Dr. Samina Luthfa: A Gender Lens on Food Safety in Bangladesh
By Meeri Kim
Earlier in her career, Samina Luthfa resisted the idea of becoming a gender researcher. Her interests as a political sociologist in Bangladesh ranged from the environmental justice movement to media — which, like most issues, can certainly be viewed through a gender lens. But she refused to be pigeonholed and never envisioned herself working as a gender expert.
“In Bangladesh, if you are a female sociologist, then you are just supposed to do gender,” says Luthfa, who serves as Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Dhaka. “And that was a bracket I didn't want myself to be stuck in.”
Her perspective changed after taking on a part-time gender researcher position at the University of Oxford while completing her doctoral studies in sociology under a Commonwealth Scholarship. In 2012, the final year of her degree, Luthfa worked on the assessment of several university departments to determine their gender equality status under the Athena SWAN (Scientific Women's Academic Network) Charter.
“I saw that even the top scientists in the world could also be so gender-blind and couldn't see why some departments struggled with recruiting women scientists,” she says. “Our team helped them to understand what was going wrong, and that experience actually boosted my confidence.”
Today, Luthfa no longer feels uncomfortable working on gender and considers it one of her major strengths. After obtaining her doctorate from Oxford in 2013, she returned to Bangladesh to teach and study sociology at the University of Dhaka. Her research has covered topics such as the role of media in environmental justice movements, vulnerabilities of female garment workers, and community resistance against coal mining projects in Bangladesh.
She is currently working as gender advisor and co-principal investigator of a project titled “Enhancing food safety in fish and chicken value chains of Bangladesh,” funded by the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Food Safety. The lab is one of 20 such labs in a network under Feed the Future, the U.S. government’s global hunger and food security initiative led by USAID. To reduce the food safety hazards associated with fish and chicken in the markets of Bangladesh, the researchers are evaluating consumers’ willingness to pay for certified safe foods. What consumers are willing to pay, in turn, affects whether farmers will adopt the food safety practices or not.
The multidisciplinary project involves economists, microbiologists, food scientists and sociologists like Luthfa. Results and data from this study will support science-based decisions on the most effective methods to reduce food safety hazards, all while taking farmers — and their profits — into consideration. The findings will inform win-win policy recommendations aimed at reducing consumers’ exposure to harmful microorganisms and chemicals.
“Food safety is always something which has been in the domain of women, both inside the household and in agricultural production,” says Luthfa. “Without considering their perspective, the story will always be incomplete.”
As part of the project, one of her Master’s students recently conducted a survey of 100 women who are involved in various parts of the fish value chain on their knowledge, attitudes and practices related to food safety.
“What we found so far, in terms of gender, is that women perform 80 percent of the overall work needed to produce fish,” she says. “However, the women do not consider themselves to be the farmer or main producer. They regard themselves as the helper or the assistant of their husband or whoever they believe is the main producer.”
Also, the researchers noticed that women do not have much access to decision-making — a common thread that runs through many other parts of society in Bangladesh, says Luthfa. They don’t participate in decisions about how earnings will be invested or where the fish are sold. She hopes to chip away at farmers’ existing norms and values around gender with future trainings based on their findings, showing them where the gaps are and how they can improve.
“You can tell them that the fish will be safer if you give this feed, and that's easy to make them understand or influence them to do it, because it's just material culture that they need to change,” she says. “But when you are talking about changing the value structure — where men have to accept that women also can have a say — that's a really tough job.”
Luthfa grew up in Mymensingh, a city in north-central Bangladesh known as a hub for higher education, where her parents worked as academics. She followed in their footsteps, studying sociology at the University of Dhaka for her bachelor’s and master’s degrees. After returning to Mymensingh to teach rural sociology at Bangladesh Agricultural University, she won a Fulbright Scholarship and earned her second master’s at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania before heading to Oxford in 2008.
Luthfa’s vision for the role of social change in strengthening food safety aligns with her passion for activism, which has informed her work both inside and outside of academia. One of her creative outlets is playwriting, and in particular, works of drama about the freedom of expression and the rights of women in Bangladesh. Through theatre activism, Luthfa raises awareness about labor rights, gender inequality and environmental issues with the public.
“My 25 plus years in theatre taught me how to listen to the ‘other’ and accept the diversity of human life and struggle,” she says. “Also, I learnt how to give and receive respect and confidence to each other in any social interaction which is a core strength in activist research and communication.”
Meeri Kim is a freelance writer with the Feed the Future Food Safety Innovation Lab.