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Ensuring a square meal: women and food security in Southeast Asia, edited by
Theresa W. Devasahayam, Singapore, World Scientic, 2018, 252 pp., PhP 995.00
(hardback), ISBN 9789813231894
Food insecurity remains to be one of the biggest problems that states in Southeast Asia are
seeking to address. Based on available data, more than 60,000,000 Southeast Asians are
noted to be food and nutritionally insecure (OECD 2017). Using a gender approach, the book
edited by Theresa W. Devasahayam posits that women are considered to be much more food
insecure than men and children. This is because of the roles assigned for each gender, as
women are recognized to be the caretakers of their families. Hence, in this context, women
have to account for their household’s security rst before their own.
The book is a compilation of dierent case studies, particularly in Southeast Asian states
such as Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines. The rst chapter highlighted the
nuances and the issues pertaining to gender and food security, and their nexus. The second
chapter dealt with the concept of food security in rural areas, how it can be measured, and
how gender can be included in gathering data. Finally, the rest of the chapters highlighted
dierent case studies stressing how gender should be included in the analysis of food
security. And based on their discussion, all of the cases in the book have highlighted how
food security is actually gendered.
Issues pertaining to the role of women in their respective households are considered to be
in the private sphere. However, the discussion of the book argues that the dichotomies
between private-public spheres are much more complex than it appears to be. Moreover,
using gender (particularly feminism) as lens in understanding political realities argues that
“the personal is political,” (Randall in Marsh and Stoker 2010, 123), hence making the division
between private and public spheres actually insignicant. Due to this development, the book
explains how food security in Southeast Asia can be discussed using a gendered lens.
Food security, as a condition, exists when “all people, at all times, have access to sucient,
safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and
healthy life (Food and Agriculture Organization 2006,1).” Barichello and Widanage, in their
book chapter, argued that the concept is all-encompassing, at best. Thus, they argued for an
alternate measure of food security such as food self-suciency, and by probing into the
share of food vis-à-vis the total household budget (the Engel Coecient). While both are able
to measure food security, the chapter contributors note that these measurements should
account for the dierences in terms of gender. As posited in the book, there are stark
dierences as to how men and women manage a household, including their household’s
budget, thus necessitating the need to include gender in measuring food security.
The book highlights issues and concerns that are cross-cutting among the case studies
cited in Southeast Asia. One of the issues highlighted in the book is the uncredited role of
women in agriculture. Most of government data available on agriculture only account for
men, even if women also do agricultural work, as discussed in the book. Doing agricultural
work, in this regard, is only seen as an extension of women’s duty in the household. Most of
the case studies pointed out that states do not recognize this reality. In the case of Indonesia,
as discussed by Sumarti, most women were not able to avail of government services as they
are not recognized to be farmers. The same is also observed in the Southern Vietnam case
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study where government training on agriculture is provided less for women. This is a sad
reality, considering that women are much more knowledgeable than men in some aspects of
agriculture, as argued by the women in the upland Northern Vietnam case study.
Another concern for women is the lack of opportunities to address food insecurity, even if
women have a big role in ensuring food security in their households. In the case of Indonesia,
Sumarti discussed that biases exist as far as government programs are concerned. For
instance, women in Java nd it dicult to ensure food security as local institutions provide
less incentives for women to pursue agriculture. Aside from favoring one gender over the
other, there are instances when policies are insucient for the needs of women in ensuring
food security. One example would be the Rice for Poor Households (RASKIN) program, where
Chongvilaivan and Tritasavit discussed that the lack of funding deters women to access
available cheap rice from the government.
As the global economy is much more integrated today than it was before, there are also
challenges in ensuring food security, especially for women. With the use of green technol-
ogies in agricultural production, the cost of inputs are rising, which then negatively aects
farmers in the long run, as documented in Vietnam, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Aside
from increasing costs of inputs, prices of agricultural products are also maintained by the
Indonesian government at a low price, thus contributing to food insecurity of farmers, based
on the issues raised by women Indonesian migrant workers in Singapore. Another issue
aecting food security in agriculture is the push toward monocropping and cultivation of
high-value agricultural products. The insistence on monocropping, as seen in the case of the
indigenous peoples of Northern Vietnam, made the cultivation of their indigenous rice
varieties much more dicult. Moreover, Lee, in his book chapter, mentioned that the
cultivation of high-value crops such as palm oil negatively aects the food security of
communities in Sarawak, Malaysia.
Because of these developments in agriculture, migration is seen as a possible solution for
households to be food secure. In the case of Northern Vietnam and Sarawak, Malaysia, some
members of indigenous communities were forced to go to urban places to nd employment
and support their families nancially. The migration of men to seek employment adds
burden on women as they have to ensure food for their family, as discussed by Lee. As of
the moment, migration is not only under the purview of men. Women are also seeking
opportunities for them to go abroad, as opportunities are lacking. In fact, in the Philippines,
Tigno posits that migration in the Philippines is already feminized. And in the case of the
Indonesian migrant workers, it was emphasized that women left their own households to
earn enough resources to help their kin, especially in providing for their basic needs. As
a positive impact of migration, the cases cited in the book were able to observe that women
earning their own money abroad help in empowering them in their own households,
especially in terms of decision-making. But migration is a double-edge sword. As discussed
in the case of Indonesian migrant workers, while migration can help nance household
agriculture, it also helps people to move away from agriculture. Indonesian women migrant
workers have made investments in their children’s social capital through education. The
same is also observed in the Philippines as people’s motivation is to shift away from an
agriculture-based economy. And in the long run, Tigno pointed out that migration can
negatively aect agricultural production.
Overall, the book is able to connect food security with gender and migration issues in
Southeast Asia. However, while it aims to analyze the state of food security in Southeast Asia,
the book was not able to mention, even in passing, the role of the Association of Southeast
Asian Nations (ASEAN) as the regional organization of Southeast Asian states, especially with
respect to food security. International relations literature recognizes the role of international
and regional institutions in security issues, even if the extent of their importance is still under
Despite the lack of discussion of institutions at the regional level, nevertheless, the book
was able to highlight how food insecurity in Southeast Asia is connected to gender issues.
Analyzing the issue of food insecurity using a gendered perspective is commendable.
Another commendable contribution of the book was to demystify the private-public dichot-
omy. Demystifying the division between what is public vis-à-vis private is actually helpful
especially in terms of actions that can be undertaken by states in ensuring food security for
all. In this regard, the role of the state is highly recognized in the material, as they have the
resources and powers to address food insecurity and gender imbalances. With the cases cited
in the book, Southeast Asian governments and their respective ministries or departments, as
well as civil society organizations and policy-oriented think tanks can learn from these on
how they can improve food security by addressing gender imbalances in the society.
Food and Agriculture Organization. 2006. “Food Security.” Policy Brief, Issue 2.leadmin/
OECD [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development]. 2017.Building Food Security and Managing
Risk in Southeast Asia. Paris: OECD Publishing. doi:10.1787/9789264272392-en.
Randall, V. 2010. “Feminism.” In Theory and Methods in Political Science, edited by D. Marsh and G. Stoker,
114–135. 3rd ed. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.
Nathaniel Punongbayan Candelaria
Center for Integrative and Development Studies, University of the Philippines System
© 2018 Nathaniel Punongbayan Candelaria
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
Building Food Security and Managing Risk in Southeast Asia
OECD [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development]. 2017. Building Food Security and Managing Risk in Southeast Asia. Paris: OECD Publishing. doi:10.1787/9789264272392-en.