‘In a famine, girls’ lives are worth a little less’

A global food crisis is threatening the lives of millions of girls. It writes Sven Coppens, regional director for West and Central Africa in Plan International. This growing catastrophe is largely ignored by all the other news, but its impact on girls is increasing day by day. And it shows once again that awareness of gender inequality always ends up somewhere in the back seat in times of crisis.

It is still an inconvenient truth that women and girls are hardest hit by food insecurity and famine. As a result of dominant social norms that value boys over girls, girls are generally the last to eat when food runs dry, and they also eat the least. A reality that was already addressed by UN Women in 2015.

70% of people with food insecurity are girls and women.

70% of people with food insecurity worldwide are girls and women. Unfortunately, the question of whether women – and especially young girls – are hungrier than men is a rhetorical question in a world that will take at least 135 more years to achieve gender equality. And the consequences are great and often unforeseen.

Girls should eat less than boys

I would like to take you to the Sahel, a region in West and Central Africa. More than 30 million Sahelis in Burkina Faso, northern Cameroon, Chad, Mali, Niger and northeastern Nigeria will need lifesaving assistance and protection by 2022. An increase of almost two million compared to 2021.

With the crisis in the Sahel rapidly deteriorating, the humanitarian needs of the region reach unprecedented heights. Conflicts, climate shocks and endemic poverty put millions of people at risk. And especially girls and women are affected.

Aibata is 17 and lives near Kaya in Burkina Faso. “It is difficult for me to participate in learning activities when I am hungry. When I do not get enough to eat, I get upset and my thoughts are elsewhere. I eat the cookies they give us in Plan International’s classrooms, but it’s not close enough.

The lack of access to nutritious food can inhibit children’s growth and have significant effects on brain development. This undermines their level of education and health. Young girls in particular have a greater need for iron due to menstruation and are at high risk of malnutrition during pregnancy.

Conflicts, climate shocks and endemic poverty put millions of people at risk. And especially girls and women are affected.

Girls and women are often faced with social and cultural norms that do not allow them to express their needs, leaving them without food. Traditionally, they should ‘eat less’ than boys and men.

Nasrin, a 15-year-old girl from South Sudan, has an older brother who works as a nurse and leaves her some money to buy food, but she only eats once a day. Nasrin puts it this way: ‘If the money […] I’m too scared to call him and tell him, and I think he will say I wasted the money, so I would rather be hungry. “

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This is a worldwide problem. I could also have taken you to other regions of the world where the same scenes are played out or threatened. The Democratic Republic of Congo, the countries of the Horn of Africa or even Myanmar and Haiti. The list is getting longer every day, not least because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the conflict in Ukraine.

To survive at the expense of girls and their future

If the world is not aware of this, almost 200 million people in the hungriest places of the world will be a forgotten statistic. And the vast majority of those who suffer the worst from the side effects are girls and young women. For it does not stop only with hunger.

The more food insecurity increases, the more we see an increase in girls, especially young girls, who are dropped out of school and never return. For example, they are increasingly being encouraged to look after younger siblings so that parents can work or forage for food.

When there is a shortage of food, families increasingly resort to negative survival strategies, resulting in a number of risks. Child labor is on the rise as families desperately try to increase their incomes to meet the rising cost of food.

For young girls, food shortages often mean that the risk of (forced) child marriages increases and thus the risk of an early pregnancy. I actively listened to young girls, and the vast majority of them confirmed that their vulnerability is closely linked to the financial situation of their families.

Girls and young women are at increased risk for various forms of gender-based violence.

Girls and young women are at increased risk for various forms of gender-based violence. Girls and women in Somaliland told Plan International staff that rape and other forms of sexual violence are on the rise as the country faces the worst drought in 40 years.

Women and girls in the Sahel are also facing a widespread and increasing risk of kidnapping, forced marriage, sexual abuse and rape. Girls and women thus end up in a double spiral of hunger and violence.

When hunger threatens, girls suffer the most. That fact should not deter boys and men. Recognizing gender inequalities does not mean that the impact of food shortages on them is not as important. It means explicitly acknowledging the many additional barriers that girls and young women must overcome. Both to gain access to adequate quality food and to protect themselves from the secondary consequences of that scarcity.

And recognizing these barriers is the first step towards sustainable and fairer solutions.

Code red

But the need is great. Plan International announced a global “Code Red” on June 28. That is, the famine crisis will be a top priority for the entire organization, and the available resources will be refocused to combat the effects of the famine crisis. For this reason, a campaign was launched in Belgium to raise additional funds.

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This means life-saving interventions such as direct financial assistance to affected families, school meals and the provision of food supplements. We are also expanding our livelihood protection activities to strengthen livestock and horticulture.

The structural deprivation of girls, in all areas, must be settled forever.

More humanitarian organizations are doing the same, but we need more support. As a matter of urgency, the international community must provide at least $ 21.5 billion to help keep 49 million people on the brink of starvation, increase the resilience of 137 million people, and work to prevent gender-based violence.

And where possible, support for locally driven efforts should be given priority. Local organizations, including those run for and by young people themselves, should play a key role in deciding on solutions to structurally tackle the consequences of food shortages.

The resources for international solidarity and relief, including tackling the famine crisis, should not be used to deal with the direct consequences of the armed conflict in Ukraine. Both situations require a targeted approach with specific, separate and new resources.

But it cannot end with emergency aid alone for Plan International. As an integral part of our approach, we continue to actively fight for equality between girls and boys, even in times of food shortages or other crises. The structural deprivation of girls in all areas must be settled forever.

Giving up is never, never a choice. We do not stop until every girl is free!

Sven Coppens is Regional Director for West and Central Africa at Plan International. He contributes to the humanitarian response to the famine crisis and has more than ten years of experience with projects in the region.

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