Food, sisterhood and dreams

On World Food Day, Nicole Szucs reports back from a dialogue on increasing dietary diversity and local food systems in Bolivia, and highlights a new video showing how women play a vital role in the food cycle, from production to consumption.

Guest blog by
16 October 2018

Nicole Szucs, Hivos officer, Bolivia

Nicole Szucs addresses a group of women at the Food Change Lab in La Paz, Bolivia

At the end of September, I attended the first session of the Food Change Lab held in Bolivia by the Hivos and IIED Sustainable Diets for All programme.

The participants formed a patchwork quilt of stories of survival, struggle and joy. Some of them care for family members and do household chores; others sell food at markets and a few even draft laws for the government. But they all have one common concern: to feed their family and themselves, properly.

This is precisely what the Food Change Lab in Bolivia wants to address. What are nutrition challenges for us as women, for our families, for our neighborhoods? What can we improve about what we eat, the way we eat and how we get food?

Not afraid to be wrong

A lab for social change is an event that brings together people from different backgrounds to identify common problems and then find or create solutions.

In a lab you can experiment without being afraid to make mistakes. You learn about “prototypes” (models for solutions) and develop discipline as you and the group constantly hone your problem-solving skills. In general, labs aim to stimulate participants’ curiosity and make everyone let go of common assumptions.

It was very rewarding to work with such a diverse group in La Paz: 27 women aged from 25 to 65 from different neighborhoods; some couldn’t read or write and others had a PhD.

We started off with simple exercises, such as listening to others without passing judgement. The process then evolved to a deeper analysis of the food challenges for urban women in La Paz. It made me realise how little we listen and how unused we are to being listened to.

Sorority – sisterhood

This type of lab always provides a space for healing as well as solving problems, and La Paz was no exception. Knowing you’re being listened to opens many doors. Although most of us were strangers, it just took a few exercises to make us open to working together for change.

Many of the participants were from low-income backgrounds. Some had migrated from the countryside, and some had more than six children. This space where the women could speak their minds without being judged helped them share their concerns and ideas without holding back.

Exercises helped the Food Change Lab group trust one another

During the rest of the lab, the women’s’ ideas will be shared with decision makers in the private and public sector so everyone can come up with solutions for our food-related problems together.

During the lab a word was used for the first time that nobody actually knew: 'sorority'. It means a group of girls or women associated for a common purpose. Never was a truer word spoken!

Women and food 

The major concerns of our participants didn’t differ much from current research on food and nutrition. Their first concern was health, and in Bolivia there are two sides to this coin.

While we still suffer from undernutrition, which mostly affects women and children; we also see lots of obesity, which is rapidly increasing and affects mostly women.

According to the Bolivian Ministry of Health (PDF) (Spanish site), between 1980 and 2014 the rate of obesity in women in Bolivia rose from 8.5% to 23.1%. The male population’s increase was less: from 3.8% in 1980 to 12.4% in 2014.

The participants’ second concern was time. They all buy and prepare their families’ food, regardless if they work one or even two jobs. According to the UN in Bolivia (Spanish site), the number of women in paid employment has risen to 62%. But this has not been accompanied by a redefinition of gender roles within families and society.

“Housework” – caring for children, cleaning and doing other household chores – is still seen as the inherent responsibility of women. For our lab participants, this means they have less time for food shopping and cooking, which they believe leads to less nutritious food for themselves and their families.

By the end of this first session, we all realised we don’t just have problems. We also have solutions that we can share with the private sector and government policymakers through the lab for them to take action.

A turn for the better

In Bolivia, people eat poorly and more of the same. Local old grains as canuhua are about to be forgotten, but three Bolivian women show why they believe food diversity is so important. Watch the short film below or on Hivos' Vimeo channel.

Our dream

This is the first of many Food Change Labs Hivos and IIED are developing in order to realise our dream of nutritious food for people everywhere.

Hivos is committed to a world in which people have access to diverse, healthy food, sustainably produced in harmony with the planet. And women play a fundamental role in making this dream become a real, vital part of the food cycle, from production to consumption.

The Sustainable Diets for All programme in Bolivia is a joint effort between Hivos, IIED, MIGA, La Casa de les Ningunes and Fundación Alternativas.

About the author

Nicole Szucs, Hivos officer, Bolivia

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