The hunger crisis is still raging — and women and girls are suffering the most. Here’s what to do about it.

By Onome Ako; CEO, Action Against Hunger Canada

Why it matters

World hunger is worsening at an unprecedented rate and the impact of climate change, conflict, and soaring inflation is impacting farmers’ ability to grow food and families’ ability to afford what is available. One group is feeling the effects more acutely. Of the 828 million people experiencing food insecurity, around 60 per cent are women and girls. And that gap is widening.

It’s no secret that our world is facing an influx of devastating crises. With inflation, war, and climate change all coming to a head, our international community is scrambling to support those teetering on the edge of famine.

Economic shocks, violent conflicts, and extreme weather events have caused hunger rates to soar – 828 million people are going to bed hungry every night, and the number of those facing acute food insecurity has drastically increased from 135 million to 345 million since 2019.

These crises have ripped open and exposed all the precarious flaws in our global food systems, many of which disproportionately affect women and girls.

While we have all watched global hunger rates climb, many of us have not recognized that of the 828 million people who are currently food insecure, nearly 60 per cent are women and girls.

This is not a new problem. World crises have notoriously hit women and girls especially hard, particularly in developing countries. Crises disproportionately drain women’s already scarce income and savings, making it difficult for them to access food, medical care, education, or even safety.  In times of crisis gender base violence increases and with heightened vulnerability women and girls are forced to adopt negative mechanisms which can include early marriage or prostitution to survive.

Of course, these disparities are not limited to times of crisis. The debilitating impacts of gender inequality have been passed down through generations. Deep-rooted, harmful gender norms, lack of rights, and limited access to education trap women and girls in a cycle of inequality, poverty, and hunger.

The challenges posed by our current crises are complex. It’s going to take all of us, governments, practitioners, policymakers, local communities, and individuals, to address hunger and malnutrition from a gender-transformative approach. To accomplish this, we must first change the systems that perpetuate gender inequality in the short and long term.

When examining food security and gender equality, we must acknowledge that women, particularly in developing countries, are essential in addressing hunger, malnutrition, and poverty. Not only are women on the front lines of nutrition, as caregivers and mothers, but they are also a large part of the food production force in the developing world.

Studies show that women account for nearly half of the world’s smallholder farmers and produce 70 percent of Africa’s food. Yet less than 20 percent of land in the world is owned by women.

Harmful gender norms limit women’s decision-making powers both within their household and their communities, hampering their ability to actively contribute, obtain essential resources, earn an income, and, in some circumstances, access adequate food.

If we are to reach global food security and brace ourselves for future shocks, women and girls must have equal opportunities and voices in the decisions that shape their households, communities, and societies. Below are some simple actions that governments, NGOs, policymakers, and activists can support to begin dismantling gender inequality.

Transforming gender roles within households

Addressing harmful gender norms and their connection to hunger begins at the household level. It is crucial to work with both women and men to identify inequalities in their households and redistribute their responsibilities.

Action Against Hunger Canada implements mother-to-mother and father-to-father support groups to address harmful structures that deny women and girls an active role in improving their families’ well-being and perpetuate unequal distribution of food within households.

Over time, these groups help restructure the divisions of labour and power within households and open new opportunities for women to realize their dreams of fruitful businesses, healthier families, and stronger communities.

“Previously, local women never used to have groups or meet in our area, but nowadays even men have realized that if women are empowered, they can join hands and come up with business ideas that can help households.”
– Catherine Roba, Chairlady of the Mother-to-Mother Support Group, Barambate, Kenya

Increasing opportunities for income

In developing countries, women play a crucial role in food production, yet their contributions are severely under-recognized. In many countries, structural barriers and discriminatory laws prevent women from owning land, signing contracts, borrowing money, and accessing essential resources for farming. These barriers hamper their ability to achieve bigger yields, operate larger farms, or even receive payment for their work.

Recently, Action Against Hunger provided seed funding to a group of women in Kenya who wanted to start a goat-rearing business. With the proper support, they could purchase enough goats to supply their entire community with nutritious milk and fertilizer. The women now dream of expanding their business into a nearby town. Of course, this dream, like so many others, hangs on their ability to buy and own land.

If governments and policymakers could recognize women and girls’ fair and equal access to and control over resources, women’s untapped potential to increase food production could be unlocked, and communities worldwide would be in a much better position to achieve food security. As per a UN report, ensuring women have equal access to agricultural resources could reduce the number of people experiencing food insecurity by 100 to 150 million.

To strengthen global food systems, governments, funders, and NGOs must work to dismantle discriminatory laws that prevent women from entering the agricultural workforce and support agricultural programs that empower female entrepreneurs with the resources and business training they need to scale.

Promoting women’s leadership

To build more equitable food systems and ensure resilience to future crises, women and girls worldwide must hold equal rights and share equal voices with men. As such, governments and private sector stakeholders must support women-led initiatives, groups, and businesses that empower women and girls and open new opportunities for them to act as entrepreneurs, leaders, and decision-makers.

Inclusion in community committees can be an important starting point for empowering women’s voices in decision-making. Action Against Hunger makes it a point to include women in the community committees that we help organize. Not only does this ensure women’s involvement in critical decisions over community needs, but it also inspires the next generation of women to think differently about gender roles and future possibilities.

For long-term change, women and girls must understand that they, too, can be powerful agents of change and have access to the education they need to be put into leadership roles in politics, business, or communities.

In some cases, we are beginning to see organizations and governments adopt these practices. In Canada, projects and partners looking for international assistance from Global Affairs Canada are expected to ensure active and meaningful participation and decision-making by women and girls in all initiatives.

While this progress is promising, until we have active participation from global governments, practitioners, policymakers, communities, and individuals in challenging the systemic barriers that oppress women and girls, we are unlikely to see sustained development.

The need for global gender equality is clear and pressing. As the effects of climate change, economic disruption, and conflict continue to become a pressing reality, there will undoubtedly be more crises in our future. Let us all work together to ensure that women and girls no longer bear the brunt. The sooner we focus on inclusive solutions, the sooner we will live in a world free from hunger.