Published September 21, 2023
Women sustain and nourish communities’ food systems worldwide, growing food, weeding, harvesting, cooking and feeding people, even under the most difficult of circumstances, such as wars and conflict.
UB graduate student Insha Akram, a member of the Food Systems Planning and Healthy Communities Lab (the UB Food Lab) in the School of Architecture and Planning, is working to bring awareness to the experiences of smallholder women farmers in regions experiencing conflict.
Akram, who is pursuing a Master of Urban and Regional Planning with a specialization in community health and food systems planning and is also an affiliate of the Community for Global Health Equity at UB, is focusing her graduate thesis on the gendered nature of the food system in Jammu and Kashmir, a conflict region in South Asia.
Akram’s intellectual interests in the gendered nature of food systems are rooted in her interdisciplinary training, as well as her professional and lived experience. Prior to joining UB, Akram trained in business management and worked in the corporate food system. She grew up in a family with ties to farming in the region of Kashmir.
Across her domestic and professional worlds, Akram observed that women were crucial actors within the food system, yet their access to power, agency, resources and profits was constrained. In Kashmir, women’s role within the food system was further hindered by the layered violence that pervades conflict settings. Akram says a commitment to promoting Kashmiri women’s well-being by using the food system as a lever for social transformation motivated her to pursue higher studies.
Her pursuit of higher education is especially remarkable given the intertwined structural barriers that pervade life in a protracted conflict setting. Like those of other children in Kashmir, Akram’s formal education was thwarted because schools were often closed during curfews, violence and shutdowns. And when schools were open, mobility was risky in one of the most militarized regions of the world. Akram says a life-threatening medical emergency due to the non-availability of medical supplies at a particularly volatile time of the protracted conflict interrupted her education.
Despite the many barriers, Akram continued to pursue her education, supported by her family and the broader Kashmiri community.
“My mother supported me throughout my journey and pushed me to chase my dreams,” she says. “It is because of her unwavering faith in my abilities that I, too, believed that I could [pursue higher education] and so, I did.”
Akram’s dream to pursue graduate studies in food systems was made possible thanks to the generous support of the Kashmiri American diaspora and the Buffalo community. In 2021, Akram was selected to take part in the Kashmiri Scholars Pathway program founded and run by Samina Raja, professor in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning and director of the UB Food Lab.
Akram’s participation in the pathways program led to a position as a remote research affiliate with the UB Food Lab, where she began research on the experiences of smallholder farmers in the Global South in 2022. “My mentors in the Kashmiri diaspora affirmed the value of my multidisciplinary skills, my eagerness to learn and adaptability to changing situations, which encouraged me,” Akram says.
In 2022, she began applying to graduate schools in the U.S. A scholarship from the AFK Foundation, the Guru Scholars Program, a community-driven Go Fund Me campaign and a research assistantship at the UB Food Lab enabled Akram to begin her graduate studies at UB last year. Raja, who continues to advise Akram, notes she “brings a blend of ethical values, an ethic of hard work, a curious mind and sharp thinking that makes her an outstanding graduate student with a stellar GPA of 4.0.”
Akram’s work has also garnered national attention: She is the recipient of the 2023 award from the American Association of University Women that is supporting her master’s thesis research.
Akram continues to give back to the community. She mentors Kashmiri and other international students, and his fall began a term as secretary of the Graduate Planning Student Association in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning.
Within Buffalo, Akram has supported work on equitable urban agriculture on Buffalo’s East Side, as well as other projects in the UB Food Lab.
Akram, who is on track to graduate from UB in spring 2024, notes that her academic success is a testament to the power of community.