Facing impossible choices: women bear the brunt of hunger

Achta, from Chad, had to flee, following attacks by armed groups. Now she lives in a site for internally displaced people.

Achta, from Chad, used to live with her 5 children and her husband on a lake island with plenty of fish and fresh water available. She had to flee, following attacks by armed groups. Now she lives in a site for internally displaced people, with only corn meal balls to survive on. “I sometimes spend sleepless nights fantasizing about what my children should eat the next day”, she says. Photo: Mahamat Ibrahim Saleh/Oxfam

“I can endure hunger, but the boy cannot…” For Clavel*, who lives with her 11-year-old grandson in a border town in Venezuela, being able to eat is a constant struggle. Since the Covid-19 pandemic began, vulnerable people like her have had to reduce the number of meals per day or switch to a cheaper diet.

The Venezuelan economy experiences strong hyperinflation and increased poverty. Even prior to the pandemic, an estimated 94% of Venezuelans could not afford to have sufficient food. In addition to this, the country is periodically affected by heavy rains that threaten food security for those, like Clavel, who survive on their small plantations.

When her husband emigrated, Clavel* stayed in charge of her 11-year-old grandson. On many occasions she has had to stop eating in order to feed him.

When her husband emigrated, Clavel* stayed in charge of her 11-year-old grandson. On many occasions she has had to stop eating in order to feed him. Oxfam is supporting them with a hot plate of food every day, and a Covid-19 prevention kit, as part of a project with a common dining room in their community. Photo: Rolando Duarte/Oxfam

Although she is a pensioner, the money she receives is barely enough to buy a package of flour or a kilo or rice per month.  “The crisis has been tremendous, many times we spent hours without food, without eating anything, the situation is very serious and for us who are poor, it has been worse”, she says.

Clavel’s situation is not an isolated case. Every year, millions of people can’t put food on their table, and some die from hunger. The coronavirus pandemic has added fuel to the fire of this growing crisis, increasing poverty and exposing the deep inequality around the world.

Eating last and eating least: women suffering the most

Overall, 155 million people around the world are living in crisis levels of food insecurity or worse – that is 20 million more than last year. Around two out of every three of these people are going hungry primarily because their country is in war and conflict.

Women and girls are disproportionally affected. They face extraordinary dangers to secure food, and yet, too often eating last and eating least. Conflict and displacement have also forced women to abandon their jobs or miss planting seasons.

Housseina, president of a gardening association supported by Oxfam, poses for a portrait in the collective field she shares with other muslim women in Bangassou, the Central African Republic.

Housseina, president of a gardening association supported by Oxfam, poses for a portrait in the collective field she shares with other muslim women in Bangassou, the Central African Republic. “When we started working in the garden, we have stopped thinking about what we lost”, she says. Photo: Adrienne Surprenant/Oxfam

Housseina Tindombi, a farmer from Bangassoui in the Central African Republic, was forced to flee her home in January 2021, due to attacks on her hometown. After a month living in a makeshift camp with her family, she returned to her neighbourhood but found both her home and fields looted. “My pain was immense. We used to eat almost exclusively the vegetables I grow. Now I don’t know how I will feed my family.”

Housseina and her family now only eat once a day. Her children, who are still growing, never eat meat or dairy products. “We can’t afford it”, she says. Since the pandemic, more than half the population of the country – or 2.4 million people – have faced severe food and nutrition insecurity. This is over 30% increase on the previous year.

To avoid hunger, Housseina started gardening. With Oxfam seeds and training, she became a change maker in her community.

“Sleeping on an empty stomach has become the norm”

In Yemen, nearly a decade of war has stripped people of their savings, leaving many with no resources to buy food. Blockades and conflict have caused spiralling food prices. Over 16 million people are expected to face crisis or worse levels of food insecurity this year. Women and children are the most impacted. Malnutrition has hit a record high, as over a million pregnant and lactating women, and 2.3 million children under 5 suffer acute malnutrition. 

Aishah, from Yemen, has been on the run for 3 years now, carrying only her 4 children, a bag of clothes and a blanket.

“On a lucky day, we earn 1700 – 2000 YR (almost 3USD) and I can buy yogurt, a few vegetables and bread. I buy flour when I can and make bread.  I make lunch and if there are leftovers, my children have that for dinner, but we’re used to sleeping with empty stomachs”, says Aishah. Photo: Ahmed Al-Fadeel/Oxfam

Aishah has been on the run for 3 years now, carrying only her 4 children, a bag of clothes and a blanket. She also takes care of her sister’s 11-months old baby. The five of them together go out on a daily basis to collect garbage and earn an income from recycling. Often what she earns, barely buys her some yoghurt and bread. Sometimes, it’s not enough to buy anything at all.

“Most of the times, when we have little to nothing to eat, I struggle to get my children to sleep at night. They ask for food and I try to distract them, telling them stories until they’re asleep, then I look at them and pray for a better life until I get stolen by sleep.”

“We used to be able to cope with the drought, to farm and rear our cattle. We used to eat three meal per day and were able to feed our children properly. We used to bake bread and cook milk for breakfast; to eat maize or sorghum forage and milk for lunch; and eat maize soup and milk for dinner. Now, we eat when we get food.”

Maryan Bodrle, Ethiopia

In Syria, the war has pushed more women to become the main breadwinners, many having to work for the first time with few skills to secure a decent job and fair pay. What little they make barely covers their families’ expenses.

According to an Oxfam study, women-headed households were among the hardest hit by hunger, reporting a significant decline in their food consumption, and having to skip meals. To cope, some families have had to resort to early child marriage to sustain themselves.

A plate of boiled potato – a regular meal that Syrian women make to offer to their children when they have not enough money to buy any other food items.

A plate of boiled potato – a regular meal that Syrian women make to offer to their children when they have not enough money to buy any other food items. Photo: Islam Mardini/Oxfam

“For almost three years, we were trapped in our town. We lost our crops and all our savings and had to sell our cattle to survive. How would you feel if all that you can offer to your children is a plate of boiled herbs? Sleeping on an empty stomach has become the norm,” says Leena, 32, a mother of three from Southern Syria.

Three in five Syrians – 12.4 million people - currently face acute hunger. This is an 88% rise over the previous year and one of the highest in the world.

A worsening climate crisis

The climate crisis was the third significant driver of global hunger this year. It continued to intensify for millions already battered by the effects of conflict and Covid-related poverty, increasing storms, floods, and droughts, destroying farms and agricultural produce. The past seven years have been the warmest years on record, with 2020 one of the hottest.

Imagine having to grow vegetables in temperatures approaching 50 degrees with recurrent droughts. This is no small task. In Burkina Faso, it is a matter of survival for the vast majority of the population who depend on agriculture for their food.

“All my life I have been farming, says Alizeta Sawadogo, 55. I used to grow cereals. But it rains less and less. And the dry season is getting longer and hotter. Yields are getting lower and lower.”

Alizeta applies organic compost on her crops, with the help of another farmer.

Alizeta applies organic compost on her crops, with the help of another farmer. All her life, she has practiced agriculture and cultivated cereals. But yields have become increasingly low because of climate change. With the support of the NGOs ATAD and Oxfam, she has learned market gardening techniques to diversify her activities. Photo: Samuel Turpin/Oxfam

Add to these difficulties the conflict in the north of the country, which is destroying entire villages and forcing people to abandon their land, the economic impact of Covid-19, which is increasing food prices, and the lean season, when reserves are depleted while waiting for the harvest. As a result, 2 million Burkinabè are currently facing a hunger crisis. This was also the fate of Alizeta, who lost her land and her husband and had eight children to feed.

With the support of the NGO Alliance Technique d'Assistance au Développement (ATAD), she was able to join a group of 50 vulnerable and landless women in a collective farm of two hectares, equipped with four wells. For Alizeta, this is an opportunity to reinvent herself: “I have learned to produce organic food using environmentally friendly techniques, and I can feed my family all year round,” she says proudly.

Supporting women to end the hunger crisis

There is no end to this crisis unless drastic collective measures are taken to end the underlying injustices fuelling hunger. As governments rebuild after the coronavirus pandemic, urgent actions are required to build more just and sustainable food systems that work for all people. This includes ensuring women lead the pandemic response and addressing discrimination faced by women food producers on issues such as access to land, markets, and credit.

Right now, you can donate to provide lifesaving support to vulnerable families around the world and help them fight hunger.