“When there is a famine, the value of girls’ lives decreases a little”

The global food crisis threatens the lives of millions of girls. This is written by Sven Coppins, Regional Director for West and Central Africa at Plan International. This growing disaster is largely ignored by all the other news, but its impact on girls is increasing day by day. And so it seems once again that attention to gender inequality always ends up somewhere in the back seat in times of crisis.

The inconvenient fact remains that women and girls are the most affected by food insecurity and famine. As a result of prevailing social norms that value boys over girls, girls are generally the last to eat when they run out of food, and they also eat less. A fact that was already addressed by UN Women in 2015.

70% of food insecure people are girls and women.

70% of food insecure people worldwide are girls and women. Unfortunately, in a world that will take at least another 135 years to achieve gender equality, the question of whether women – especially teenage girls – are hungrier than men is a rhetorical one. The consequences are significant and often unexpected.

Girls should eat less than boys

I’d like to take you to the Sahel, a region in West and Central Africa. More than 30 million Sahel residents in Burkina Faso, northern Cameroon, Chad, Mali, Niger and northeastern Nigeria will need life-saving assistance and protection by 2022. An increase of nearly two million compared to 2021.

With the crisis in the Sahel rapidly deteriorating, humanitarian needs in the region have reached unprecedented levels. Conflicts, climate shocks and endemic poverty put millions of people at risk. Girls and women are particularly affected.

Ibata is 17 years old and lives near Kaya in Burkina Faso. “It’s hard for me to join in learning activities when I’m hungry. When I don’t get enough food, I feel sad and my thoughts are elsewhere. I eat the cookies they give us in classes at Plan International, but it’s almost never enough.

Lack of access to nutritious food can stunt children’s development and have major effects on brain development. This undermines their educational and health level. Adolescent girls in particular have a greater need for iron due to their menstrual cycle and are at greater risk of malnutrition during pregnancy.

Conflicts, climate shocks and endemic poverty put millions of people at risk. Girls and women are particularly affected.

Girls and women often face social and cultural norms that do not allow them to express their needs, and leave them without food. Traditionally, they should “eat less” than boys and men.

Nasreen, a 15-year-old girl from South Sudan, has an older brother who is a nurse and leaves her some money to buy food, but she only eats once a day. Nasreen says: If the money […] I’m too afraid to call and tell him, thinking he’ll say I wasted money, so I’d rather stay hungry.

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This is a global problem. I could also take you to other parts of the world where the same scenes are shown or threatened. The Democratic Republic of the Congo, the countries of the Horn of Africa, or even Myanmar and Haiti. The list is growing day by day, not least because of the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic and the conflict in Ukraine.

Survival at the expense of girls and their future

If the world didn’t pay attention to it, the nearly 200 million people in the hungriest places in the world would become a forgotten statistic. The vast majority of those who suffer the worst side effects are girls and young women. Because it doesn’t just stop being hungry.

The more food insecure, the more girls, especially adolescent girls, who dropped out of school and never came back. For example, they are increasingly being called upon to look after younger siblings so that the parents can work or look for food.

Thus, when food is scarce, families increasingly resort to negative survival strategies, which leads to a host of risks. Child labor is on the rise as families struggle to increase their incomes to cope with the rising cost of food.

For teenage girls, food scarcity often means that the risk of (forced) child marriage increases and with it the risk of early pregnancy. I listened actively to teenage girls and the vast majority of them asserted that their vulnerability is closely related to the economic condition of their families.

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

Girls and young women are at increased risk from 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 its worst drought in 40 years.

Women and girls in the Sahel also face a widespread and increased risk of kidnapping, forced marriage, sexual assault and rape. Thus, girls and women end up in a double spiral of hunger and violence.

When hunger threatens, girls suffer the most. This fact should not deter boys and men. Acknowledging gender inequality does not mean that the impact of food scarcity on them is not as significant. This means openly acknowledging the many additional barriers girls and young women have to overcome. In order to have access to adequate quality food and to protect oneself from the secondary consequences of that scarcity.

Recognizing these barriers is the first step towards more equitable and sustainable solutions.

reply code

But the need is great. Plan International announced global “Code Red” on June 28. That is, the hunger crisis will become a top priority for the entire organization and the available resources will be refocused to combat the effects of the hunger 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 nutritional supplements. In addition, we are also expanding livelihood protection activities, in order to promote livestock and horticulture.

The structural disadvantage of girls, across the board, must be dismantled forever.

Many 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 famine, strengthen the resilience of 137 million people, and work to prevent gender-based violence.

Wherever possible, priority should be given to locally paid work. Local organizations, including those run by young people themselves, should be given a central role in decision-making around solutions to structurally address the consequences of food scarcity.

Resources of international solidarity and emergency aid, including addressing the hunger crisis, must not be used to deal with the direct consequences of the armed conflict in Ukraine. Both cases require a targeted approach with specific, separate, and new resources.

But it cannot end with emergency aid only for the international plan. As an integral part of our approach, we continue to actively fight for equality between girls and boys, even in times of food scarcity or other crises. The structural disadvantage of girls, across the board, must be dismantled forever.

Giving up is never an option. We won’t stop until every girl is free!

Sven Coppins is the Regional Director for West and Central Africa at Plan International. He contributes to the humanitarian response to the hunger crisis and has over ten years of project experience in the region.

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