By Sethi Ncube
On International Women’s Day, Human Rights Watch (HRW) hosted a Twitter Space meeting looking at the impact of food scarcity on women. Eating Last and Eating Least: The Food Crisis is a Women’s Right Crisis put into context the food crisis exacerbated by the Russia-Ukraine war through the lens of women and girls, especially in the Global South.
The cost of living, which has rapidly increased since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine is being increasingly felt by people in regions that are already beset by conflict or the effects of the climate crisis before the invasion. For countries still reeling from the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine has made an already desperate situation much worse. Millions more go to bed hungry across the world each night since the war disrupted supply chains and pushed up already inflated food and energy prices, according to HRW.
A record 349 million people across 82 countries are facing acute hunger according to the World Food Programme, a staggering 200 million people more than before the pandemic. Countries that have become increasingly reliant on food inputs following the pandemic, and often decades of drought and floods, bear the brunt of the present crisis most acutely. Of the 24 countries, the UN has identified as hunger hotspots, 16 are in Africa.
Women and girls are bearing the disproportionate toll from the war, from conflict, from COVID-19 and the climate emergency. Almost 3 in 5 of those affected by hunger are women. In times of food shortages and crisis, women eat last and eat least.
For many people in low and middle-income countries, hunger was already a reality before Russia’s full scale invasion of Ukraine disrupted food chains. For years, droughts and floods have been destroying harvests. The speculation and influence of financial markets and food commodities have increased since the economic crisis in 2008, and ongoing conflicts in parts of Africa and Asia, make farming difficult and dangerous.
“Millions of women are starving. The world is in the midst of a devastating and escalating hunger crisis. Some governments are stubborn, they are not declaring famine, but definitely teetering on the edge of famine. The conflict in Ukraine, one of the world’s major breadbasket, is compounding what was already years of catastrophic hunger in most spaces. Ukraine and Russia together supply 30% of globally traded wheat, 20% of maize and 70% of sunflower supplies so a shortfall in export supplies of different magnitudes is driving prices up and leaving import dependent countries with higher food import bills, or no food to eat at least,” according to Angela Machonesa, the regional head of influencing and strategic communications for Middle East, Eastern and Southern Africa at Plan International.
Machonesa says since the start of the crisis in Ukraine, food shipments from the Black Sea have reduced and the costs have grown significantly. This has immediate impacts on import dependent countries, military operations that are continuing unabated have disrupted Ukraine’s agricultural production for the 2020 to 2023.
“You all know that Russia is one of the most important supplies of fertiliser, one of the three major suppliers of fertiliser. Fertiliser, prices are increasing to record levels, which will significantly affect countries, and this has already started happening, affecting countries and their ability to grow food and further increasing food insecurity. Russia is a critical player in the global energy markets, the high energy costs have already put additional pressure on food prices,” adds Machonesa.
“We are really concerned about countries like Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya, South Sudan, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Haiti. For most of these countries, there is nothing to eat. In Somalia, families are going to bed with nothing in their stomachs. There is no cooking oil to talk about, not even wheat. Most markets have been closed. And if they are open, prices are distorted and with hyperinflation, prices are unbearable. Families who do not have alternatives are surviving on tree leaves. We we are recording stories of women walking miles to get water, and even drinking from the same sources as their animals. We have witnessed families having one meal a day and mostly supper when everyone is at home, and they are eating less expensive food. They’ve reduced food portions, they are borrowing from neighbours and even relying on food relief,” says Machonesa.
The knock-on effects on the prices of food are not only felt at household level only, even crisis responders are feeling the pinch. Prices for specialised nutritious foods such as wheat and wheat flour, vegetable oil, peas etc. are increasing. Millions of families are falling deeper into hunger as food rations from responders are dwindling. “In South Sudan, we have even reduced our rations to 70% because we can’t afford to give everybody 100% because of the ever-increasing costs – our operation cost as well as the fuel cost. In Somalia, families are going to sleep hungry. This is so catastrophic, and it continuously leads to the breakdown in the democratic system, civil unrest, protests and riots. Because a hungry stomach really is an angry stomach,” adds Machonesa.
In times of crises, when there is literally nothing to put on the table. It is women and girls who suffer the most, women and girls eat last, and they eat least. Out of the out of the 350 million that are going severely hungry in the world right now, nearly 6 out of 10 are women and girls.
“Women are feeding the world as finders, as feeders, as makers along with also taking up the bulk of unpaid care and domestic work. And yet statistics shows that they often eat at the end, and they often are malnourished and are the most food insecure,” according to Ayushi Kalyan, a lawyer and researcher with a focus on human rights advocacy, corporate accountability and women’s rights.
“Entrenched patriarchal norms, gender inequality, you’re talking of socially ascribed gender roles, gender-based violence, women carrying the bulk of care, reproductive work, and also multiple other systems of oppression that rip women of their agency and their decision making about their own bodies and their health are also the causes of why women around the world are going more hungry than men,” adds Kalyan.
According to Kalyan, the current food crisis is a women’s right crisis.
“It is essentially a crisis for anybody who falls outside of this dominant global hegemony or systems of power. Anybody in the margins and in the periphery would be disproportionately impacted by the global food situation. So it’s a crisis of indigenous peoples rights, migrant and seasonal workers rights, agricultural worker rights who are all systematically also excluded from labour rights protection for example. For instance, members of the LGBTQI+ community are also at higher risk of hunger and malnutrition and face systematic barriers to access food,” says Kalyan.
The fact that women eat last and eat least, that women are definitely at the end of the food chain, very often, despite the fact that there are the producers of food and they’re very often responsible for putting the food on the table affects their health and that of their children.
“When food is scarce, girls and women eat least and they eat last and they eat least nutritious foods, and actually their nutritional needs may even take a backseat to those of boy and men. Evidence from the several contexts where we work show that married adolescent girls, for example, are particularly vulnerable to denial of food by their husbands, their in-laws or other wives, especially when they have not performed the patriarchal and the gender expected chores in the home. Their lower household status in the home can mean that they are even facing challenges advocating for access to food, standing up for themselves and saying I’m hungry. So if they can’t feed themselves, they also can’t feed their children and they may even lack sufficient knowledge about their own health and nutrition,” says Machonesa.
A report that has been released by UNICEF says that 51 million children under two years are stunted. It estimates that about half of these children become stunted during pregnancy and the first six months of life. Once that happens, that perpetuates stunting across that child’s lifetime. Gender patterns or food consumption negatively also affect girls and women’s nutrition. Despite their psychological needs for nutritious food.
“During the menstrual cycle, a girl needs food that is rich in iron, because there are no alternatives for these foods a lot of these girls are failing to get these kinds of food. Malnutrition is quite rife, especially for pregnant and breastfeeding women, and it increases their risk of miscarriage and maternal mortality, as well as the risks of stillbirth. Newborn deaths are also increasing as well as the low birth weight for the children that they are giving birth to and stunting as well for their children. And this leads to an intergenerational cycle of malnutrition. If you are born from a mother who’s malnourished, the child is likely to be malnourished and mostly those children die before they reach five years of age,” adds Machonesa.