By Jacky Habib
From increased unpaid labor to gender-based lockdown restrictions, women and girls are disproportionately impacted during the ongoing global food crisis.
Women and girls are the most impacted by food insecurity, but they are the least considered in tackling the global food crisis, according to a recent report by CARE.
Today, one in every four people in the world lack access to enough nutritious food, and that number is rising. While 690 million people are already undernourished or chronically hungry, this figure may increase by an additional 130 million because of COVID-19, according to the UN.
In recent months, business closures, mobility restrictions, and social distancing related to the pandemic have impacted every aspect of food production and distribution. The result has been catastrophic. In Latin America, the population of people experiencing food insecurity has tripled, and in West and Central Africa, it has more than doubled. In the U.S., at least 6 million people have registered for food benefits since the start of the pandemic.
CARE’s report reveals why tackling gender inequality must be at the core of the response to this food crisis. Here are five ways that women and girls are disproportionately affected by the hunger crisis:
1. While women and girls are the majority of food producers and food providers for their households, they often eat last and least.
In Bangladesh, Most Lovely Begum, 35, a mother of five, explains: “Usually, we women eat after everyone in the family is done eating. Sometimes, there is not enough food…and we have to stay without eating.”
In Lebanon, 85 per cent of the women CARE surveyed were already eating smaller portions during the pandemic, compared to only 57 per cent of men. In Afghanistan, due to soaring food prices, women have been skipping more meals than men.
In Malawi, Agnes Chirwa, 30, a farmer and farmer trainer, says, “Women are the most vulnerable when food becomes scarce. We often eat last and least, though we have the most responsibilities in the home, sacrificing ourselves for the children.”
2. Women and girls who have specific nutritional needs are unable to meet their required nutritional intake.
With reduced incomes and limited purchasing power, people around the world are struggling to access enough food and diverse, quality diets, which compromises immune systems. Pregnant and lactating women and girls have specific nutritional needs that aren’t always being met during COVID-19.
In South Sudan, Nyaruon Maluok, 29, says that current food shortages “affect the body’s nutrition status for women, especially when breastfeeding,” adding that it also impacts the health of their babies.
Before the pandemic, Nyaruon ate two meals per day. She has since reduced this to one meal daily and does her best to provide two meals for her children. While her family grows their own vegetables and receives food aid, it is still challenging to meet nutritional requirements. “The children do not get satisfied with the meals available and soon, will get malnourished,” she says.
3. The pandemic is placing additional pressure on women and girls to provide food and care for family.
The closure of food markets and interruptions of supply chains are already making it more difficult for women and girls to afford and acquire food. Data suggests that COVID-19 is more likely to cause severe physical symptoms in males, which pushes tasks generally performed by men onto women and girls. In addition, it increases the likelihood of women and girls spending additional time caring for ill family members. Factors including school closures have also contributed to women facing increased pressure at home and contributing additional unpaid labor.
“Women often have more responsibilities. A lot depends on them,” says Lénard Marius, 54, a widow and mother of seven children in Haiti. “I raised my seven children alone, without anyone’s help. I am the man and woman of the house.”
During the pandemic, Lénard says soaring food prices have limited her ability to provide for her children. “As a single mother, I can’t actually fulfil all my responsibilities [to my children] and that worries me a lot.”
4. In some countries, women and girls are dealing with gender-based restrictions during the pandemic that limit their mobility, economic options, and more.
In Mali, curfews related to the COVID-19 pandemic restrict the times women work in the fields, but not the hours men work, so women disproportionately struggle with food production. In Morocco, unless women are widowed, they cannot register for coronavirus safety net programs.
In Palestine, Um Muhammad Shabaan, 51, a farmer and a mother of four, says movement during the pandemic has been limited, and women are at a disadvantage.
“We received mobility permits [to move around], but it was in the name of my husband, even though I was the one running the farm.”
In addition to these restrictions, when food becomes scarce, women and girls, who are already disadvantaged, are put at greater risk. Women are increasingly turning to transactional sex, which puts them at an increased risk of gender-based violence and unintended pregnancies. Some families have resorted to child marriage to cope with COVID-19-related food shortages.
5. Women and girls are the majority of the world’s food producers, but do not have equitable access to much-needed information and resources.
Lower literacy levels and less access to technology like radios or telephones leave many women and girls reliant on in-person information networks, which are more limited than those men have access to, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic.
To counteract this, Um Muhammad Shabaan created a WhatsApp group which has become a powerful resource for women in her community. She started the group when in a bind, wanting to barter fertilizer in exchange for pesticides. The group quickly grew amongst women farmers looking to barter and share knowledge.
“This has helped the community by keeping everything localized,” Um Muhammad shares. ““[It] has revived the purchasing power within our community.”
She also says the group serves a social purpose: “With no human to human physical interaction the group has…. become a platform for also sharing thoughts and feelings — something that is of huge importance during a crisis.”