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Women and food crises:
How US food aid policies can better support their struggles

Karen Hansen-Kuhn


May 2007

SARPN acknowledges ActionAid as the source of this document:
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Over the last few decades, food crises have become distressingly common phenomena. Women are often at the center of these emergencies, though the disproportionate impact of hunger on women is too often hidden within the dire aggregate statistics. But the role of women in providing solutions to these crises is also too often overlooked. This discussion paper lays out some of the key issues in modern food crises and explores some opportunities for engaging women more actively in the quest for more effective answers.

In 2006, major food shortages struck Niger, Eastern and Southern Africa, and there were numerous smaller but serious food emergencies in Haiti, Bangladesh and other countries around the world. The increasing frequency of these emergencies is alarming. In Kenya, to cite just one example, while the 2005-2006 drought and the resulting food shortage were among the most severe in recent history, there has actually only been one short period since 1998 (during part of 2003) when the country was not experiencing some sort of food emergency. Such chronic situations of hunger take their toll on people’s stamina and resilience, making them less able to cope with other health crises. According to the United Nations, only 9 percent of the 300 million children who suffer from hunger are experiencing acute food emergencies, but 90% of these children suffer from chronic malnutrition, leading to stunting and other health problems.

The increase in the number of people experiencing chronic hunger has been the subject of much talk but little action. In 1996, world leaders gathered at the World Food Summit and pledged to reduce “the number of undernourished people to half their present level no later than 2015.” When the leaders met again in 2006, figures released by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) indicated that the number of hungry people in the developing world had actually increased – from 796 million in 1996 to 815 million in 2002. One Ghanaian farmer interviewed by ActionAid in 2006 lamented that,

    “Running out of food is not new to us. Even our fathers, who could produce, eat and sell millet to buy animals, used to run out of food in some years…[But] today we run out of food too early in the season – sometimes just after Christmas. We suffer the food shortage for a longer period and more severely than our fathers, and year after year it gets worse for us.”i
Many of the causes of these food shortages are as frustratingly easy to list as they are difficult to resolve: recurring droughts; declining public support for agricultural production, particularly for subsistence agriculture; trade liberalization that forces developing country farmersto compete with low-cost imported goods, undermining consistent local production; and technological solutions that seemed to hold tremendous promise but failed to address systematic violations of poor people’s rights which in turn limit their productive capacity.

Women suffer disproportionately from food crises. Some 70 percent of the hungry are women and girls. But women also contribute more than their share to the potential solutions. Numerous studies cite the importance of women’s participation in agricultural production. According to the FAO, rural women in developing countries produce between 60 and 80 percent of their countries’ food. They are overwhelmingly responsible for the production of vegetables and basic food grains, especially in sub-Saharan Africa.ii Women contribute their labor, their knowledge about traditional seed varieties and cultivation practices, and their determination to feed their families, especially their children, over most other considerations. Studies have also documented that increases in women’s incomes are more strongly associated with improvements in their families’ wellbeing, especially their children’s nutritional status, than similar increases in men’s incomes.

Unfortunately, all too often women must confront inequitable inheritance laws and other practices that limit their access to land and credit. In many countries, women are unable to gain title to land except through marriage. If they divorce or become widowed they often lose any right to ownership or control over the land. ActionAid research in Uganda concludes that “women are therefore unable to make decisions over what to grow, how much to grow, where to grow it and how to spend the income from the proceeds of the sale of agricultural output.”iii

Women, in their roles as producers and caregivers, confront especially difficult challenges in situations of high prevalence of HIV/AIDS. Food security can be drastically reduced, either due to women’s own failing health or because the burden of caring for sick relatives is borne almost entirely by women. In many cases, sick family members return to rural communities when they become sick, placing further strains on women. Following the death of a husband or father, women are often dispossessed by a male relative, losing their access to productive land. At the same time, malnutrition from poverty enhances the onset of progression to full blown AIDS, creating a vicious cycle. Food aid programs, particularly food for work programs, may not be effective for very vulnerable people such as sick or older people, especially women.

Clearly, men play crucial roles in food production as well, but they typically face lesser constraints than women. They are much more likely to have access to productive resources such as land, credit and extension services. And when the weather, crops or prices fail, cultural traditions often make it easier for men to leave their farms in search of employment elsewhere, leaving women behind to struggle to feed their families and make ends meet. This vulnerability means that even if they do manage to make it through the latest food crisis, women have diminished assets and resources to help them plan for and potentially avert the next crisis.

  1. Hungry for Solutions: Progress towards securing the Right to Food Ten Years After the World Food Summit, ActionAid International 2006, p. 9-10.
  2. United Nations, FAO. Website fact sheet: “Gender and Food Security: Agriculture.” Accessed Feb. 21, 2007
  3. Hungry for Solutions, p. 19.

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