Pioneering women in food: How Vandana Shiva is leading the eco-feminist charge against violence towards women and nature

For this year’s International Women’s Day in a new article series, we’re recognising the women in food breaking the moulds in the kitchen, and in the fields and on the fishing boats… 

We spoke to seven trailblazing women – Asma KhanVandana Shiva, Helen Browning, Caroline Bennett, Dee Woods, Alice Robinson and Sarah Grady – who are each pushing sustainability, regeneration and ethics forwards within their industries and making space for other women to do so, too. 

We find out how their work is changing the face of the industry and women’s place in it, the challenges they’ve faced along the way, and what more there is to be done…

Vandana Shiva’s story

Known as the Gandhi of grain, Dr Vandana Shiva’s work is world-renowned. She focuses on ecology, environmentalism and food sovereignty, yet her career began in what feels like an unlikely place as a physicist, following a PhD in the foundations of quantum theory.

After studying, she became involved in ecological activism in the 1970s, with the Chipko movement – a conservation protest made up of mostly women who hugged trees to prevent them from being cut down. The protests began as the group had recognised “cutting down the forests was causing landslides, floods and drought,” Vandana explains.

Her work in seed sovereignty is also highly important, where she’s prevented laws coming into force that would ban farmers from selling seeds. She’s also opened up seed banks all over the world, with 150 in India alone.

Vandana’s work as a scholar means she’s also written 20 books, one of which is on her work in eco-feminism, a term coined by Françoise d’Eaubonne in 1974. The movement is a branch of feminism and political ecology concerned with the connection of women to the natural world. 

The book, simply titled eco-feminism was co-written with German sociologist, Maria Mies. Vandana describes her work within eco-feminism as looking at “the links between the violence against nature and violence against women, and the regeneration of nature and the empowerment and liberation of women“.

For her, the movement focuses on how “women have been left to take care of life, which is the most important part of the economy“, but isn’t seen that way, by what she calls the current patriarchal capitalist society. Women are often the carers of society, and the ones who notice what nature’s doing too. It is because of this role women take on, they’re the first to see “a well disappear, a river getting poisoned, seeds disappearing”, which is why Vandana compares them to “canaries in the coal mine“. 

Although considering the global issues she tackles, Vandana says she’s often faced issues being a woman in her work, which go right back to being one of only two women on her physics course. She’s also faced real threats too, which usually come when she’s taken on big interests, such as chemical industrial agriculture and GMOs and even jokes that they “haven’t given up yet”. But, more importantly, neither has she. 

Clearly, there’s a lot more in this space to be done, and Vandana aims high and thinks it needs to be included in “every sphere of life”. For her, she sees the capitalist patriarchal economy as only interested in what it can extract from the earth, as “it only measures what you can take out of the mud”. She adds that if the economy was redefined on eco-feminist philosophy, it would mean “you don’t financialise nature, but you recognise its value“.

Eco-feminism is not only recognising the value of nature beyond its financial worth, but womens’ work within it, too. As Vandana explains that women’s work is not “just undervalued, it’s invisible”. While researching, even she was surprised to learn that most farmers across the world are women, and not men as the majority might initially think. Also, when it comes to work such as collecting water, it’s an essential job, but remains invisible. Shockingly, a study Vandana did on water collection by women for the National Commission of Women found that women spent 150 million hours each year doing this role – although she said the figure is likely more as the study was more than 10 years ago.

Vandana’s work really holds a light up to the unrecognised women’s work, and how much further there is to go until the work, and nature, is fairly recognised and respected.

Follow Vandana: @drvandanashiva
Read more: vandanashiva.com

International Women’s Day, marked annually on 8 March, celebrates the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women, across the globe, who are dismantling discrimination, driving equal opportunities and empowering women and girls.

Main image: Photo by Mr. Kartikey Shiva

About the author

Emma Henderson

Emma Henderson

Emma Henderson is a freelance writer and editor and has been a journalist for 10 years, where for most of that time she worked at The Independent. She specialises in food and drink, covering everything from plastic free tea to sustainable fishing. She was the Editor of IndyEats, The Independent's digital food magazine. She writes widely about sustainability, ethics and greenwashing in food and beyond.

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