The final day of my world hunger journey is here at last. For the past week I have been going hungry to raise awareness about global food insecurity while I research the causes and potential solutions to this crisis. After a week of eating only 1,000 calories a day I think, for now at least, that my body has resigned itself to the situation. While I did feel hungry today, it was in a hazy, abstract way that was easy to overlook. Perhaps my body is fed up with its constant demands for food going ignored and has decided to conserve energy instead of causing a commotion. Conserve energy, sleep – It is all I want to do. The thought of curling up in my dark bedroom, pulling the covers over my head and closing my eyes seems like the perfect way to spend the day. And I never feel like this. I typically dislike naps and usually pop out of bed the moment I wake up in the morning. This overwhelming need for rest is frightening, and it makes me wonder how large a toll I’ve put on my body. I tried to stay clear headed today because I wanted to write about a topic very dear to my heart: empowering women and the important role they can play in overcoming world hunger. I will also share an interview with feminist activist and women in development expert Rosanna Barbero.
When I woke up this morning and looked in the mirror I saw that my skin is paler than usual, freckles standing out in sharp contrast on my face. My eyes which are regularly bright and lively are dull, with dark circles smudged heavily underneath. I eye my collarbones, are they sticking out more than usual? My shoulders have definitely lost some of their muscle tone and are looking unfortunately frail. I notice that my hair looks lank and I try to remember if I showered yesterday. I think I did, but it is hard to focus when all I can think about is sleep. I lean heavily against the bathroom wall and run through the list of things I need to do today. It all blurs together and I try to figure out how I can put it off till tomorrow.
Tomorrow. How lucky I am to have a tomorrow. A tomorrow where I can eat whatever I want, in whatever quantity I want and never have to worry about food again. A tomorrow where I can get rest and recover and catch up on all the work I have been putting off while on this hunger journey. How incredibly, undeservedly lucky I am that for the past week while I haven’t been eating much food I still have never even come close to knowing what real, true chronic hunger is…because of that tomorrow. I always knew this journey would end; there was a day on the calendar I could look at and know that on that day I could go back to my old life. I wonder if I could even survive if this hunger became a chronic state that I never knew if I would escape from. Could I find the strength, emotional and physical, to do my work, take care of my family, and survive?
As a feminist and women’s rights activist my thoughts over this past week were never far from the women struggling with chronic hunger throughout the world. Women in the developing world routinely walk miles a day to find water for their families, and yesterday I was out of breath and trembling after taking my dogs down to the park for a quick game of fetch. The average woman (if there can be such a thing as an average woman) in the developing world tends to crops, cooks food, feeds her family, goes to work, cleans her house, feeds the animals, travels to find water, and cares for her family every single day, and all without the half dozen or so modern appliances we in the developed world rely on to perform even the smallest of tasks. The thought of performing hard physical labor from dawn till dusk even on a good day with my belly full of food is daunting, but the thought of doing it every single day with hunger gnawing at my sides and sleep tugging at my eyes is simply unfathomable.
“Women work two-thirds of the world’s working hours, produce half of the world’s food, yet they earn only 10 percent of the world’s income and own less than 1 percent of the world’s property.” ~ CARE
70 percent of the people struggling to survive with chronic hunger are women and girls. This statistic is shocking enough on its own, but in light of the fact that women produce nearly 80 percent of the developing world’s food supply, and 60 percent of the entire world’s food supply, it is truly staggering. And while women grow the vast majority of the world’s food, they own less than 1 percent of its farmland. So, why do women suffer so greatly from chronic hunger when they are the ones contributing the most to our planet’s food supply?
The answer is sexism. Because of social, religious, and cultural practices women are often forbidden to own or control the land they farm, they have unequal access to resources, jobs, and education, are at a higher risk for violence, and they are typically unwelcomed in the traditional decision making process.
The contribution and importance of women has been historically undervalued throughout the world, and their worth continues to be dismissed in ways that drastically effect their health and their lives. When hard times hit a region and food is scarce, the men and the boys eat their fill first, leaving the meager leftovers for the women and girls. A lack of proper nutrition leads to young girls having an increased rate of sickness and a harder time in school. When money runs out even more, these young girls are often pulled out of school completely while their brothers continue to attend. (Many schools around the world used to be provided free of charge by the government, but under the United Nation’s International Monetary Fund Fund/World Bank austerity measures social spending was eliminated and tuition was charged for the first time.) A girl’s education is often seen as expendable and is one of the first things to go in a crisis. This has led to girls and women making up 2/3 of all those who have no access to education. There are 65 million girls and women throughout the world who never even started school and 100 million who did not finish primary education. More than 542 million women are illiterate from inadequate or incomplete schooling.This lack of schooling and education for girls permanently cements their lesser status as women. Without an education as a child, a woman finds it even harder to overcome the many other obstacles placed in her path such as cultural and religious proscribed gender inequality, and social and economic discrimination.
Violence is another way that women are kept subservient and on the bottom rung of society, and violence against women is at pandemic proportions. Around the world 1 in 3 women have been beaten, raped, assaulted, or abused – usually by someone they know. 1 in 4 women throughout the world have been abused while pregnant. Violence against women is the most common, but least recognized, human rights violation in the world. This kind of global terror war on women also serves to reinforce male dominance and control, which is perpetuated by a culture of silence and shame as women are often blamed for the attacks that males commit against them. Many times this environment is referred to as ‘rape culture’. As I mentioned in my Day Five post about conflict in Cambodia, rape and violence against women is a frequently used tool of war because it effectively intimidates and subdues the enemy population, while also serving to fragment and dissolve community cohesion. Since women grow the majority of the world’s food, when they are uprooted from their lives and struggling in the face of grave violence, their ability to work the crops is destroyed. Fields lie fallow, crops go unharvested, and a community that may have once been food self sufficient is now at the mercy of food aid, which is usually controlled by the same men who inflicted the violence in the first place. Crises like violence and chronic hunger effect women in different ways than men. Because of long term, institutionalized gender inequality women are often placed at the back of the line to receive aid and are left out of the rebuilding process. Food becomes another means to control women and keep them dependent, passive and constantly weak.
“Violence against women has a far deeper impact than the immediate harm caused. It has devastating consequences for the women who experience it, and a traumatic effect on those who witness it, particularly children. It shames states that fail to prevent it and societies that tolerate it. Violence against women is a violation of basic human rights that must be eliminated through political will, and by legal and civil action in all sectors of society.” ~ Yakin Ertürk
Women must face this inequality and subsequent hunger and gender driven violence, all while continuing to care for their children. When hunger affects women it inevitably affects their children. Undernourished mothers tend to give birth to low birth weight babies, and low birth weight babies are 4 to 6 times as susceptible to physical and developmental illness, and 8 to 10 times as likely to die in the first year of life. More than 23 million low birth weight babies are born every year, 90 percent of them in the developing world. In this way hunger is passed on from generation to generation, an unwanted legacy of pain and sorrow, and the destructive effects of poverty begin even before a baby enters the world.
However, women are not only victims of chronic hunger, they are also the solution.
“People often ask: what can be done to defeat hunger? My answer is simple: empower women, because women are the secret weapon to fight hunger.” WFP Executive Director Josette Sheeran
Women must achieve liberation in order for them to reach their full potential and change the world. While half of humanity is in shackles and society is built on their degradation and slavery, sustainable progress is impossible. All the food aid and redistribution plans in the world are only band-aids when our world is based on the premise that half of us are not worthy. But empowering women and striving for gender equality should not just be a moral imperative, it should be recognized that women hold the key to a better tomorrow for everyone.
“The research is unequivocal: If the goal is to improve health, nutrition or education, reduce fertility or child mortality, stem the spread of HIV, build robust and self-sustaining community organizations, encourage grass-roots democracy, and ultimately, temper extremism, successful efforts must target women.” ~ Isabel Coleman
Lack of education for girls is a situation that must be remedied; every human being has the right to an education and the right to enjoy the life changing potential it can bring. Education for girls is also one of the most powerful ways to end poverty and put a stop to chronic hunger. Of all the households in the world, 1/3 have a woman as the sole breadwinner and a higher level of education as children can raise their earning level, enrich their family, and ensure their ability to cope with hard times. Educated girls are also more likely to grow up to become women involved in their country’s political process, making decisions that could improve the lives of other women and girls.
“When girls go to school, they marry later and have fewer, healthier children. For instance, if an African mother has five years of education; her child has a 40 percent better chance of living to age five. A World Health Organization study in Burkina Faso showed that mothers with some education were 40 percent less likely to subject their children to the practice of genital mutilation. When girls get educated, they are three times less likely to contract HIV/AIDS.” ~ Jonathan Alter
Experience shows that when food is put into the hands of women it is more likely to reach the mouths of hungry children and it is distributed equitably. When a woman earns money more of it is devoted to the care of the family than when a man earns the money. The probability of a child surviving increases 20 percent when the mother’s income increases, compared to the same rise in a father’s income. In Kenya, when women took control of the finances children’s height increased 17 percent. Putting the tools for survival and for community improvement in the hands of women virtually guarantees the resources will be implemented equitably. In post-conflict zones women’s voices need to be heard and they must play a central role in the rebuilding process in order to create stable, egalitarian communities that respect the inherent worth of all people. The cumulative effect of championing women’s rights and empowerment in all spheres, but especially in regards to world hunger, guarantees a brighter future for us all. When we empower women we change the world.
To learn more about the way women throughout the world struggle with the burden of chronic hunger and poverty I turn once again to my dear friend Rosanna Barbero. Rosanna is the founder/director of Womny’s Agenda for Change in Cambodia, where she pioneered the Gender and Trade Mekong Network while supporting the establishment of the Women’s Network for Unity, a sex worker union in Cambodia and one of the world’s largest grass-roots sex worker networks. She has traveled the world for the past two decades as a development worker, a feminist activist, and gender specialist with Oxfam. Rosanna has also been a committee member for the world’s largest anti-globalization network World Social Forums, as well as an advocate against the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and World Trade Organization, and a member of the Jubilee South Network.
Burge: Globalization, conflict, and poverty have all contributed to the fracturing of families and the disintegration of community cohesion. What is the lasting effect of this disruption and how can it be repaired?
Barbero: Poverty and conflict are often a result of globalization, that is if we agree that globalization is the modern form of imperialism, what we call neo-imperialism. It’s a system whereby the rich nations in particular the U.S. maintain it’s domination, control and hegemony on the rest of the world. Conflict arises in many countries because they are fighting for power over scarce resources, and no longer accept oppression and the blatant theft of their resources in the hands of foreign corporations and local corrupt officials that allow this theft for a fee. Poverty is the result of a deliberate system that creates and perpetuates the haves and have nots. Wealth that is generated could be distributed more equally or equitably, Governments could spend on education, health for all and implement policies that give people decent jobs and a chance to develop and better their lives and those of their families. BUT they do not. Instead of building a country for the benefit of its people the money goes instead to a rich few and to service a debt that was used inappropriately.
Burge: When a family is hit with a financial shock and is facing hunger, what are some of the ways that women and girls are forced to bear the greatest brunt of the crisis?
Barbero: Girls are taken out of school and are forced to participate in the daily survival of the family. For children this usually means day laboring and for women and girls they are paid less than males. If they are teenagers they are sent to find work, and because of lack of education, skills and options available to them they end up in the garment factories or the brothels. They only have their bodies for labor or sex and in the global south these are the options.
Burge: Can you describe how poverty and hunger become inherited conditions?
Barbero: When you are working just to eat, there is no way to improve the wealth of the family. You are vulnerable to falling into a spiral of debt which is left to the next generation to repay. In addition, with increasing pressure from policies that are anti poor, there are no safety nets or cushions like welfare, or government subsidies. There is only landlessness, migration, vulnerability and exploitation.
Burge: In what ways has the spread of modern globalization changed the status of women? In general, has it seen an improvement in their lives or has it cemented their lesser status?
Barbero: Some idiots will claim that globalization has brought foreign direct investment to the global south included in this are brands such as Nike, Levis, GAP and other exploitative brands that produce in the third world so they can pay very little for the manufacturing of garments and do not need to treat those workers as human beings and basically get away with it because they are in cohorts with local corrupt officials. These women have been driven off of their land and displaced from their homes through no fault of their own, are desperate, therefore, for the work, live in terrible squatter conditions, and eat poorly in order to send money home. They work to eat and send money home for their families to eat, and if they are lucky to send a brother (boy child) to school.
On the other hand globalization has given rise to a leisure industry that is affordable to many males in the global north. As part of this leisure industry there is the promise of exotic girls for hire, therefore, hotels, resorts, etc. have an endless supply of women who are trying to survive and care for impoverished families.
Burge: Experience shows that when food is put into the hands of women it is more likely to reach the mouths of hungry children and it is distributed equitably. Why, then, do most development programs end up doing the most to improve the lives of men?
Barbero: Technically they really are not meant to serve men, almost all development programs have a gender perspective. Where this falls apart is in the tokenistic consideration gender is given, especially technical development programs. Because of the extreme inequality, most development workers just want to get the job done and if that means by building relations with the men and not considering women then that is what they do – because of financial and work plans limitations. But most of all, people in development are not outraged by gender oppression and end up ignoring it in the name of culture and tradition.
Burge: Why do you think women are the key to solving poverty and chronic hunger?
Barbero: Women are the main workers in agriculture and the carers of family and children. Because of centuries of oppression and hardship, they quite often have stamina and an enormous capacity for coping strategies which men do not always possess. In my experience, women can display great flexibility and a willingness to sacrifice that is vital in fighting poverty.
Burge: What are the key strategies to empowering women to overcome the hunger and poverty in their lives?
Barbero: Women need access and control over resources so they can shape their own lives. They need policies that grant them equal rights, including to property and inheritance. Legislation that grants women security and rights and control over their lives, both productive and reproductive, is also a necessity. Women need support services for them and their children, along with programs that support and ensure education access until the tertiary level. Laws and policies that ensure equal rights, eliminate discrimination and grant protection from violence must be created and enforced.
Burge: Can you tell us about a development program you saw that was geared towards empowering women to combat hunger and poverty that was successful and that transformed their community?
Barbero: One would be an agricultural collective which only allowed women as members and a percentage of the grant and profits thereafter went towards education for girls. For women to be members of this collective they had to agree to send their daughters to school all the way to graduation. A healthy percentage of the profits generated went into diversification of crops, nutritional programs, reproductive health and birth spacing, training a mid wife and establishing a creche in the village. Some of these women were then elected on to the village committee and underwent leadership courses and made decisions about their communities. This caused conflict in some families as men felt their status was being challenged, but gender sensitivity training and conflict resolution including some harsh measures implemented by the women’s co-op ended the violence. They also established a refuge and had legal advice on divorce and cases of violence, land ownership etc. Another condition of membership was that husbands had to put their wives names on land ownership papers.
Burge: Can you share with us a story that particularly touched you or changed you in some way; about the women you have worked with who were struggling with poverty?
Barbero: When I saw sex workers standing up for their rights in a society that thought they were scum, a society that failed to see them as the poorest of the poor that were surviving in a society that presented them with little or no options and increasingly narrowed those choices. They stood up and called for their rights as workers, recognition as women who are responsible for the survival of their families, as women who found the only option available to them because their leaders and world leaders are not interested in helping the poor and improving the lives of the majority. They formed a union and they are now globally famous and this was my project, which humbled me as a feminist, as a development worker, and a human being.
Burge: How can we in developed Western nations stand in solidarity with the women throughout the world who are facing chronic hunger and poverty and assist them in their struggle?
Barbero: You hold your governments accountable! Hold them accountable for aid, for the removal of conditions on aid and loans. Hold brands that exploit women accountable. Increase bilateral budgets to the global south. Call to abolish the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization.
Thank you to Rosanna for sharing her knowledge and experience with us!
At the end of day seven, the closing hours of this world hunger journey, as I am measuring out my tiny dinner I find myself on the verge of tears. For the past week I have starved myself and obsessively weighed portions, measured ingredients, and counted calories – practices that were previously completely foreign to me. Like I said before, I’ve never in my life gone on a diet, I’ve never gazed at a scale in fear, and I’ve certainly never tried to lose a few inches. I have never looked at my body with anything other than respect and love, and food has always been just food, something to celebrate and enjoy, but never the enemy or something that caused me pain.
But, I know many, many women who would have found my actions of the past week all too familiar. I’m sure most of us know women or girls like this. I can count on one hand the number of women that I know well who do not worry about their appearance or constantly bounce from diet to diet. I have one friend who has a panic attack if she can’t spend two hours at the gym every day, another who adheres so stringently to her raw foods diet that she once cried after eating one of my cupcakes, and another who complains about the size of her hips at least once every time we talk. I even have a friend who asked me if she could join me on this world hunger ‘diet’ so she could drop a few pounds. I’m not sure if she was joking.
Bombarded by images of unattainable, digitally altered perfection, women in the developed world are forced to obsess about their looks, count calories, exercise obsessively and loathe their own body. As Naomi Wolf, author of The Beauty Myth wrote; beauty is the only thing woman are allowed to aspire to. Being thin and beautiful, in the eyes of modern society, is a woman’s greatest achievement. I have written before about the way too many women swallow this lie and end up paying diet and cosmetic companies vast sums of their hard earned money to continue eroding their sense of self-worth with yet another round of insulting ad campaigns.
Over the past week as I immersed myself for eight or more hours a day in the research and study of world hunger and actively created my own undernourishment, I read about the unimaginable pain women experience when their young child dies in their arms because they haven’t been able to find the food to feed him. I’ve read reports of young girls being sold into sexual slavery because their parents don’t have enough money to keep her fed. I’ve watched videos of women crying as they sell off their possessions, one by one, to make sure they can feed their children just one more day.
And on the other hand, I have heard my friends talk about how ‘good’ they have been on their diet, how much they wish they were just a little bit skinnier, how ugly they look when they gain weight, how much they hate themselves for eating a second slice of pie, how much they torture themselves when the numbers on the scale climb just a bit higher.
I wanted to scream. I desperately wanted to take the women on one side and lead them to the women on the other side and have them meet each other and share stories. I wonder what the woman whose child died in her arms from starvation would say to my friend who hates herself for eating too much dessert?
After seven days of this journey I am more than ready to be done. Today would have been the end no matter what because I simply cannot go on any longer. Since I went vegan over three years ago, I haven’t been sick once, not so much as a sniffle. But all day today I have felt that once familiar feeling of aches and unease that used to signal the arrival of a cold. In just seven days I never imagined such a drastic change could occur, I never thought I would feel this bad.
I am so happy to be done with this journey, but I have a lingering sense of disappointment because I know I have barely scratched the surface of chronic hunger. In my head on permanent repeat I still hear ‘1 out of 6 people, 1 out of 6 people‘, and I wonder if I have done this topic justice. What I do know is that I haven’t fully processed what has happened yet. I’m sure that will take some time, and some energy, which at the moment I simply do not have. I will be back, however, with two posts devoted to solutions to world hunger and chronic poverty.
For now, I leave you with my last dinner of the world hunger journey. I took the leftover millet, okra, and black eyed peas I had enjoyed on Day 3 and added a yellow bell pepper for crunch. It was delicious, but I’d be lying if I said my taste buds weren’t craving a gigantic green smoothie right now. Tomorrow…
|Black Eyed Peas||1 cup||209||4.7||36.4||5.7|
|Olive Oil||1 Tbsp||119||13.5||0||0|
|Ginger Root||1 slice||2||0||0.4||0|
|Bell Pepper||1 cup||30||0.3||6.9||1.0|
Total Calories: 970
Total Fat: 35.7
Total Carbohydrates: 142.5
Total Protein: 23.7
To support the organizations I write about in this series, purchase a World Hunger: Be the Solution Tee. Proceeds from the shirt will go to the Small Planet Institute Fund and the International Fund for Africa. All tees are sweat free and available in organic cotton. To see the selection of World Hunger tees at Conducive’s Humanitarian & Human Rights Tee store, click here
To Follow Natasha’s World Hunger Journey
7 Days for World Hunger: Day 1
7 Days for World Hunger: Day 2
7 Days for World Hunger: Day 3
7 Days for World Hunger: Day 4
7 Days for World Hunger: Day 5
7 Days for World Hunger: Day 6
Sustainable giving programs dedicated to providing solutions that help eliminate poverty and world hunger.
- Food For Life
- Trees for Life
- Community Action Fund for Women in Africa
- Fruit Tree Planting Foundation
- Women’s Bean Project
- Sustainable Harvest International
International Fund for Africa