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Why gender is key to understanding food crises

We must do more to address women’s vulnerability to food insecurity, argues our new report

Shagite Gizaw, participant in Concern Ethiopia’s Building Resilience In Emergency-Prone Areas of Wolaita programme. Photo: Alexander Carnwath/Ethiopia/2014

Shagite Gizaw, participant in Concern Ethiopia’s Building Resilience in Emergency-Prone areas of Wolaita programme, Ethiopia. Photo: Alexander Carnwath/Ethiopia/2014

One of the enduring myths about disasters, at least in the minds of people who don’t live with the threat of them, is that they wreck lives indiscriminately, without regard for wealth, social or political status. The opposite is true. Disasters may not discriminate but people do and the damage and suffering of disasters is always experienced disproportionately by people who are already marginalised.

In almost every case, this includes women. Women are more likely to suffer damage to their livelihoods, are at greater threat of gender based violence and are more likely to lose their lives during and in the aftermath of a disaster. International Women’s Day is an opportunity to shine a light on gender inequality and one of the key issues that needs attention is the link between gender inequality and the impact of disasters. 

In 2013 and 2014, Concern Worldwide explored how a range of factors increase disaster risk and hamper resilience building in communities where we work in West Darfur and Sila, Chad. Both regions are chronically affected by food insecurity and the recurring nature of food crises reduces the ability of people, year on year, to withstand them.

Our findings on gender are presented in a new report, Barriers to resilience, and reveal the way in which the links between gender inequality and disaster vulnerability are manifested across four key areas of household and community life: decision-making, livelihoods, responsibility for natural resources and education. They also show that increasing the voice of women at household and community level has a positive effect on building resilience for all. The research in Chad, for example, reveals that when men and women made decisions together about food, planting and livestock, the household experienced fewer months of food insecurity.

Amme Hedjab with daughter Fatima Izza (8 months) receiving treatment from Nurse Mohamed Nour Hassan for severe malnutrition in Sila Region, Chad. Photo: Jennifer Nolan/Chad/2014
Amme Hedjab with daughter Fatima Izza (8 months) receiving treatment from Nurse Mohamed Nour Hassan for severe malnutrition in Sila Region, Chad. Photo: Jennifer Nolan/Chad/2014

How do we best address an issue that goes deep to the heart of many communities’ cultural beliefs? Women may be the focus of programmes tackling gender inequality but those with the power to change the situation are almost always men. Our experience from the Women’s Social and Economic Rights programme in Tanzania (also included in the report) shows that with sensitive engagement, men can be enlisted as valuable allies at community-level to achieve this.  

But in order to achieve sustainable change on the scale required, more needs to be done at every level. Our report proposes a series of recommendations to governments of food insecure countries, policy makers at country and international levels, humanitarian, international development and donor communities.

It’s worth noting that the governments of both Chad and Sudan have taken positive steps to empower women, and at a global level, the link between gender and risk is recognised in the Hyogo Framework for Action, the current international policy framework on disaster risk reduction, with discussions ongoing around the content of its successor.

For positive steps like these to yield far-reaching change, all those involved in resilience policy and programmes must continue showing support to ensure that gender equality is addressed as a central issue. Without this, discrimination and disaster risk will remain inextricably connected, and women, as well as the communities they live in, will continue to suffer.

Read our report on women’s vulnerability to disaster risk, Barriers to resilience: The impact of gender inequality on food security