Angelline Rudakubana is the United Nations World Food Programme Country Director in Burkina Faso. The opinions expressed are her own.
There is a face to hunger and most often that face belongs to a woman or a girl.
Ouedraogo Belga has such a face. She’s a 45-year-old mother of four living in the village of Song Naba in Burkina Faso. “Life is really harder this year”, laments Belga who is one of the small-scale family farmers who account for 70 percent of her country’s total agricultural production.
Already in January, like everybody else in her village, Belga’s reserves were running desperately dry. She is now forced to buy most of her food at the local market. But with soaring food prices –the price of rice has doubled since last year – she has no idea how she will make it through until next the harvest, starting in October.
Just like millions across West Africa’s Sahel region, Belga has been affected by the a devastating drought that is spelling suffering in a broad swathe of countries from Niger, Mauritania, Mali, Chad and Senegal over to Gambia, Burkina Faso and Cameroon. People are now facing their third drought since 2005.
People are going hungry in alarming numbers in the Sahel region.
The lack of food has forced many to make painful decisions, like cutting down on meals, eating roots or leaves, taking their children out of school and selling off of animals and other household assets.
The ones to suffer most are the women and girls, who face gender inequalities and limited access to education and credit.
However, women are also the most effective solution to combating and preventing hunger. In many countries, including Burkina Faso, women make up the bulk of agricultural labourers.
They are the very backbone of food production systems. In fact, rural women are responsible for half the Sub-Saharan Africa’s food production, and globally they produce between 60 and 80 per cent of the food.
When we celebrate this year’s International Women’s Day on 8 March under the theme “Empower Rural Women – End Hunger and Poverty”, it is in recognition of the critical contribution of rural women to creating food security.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that when women farmers receive the support and tools they need such as education, seeds, fertilizers and access to finance, they can increase yields on their farms by up to 20 to 30 per cent – potentially lifting 100 to 150 million people out of hunger.
Breaking the cycle of hunger and poverty begins with women. This is why the United Nations (U.N.) World Food Programme (WFP), has always put women at the centre of efforts to fight hunger and malnutrition and keeping girls in school, throughout the organization’s 50 years of existence.
WFP does this through a number of programmes – among them the innovative pilot project for small-holder farmers “Purchase for Progress” (P4P).
It builds on WFP’s longstanding tradition of buying locally to help smallholder farmers improve quality, increase production and gain access to local markets. Through P4P smallholder farmer organizations sell to WFP, a reliable buyer, and receive a fair price for their crops.
As a member of the Agricultural Cooperative of Passoré, a farmer’s organization established by rural women’s grassroots’ groups, Ouedraogo Belga is one of the many women farmers in Burkina Faso supported by P4P.
The programme offers access to credit through microfinance institutions as well as capacity building in areas such as post-harvest handling and storage.
Belga says that through P4P, she has gained access to markets and sold at a fair price, providing her with extra money to send her children to school.
One in seven people on earth do not know where their next meal will come from. Most of them are women and children. Hunger kills more people every year than such diseases as HIV, malaria and tuberculosis combined.
Among children in their first thousand days of life, it has a life-long impact on their health and IQ (intelligence quotient). It leads to lower wages and undermines economic growth. With hunger, medicines are less effective, students can’t learn and adults aren’t as productive.
But hunger is also the world’s greatest solvable problem. Solving hunger boosts economic development. Solving hunger builds the brains and bodies of the next generation. Solving hunger builds a stronger, more prosperous and secure world.
Women like Belga have a crucial role to play. Supporting them is not a choice. It is a precondition for a world free of hunger. As mothers, farmers, teachers and entrepreneurs, they hold the key to building a future free from malnutrition.
Experience shows that in the hands of women, food is far more likely to reach the mouth of a hungry child.
Women have often been referred to as the secret weapon to fight hunger. Let us take advantage of International Women’s Day to ensure that it does not remain a secret.
Let’s empower rural women. Let’s engage each woman and make her the game-changer who will end hunger and poverty.