Women: Silent Players in a Silent Crisis in the Sahel
Eight million people are currently in need of emergency assistance, according to a new report from the European Commission. More than 18 million people are facing food insecurity and more than 1 million children under the age of 5 are at risk of severe, acute malnutrition, according to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
You might think we’re talking about famine in the Horn of Africa that has been all over the news recently, but these figures are actually coming out of Africa’s Sahel region, which spans from coast to coast and includes regions in Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Algeria, Niger, Chad, Sudan, Eritrea, and Burkina Faso. Thanks to recurrent drought and a dangerous combination of high grain prices and environmental and security degradation, there is a severe food and livelihood crisis, affecting millions of people who live within — and around — the region.
In drought-stricken areas, it’s critical to focus on those who often bear the greatest burden: women and girls. While droughts affect everyone in the communities they hit, women specifically are often at a severe disadvantage. Women themselves tend to eat last and least and are most vulnerable to malnutrition. As a result, women make up over six in ten of the world’s hungry. Further, as caretakers of their family, women are responsible for the bulk of the household chores, which often include cooking, cleaning, and gathering food and water. In times of crisis, they are forced to make difficult choices about how to best care for their families under impossible circumstances. When families are forced to migrate, they often travel long distances, and have been subject to assaults and physical violence even in refugee camps, as we’ve seen in the ongoing crisis in the Horn of Africa.
Our partner in Burkina Faso, La Coalition Burkinabe Droit De La Femme (CBDF), said that the situation is only getting worse. In Burkina Faso, women typically have to walk quite a long distance to fetch water for their family. But because of the current crisis, the distance women now have to walk is unimaginable. While it’s a critical task and an exhausting one, leaving them even less time during the day, it can also be a dangerous one. Fetching water and walking long distances during droughts puts women at a bigger risk of becoming victims of attack.
The crisis in the Sahel has gone on for far too long, with far too little coverage from media around the world. This means that women and their families have been suffering silently while the situation continues to worsen. It’s urgent that the international community makes long-term investments that support small-scale farmers, especially women in vulnerable regions, to break the cycle of chronic food insecurity. In Ethiopia, a smart investment in training and a seed relief program by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) helped to increase small-scale farmers’ resiliency to drought and their ability to get back on their feet after a drought hit. These are far better solutions than purely relying on the Band-Aid of emergency assistance after millions of people are already on the verge of famine.
In the Sahel, as in most of the world, women make up the majority of small-scale farmers and investing in them is a key part of the solution. Women farmers are truly integral to feeding the world: In Africa alone, they carry out 90 percent of processing food crops and 80 percent of the work of food storage and transport from farm to village. According to the FAO, investing in women smallholder farmers would result in significant gains in the fight against hunger. If women were given the same access to productive resources as men, they could increase yields on their farms by 20 to 30 percent and have the potential to decrease the number of hungry people in the world by 12 to 17 percent.
We know how to prevent crises like the one in the Sahel, but we have not. The international community needs to act swiftly and boldly in partnership with the governments of the Sahel region countries. The U.S. can — and should — play a leadership role. We must listen to, and invest in, those who bear the greatest burden, but have the biggest potential to help feed the world: women.