Today is International Women’s Day, a day dedicated to the millions of women working in their countries and communities to make the world a better place for all. It is on this day that we must recognize one of the gravest gender-based issues facing women today — hunger.
There is no equality when women everywhere do not have access to adequate nutrition. While women in some parts of the world have made great strides towards economic and social equality, many women in low-, middle- and high-income countries are still denied access to even this most basic human right: nourishment.
Madame Bineta Diop is one of the fiercest advocates for women’s rights and the end of hunger. Her work has led her to the Global Board of The Hunger Project, Co-chair of the World Economic Forum on Africa, Special Envoy of the African Union Commission on Women, Peace, and Security Chairperson — and even one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People. While Mme Diop and I come from vastly different cultures and backgrounds — she from Senegal and I from the United States, she from diplomacy and I from finance — we see a shared truth: ending world hunger is not possible without equal rights for women — and gender equality will never be fully achieved without an end to hunger.
In her own words for International Women’s Day, Mme Diop powerfully illustrates how we can address this fundamental disparity in women’s rights:
Nearly one in three people in the world — 2.37 billion people, almost the entire populations of China and India combined — did not have access to adequate food in 2020.
More than 60% of them are women and girls.
Research consistently demonstrates that rates of hunger, especially severe hunger, are strongly related to gender inequality. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) identifies gender inequality as both a cause of and an effect of hunger and malnutrition. And although women make up a significant portion of the world’s food producers, chronic hunger primarily affects women.
So what can we do? Through my service both on the Global Board of Directors for The Hunger Project and as the Special Envoy on Women Peace and Security of the African Union Commission Chairperson, I have witnessed firsthand the complex links between hunger, gender equality and conflict. Sustainable change obviously calls for a holistic approach, focusing on women’s human security and ensuring women’s leadership in all key areas simultaneously: access to peace processes, health care, land rights, education, and livelihoods. Each of these areas reinforce each other and each is necessary to achieve equality.
Take for example women in conflict situations. Women are generally the custodians of household welfare and bear the primary burden of caring for dependents – young and elderly. In times of crisis and conflict that lead to flight and separation, having been denied fundamental economic and social rights that build resilience, the consequence to the health and nutrition of women and their dependents is dire.
Accessing sufficient diets while fleeing war or while in a refugee camp can be difficult and exacerbates existing nutritional deficiencies. I have witnessed the difficult situation of women and children in every conflict zone I’ve visited. Women are prioritized last when resources are distributed and suffer hunger that leads to health and cognitive challenges that continue throughout their lives and dash their hope for a stable and healthy future.
This chronic malnourishment, in or out of conflict zones, creates an intergenerational cycle of hunger that is directly linked to violations of women’s human rights and is coupled with the violation of other rights, including right to land, education, sexual and reproductive health.
Intergenerational hunger in action looks like this: prevailing gender discriminatory norms perceive girls as less valuable and, thus, they are fed last and least, especially when resources are scarce. These chronically malnourished girls are then denied opportunity to an education or agency over their own bodies. They are forced to marry and give birth at young ages, long before their bodies have fully developed. Their children, in turn, are stunted by the malnourishment of their young mothers. And, if they are girl babies, they are fed last and least. In this way, the cycle of hunger continues and worsens.
To break this cycle, we need to change mindsets and dismantle the complex inequitable systems that perpetuate hunger in a world that produces plenty of food. It is up to us, the people, but particularly the women, to advocate and create new systems that focus on ensuring that the fundamental needs of every person are fulfilled.
I believe this is possible because I have seen the cycle broken. Several years ago, I visited a community in Ethiopia where The Hunger Project is active. I was impressed with the holistic approach in which women’s rights to own land, farming inputs and agricultural training, health, education, and leadership skills were integrated into the project. This holistic approach, applied over a period of years, improved women’s resilience to a level that the targeted women were no longer in need of the project — they had achieved self-reliance and equality in and for their communities. The success of this approach speaks greatly to what can be achieved when women are empowered and their full human rights are respected and promoted.
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In closing, Mme Diop has left no doubt that hunger and women’s rights are inextricably tied and that we can break the cycle of inequality – by changing our own mindsets, by calling on leaders to dismantle systems that perpetuate hunger through patriarchy, and by advocating for women globally, not just locally. Calling for an end to hunger is about more than food. It’s about equal rights for women and, as Mme Diop says, “ensuring that the fundamental needs of every person are fulfilled.”
Sheree Stomberg is the Global Head of Citi Shared Services and the Citi Service Center Network and Board Chair for The Hunger Project.
Mme Bineta Diop is Special Envoy of the Chairperson of the African Union Commission on Women, Peace and Security