When food is scarce, women eat last and least. Hunger forces its way into the homes of families in poverty, ruthlessly consuming the health, energy, resources, time and stability of women and girls long after it goes—if it goes at all.
08 Mar, 2023
Women—who produce over 50 per cent of the developing world’s food yet remain the most food insecure—are bearing the brunt of this unwelcome guest’s advances.
The world is in the grip of an unprecedented global food crisis. Since 2019, the number of people facing acute food insecurity has more than doubled from 135 million to 345 million. But behind these staggering figures lies a critical and easily hidden truth: hunger affects men and women differently, and it is women and girls living in poverty who are paying the higher price.
Why are women worse affected by hunger than men?
Of the 345 million people who are acutely food insecure right now, nearly two thirds are women and girls. For Compassion’s church partners in countries affected by the global food crisis, the stories faced by many local women and girls are all too familiar. As costs rise and crops fail, family assets are sold to pay for daily meals. In desperation, families may separate. Caregivers search further afield for work, water and food, often leaving young children with an older sister, keeping her home from school.
In drought-ravaged Kenya, single mother Fransciska had no choice but to leave her baby in the care of a neighbour or older sibling while she searched for work. “I often walk far distances to find work. I've walked up to 15 kilometres one way, only to turn around with nothing,” she says.
On one of these occasions, her baby Pantaleo suffered third-degree burns from boiling water. Despite the doctor’s best efforts, he was left with deep scarring on his arm—a permanent reminder of the traumatic incident.
Stress levels rise and, in the fight for survival against hunger, women’s lives are flooded with a host of other burdens. Menstruating, pregnant and breastfeeding mothers forego food for themselves in order to abate the pained cries of their other children, a coping strategy that increases the risks of anaemia and malnutrition in their own lives and the lives of their infants.
“You have to stop their tears by giving them water to drink, and then they rest,” explains Nonkishu, a mother in Kenya. “But as a parent, you feel very bitter.”
With no clear end to their struggle against hunger in sight, girls sometimes younger than 15 may be married to older men in exchange for dowries that help feed their families. An impossible choice—but one less mouth to feed.
Meanwhile, the threat of gender-based violence and sexual exploitation swell as women and girls spend more time in search of firewood, water and food. Notably, the World Bank reports that in 45 countries there are no laws protecting women and girls from sexual harassment.
“With savings depleted, many [girls] are skipping meals, children are being sent to work instead of school and some may have no option but to beg or engage in the exchange of sex to survive,” says United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi.
In a cruel and unfair seal of their fate, hunger rips away education from vulnerable young women and girls and replaces it with increased home and family duties, forced labour, child marriage, adolescent pregnancy and even human trafficking. During any crisis, girls are usually the first to drop out of school and the last to return. Lost education further perpetuates the cycle of unskilled employment, poverty and exploitation, thrusting a young girl’s chance of escape further into the realms of impossibility.
Supreme Agbovi, a disaster resilience expert for Compassion International, says that “when a child is married to an adult, her education is truncated. She has virtually no hope of independence because she's subjected to the will of that man.”
Hunger, and its host of harsh effects, discriminate. If hunger continues its destructive path around the world, the cries of women and girls in poverty will continue to be silenced and made more invisible.
But we can act to change this reality for women. Together, we can answer hunger with hope.
How you can help women and girls facing hunger
Women are carrying much of the weight of the global food crisis. This International Women’s Day, you can help carry the load by sponsoring a girl. Compassion’s holistic child development program, delivered by over 8,500 trusted local church partners around the world, helps to fight hunger through broth short and long-term solutions. You can answer hunger with hope by sponsoring a girl today.
Your sponsorship helps to surround a girl in poverty with a network of support that will protect her future as well as her childhood. She will receive personal guidance and care from local workers, as well as encouraging letters and prayers from you—her loving sponsor. Your generosity will provide her with nutritious food, growth monitoring, hygiene and sanitation support, child protection awareness and education. Importantly, she will hear the Good News that Jesus loves her and has a plan and purpose for her life.
Words by Rachel Howlett with field reporting by Ryan Johnson and Kevin Ouma.
Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United States (2022). The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2022. https://www.fao.org/documents/card/en/c/cc0639en
OXFAM (July 2019). Gender Inequalities and Food Insecurity: Ten years after the food price crisis, why are women farmers still food-insecure? https://policy-practice.oxfam.org/resources/gender-inequalities-and-food-insecurity-ten-years-after-the-food-price-crisis-w-620841/
Plan International (17 October 2022). A global food crisis with a child’s face: Again. https://plan-international.org/blog/2022/10/17/global-food-crisis-with-childs-face/
Plan International (January 2023). Beyond hunger: the gendered impacts of the global hunger crisis. https://www.plan.org.au/publications/beyond-hunger-the-gendered-impacts-of-the-global-hunger-crisis/
Plan International (8 March 2022). These Are the Top 6 Reasons Women Are Hungrier Than Men Today. https://www.wfpusa.org/articles/women-in-crisis-top-ways-women-are-hungrier/
United Nations (October 2022). Kenya: UN steps up protection for drought-hit women and girls. https://news.un.org/en/story/2022/10/1129747
UNHCR (November 2022). UNHCR warns rising tide of hunger, insecurity, and underfunding worsening gender-based violence risks. https://www.unhcr.org/en-au/news/press/2022/11/638066eb4/unhcr-warns-rising-tide-hunger-insecurity-underfunding-worsening-gender.html
World Food Programme (2021). Who eats the last and the least? https://docs.wfp.org/api/documents/WFP-0000141266/download/
Answer Hunger With Hope
345 million people are facing acute food insecurity. You can answer hunger with hope.