When food is scarce, women suffer the most

Ono, two, three, four. A person is starving in the time it takes to say those numbers. For many of us, when we feel the pangs of hunger or thirst, food is only feet or seconds away. In the 60 seconds it takes to pop some popcorn in the microwave or have a glass of milk, 15 people around the world have starved to death. Most of them are children.

Today we face the greatest global hunger crisis on record. A recent report by CARE estimates that the global food crisis has become so extreme that 222 million people worldwide are already in “urgent need of humanitarian food assistance just to survive”.

The food crisis also promotes the spread of disease. We are seeing a resurgence of cholera in some of the world’s hunger hotspots, including Afghanistan, Haiti, Pakistan, South Sudan and Syria – a toxic cocktail creating a deadly cycle threatening the lives of millions of already vulnerable people.

Read more: Hardly anyone has noticed that Somalia is experiencing the worst drought ever. here’s why

Acutely malnourished populations have reduced immunity and are more susceptible to contracting cholera. This is just one of many factors that are aggravating the severity and depth of this crisis. In fact, we could see that 205 million figure grow by another 620 million over the next six months. Four seconds will become two, then become one. These are unprecedented numbers.

Behind every number is a real person facing the slow, painful reality of starvation and, ultimately, death. Women like Esther in Zimbabwe, mother of nine children and caretaker of two young grandchildren and two nieces. She struggles daily to feed her family and constantly worries about where she will find food for everyone. And to manage this daily ordeal, Esther does what millions of women and girls do every day: eat last, less and less often. Esther told CARE: “There are times when I don’t eat a full meal, I eat a small piece of the meal instead. The pain in my side is worse if I don’t eat, but I eat less than necessary so the children can eat. I struggle and worry about where the next meal will come from.

Sumaya, a 32-year-old mother of four in a camp for displaced people in Ethiopia’s Somali region, painted an even more dire picture: “No water, no food, a hopeless life”, she said. “Above all, my children are starving. They are on the verge of death. If they don’t have food, I’m afraid they’ll die.

The stories of Esther and Sumaya and their sacrifices remind us that access to food is gendered, especially in times of crisis. At its core, hunger is a problem of gender inequality. Last year, 150 million more women than men went hungry, and this year we can expect millions more women like Esther and Sumaya to join their ranks.

The irony is that women everywhere play a central role in the production, sourcing, processing, purchasing and preparation of much of the food we eat. Globally, women do 85-90% of the cooking, most of the shopping, and invest more money in buying food than men. Women farmers also make up half of the agricultural labor force in developing countries, and African women play an important role in growing the food consumed by the continent.

The situation can be improved, but we must act quickly. First, people like Esther and Sumaya need emergency food to live on now. They also need help preparing for the next harvest. We can avert the next crisis if we give smallholder farmers, especially women farmers, four key things they need to help themselves: seeds, locally sourced fertilizers, clean energy and knowledge needed to become climate-smart farmers.

How do we do that? The recent passage of the Global Food Security Act was good news and a crucial step in averting the crisis. Beyond funding Feed the Future, which has lifted more than 23 million people out of poverty since 2010 by addressing the root causes of poverty, the law recognizes women smallholder farmers and their crucial role in feeding their families and communities. However, the United States and other donors cannot do everything. Country governments must prioritize their own investments in climate-resilient agriculture.

In the end, Esther and Sumaya aren’t looking for our sympathy; they seek our action. They want us to do what we hope others would do if we watched our own children starve, felt the tremendous physical pain of starvation, and watched the seconds tick by – one, two, three, four – as our friends and families perish.

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