the FACT network - will shed light on the multitude of crises that aggravate gender inequality in cities. The network advocates for equitable political representation in all spheres of leadership and sees community kitchens as cornerstones for gaining this representation in Cape Town. Community kitchens are spaces where people come together to prepare and share meals. In Cape Town, community kitchens have been used as a coping strategy, mainly by women, to address food insecurity, promote social cohesion, and foster safer spaces. They provide a platform for women to showcase their solidarity, build their confidence, and participate in decision-making processes that affect their communities.

Empowering women: Insights from our transdisciplinary research on community kitchens in Cape Town

By conducting research with community kitchens and their volunteers and patrons, TMG's Urban Food Futures research team has gained a better understanding of people’s lived experiences during crises. This not only relates to the impacts of multiple interlocking crises at individual and household levels, but also on how these crises are experienced differently based on a person’s socio-economic status. While global crises, such as the COVID-19 pandemic and the food price crisis, affect people worldwide, they have a larger impact on communities that are already living in situations of structural disadvantage. An intersectional perspective is necessary to understand how individuals and groups are impacted by multiple crises based on differences in gender, race, sexual identity, place of origin, and class differences.

One of the key insights from our research with community kitchens is the profound impact that crises have on people’s dignity. How community kitchen are designed and operated therefore plays an important role in leveraging women’s agency, and ensure access to food in dignity. At the same time, crises open up space for discussing and tackling hunger as a communal issue, rather than an individual struggle. Therefore, community kitchens serve as physical spaces to engage citizens and the city in achieving the right to food and to foster a conversation between right holders and duty bearers.

Women are driving local coping mechanisms

We have seen that community kitchens provide a platform for building social capital. As women previously unfamiliar with each other interact within community kitchens, they build trust and begin to see their shared struggles as opportunities for collaboration and mutual support. These women often opt to create joint savings schemes to support each other as they navigate crises and share information beyond food and nutrition, such as livelihood opportunities and health matters.

During our research at community kitchen sites, we observed that social networks in informal and low-income urban settlements are often faster than governments at providing communities with crisis coping mechanisms. It is usually women who organize these mechanisms in times of crises and see to their communities’ food security. For example, we found that:

  • More than 97% of kitchens are run by women

  • 90% of kitchens are in women's homes

  • More than 80% of women subsidize kitchens from their own pockets

These findings put to question the role of local and national governments in achieving food security. If the poor provide free food to the poor, then what is the role of the State? If most coping mechanisms rely on women’s volunteer and unpaid labour and care work, there is an urgent need to channel funding from local governments and other support agencies in a more structured way.

Towards an African feminism

Caroline’s presentation highlights the importance of using critical feminist research methodologies, particularly when working in Africa. This is because research processes are typically shaped by assumptions, biases, and Northern preconceptions which do not fit with the African narrative. These biases can lead to a narrow understandings of African experiences and perspectives and limit the potential for transformative social change. Here, African feminism is an important framework for research because they provide alternative perspectives on African experiences and histories, foreground the experiences and perspectives of African women, and challenge the patriarchal assumptions and biases that have historically shaped research in Africa.

The Urban Food Futures team wishes Caroline a successful stay in New York and thanks her for presenting our joint work. We wish you fruitful discussions and networking opportunities!

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