Food Crisis, Gender, and Resilience in the Sahel - Lessons from the 2012 crisis in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger

from Oxfam
Published on 16 Jun 2014 View Original


The social structure of Sahelian communities has changed considerably over the years. This change is chiefly manifested in the redefinition of roles and responsibilities within households. The 2012 food crisis has revealed that women have taken on increasing responsibilities from a number of standpoints. Their contribution to maintaining their households in times of crisis is tacitly expected, even though this increased responsibility within the household is not always reflected in increased power within the community. In the eyes of the community, women remain under the guardianship of their husbands or, if they are not married, that of their brothers or their eldest sons. The social perception of the role and place of women in these communities has influenced general attitudes regarding access to factors of production. Indeed, because they have only a subsidiary role in relation to household responsibilities and are relegated to the sidelines when it comes to community-based management in general, women continue to have limited access to factors of production. This should limit their ability to increase the support they provide for their households in times of crisis. However, it appears many are able to make a substantial contribution to household members‟ survival through low-return opportunities that are safe and cautious.

Women‟s participation has low social visibility, and this has repercussions on social development strategies implemented to support or assist vulnerable households. When such efforts are directed toward the head of the household, female heads of households appear to be a significant focus of this attention, as a result of their perceived level of vulnerability. However, within households, women who are „responsible for their households‟, despite being under the influence and supposed protection of a spouse, lack visibility, and it is still difficult to gain direct access to this category of women.

In most of the zones targeted by our survey, women ensured household resilience by regularly taking responsibility during the hungry season. They contribute to familial nutrition in conjunction with the contribution of production by the family or the man, and sometimes assume responsibility for their own production or, when this is not possible, with revenue from small, daily income-generating activities (IGAs). Resilience is inconceivable without rural women.

Households in which women have greater participation in decision making regarding food are more resilient. Indeed, women‟s involvement in supplying cereals and processing food helps enable food diversification and preparation of dishes that are better suited to the budgets of rural households.

Women‟s ability to negotiate or influence decision making within their households enhances household food security, in particular through:
• diversification of food stocks with the introduction of numerous foods that are not necessarily produced locally;
• longer-term availability of food stocks, through frugal management of the millet produced (and choice of methods of preparation);
• better organization and planning of supplies, since joint decisions and joint financing of spending are unusual.

Participation or consultation around the management of food security is more difficult to achieve in polygamous households, where the tendency of consumption sub-units to emerge around the different wives constitutes a daily threat to family cohesion. This tendency is even stronger when the relationships between wives are strained and the head of the household is away for extended periods of time, particularly periods longer than the lifetime of the food stock set up for his wives prior to his departure.

The men and women surveyed recognized that monogamous households with a limited number of children were more resilient and better equipped to seize new opportunities in terms of mobility and education. The more children the women have, the more they are in charge and the more vulnerable they become within theirs households. In this regard, the analysis shows that women‟s family responsibilities are increasing, even when they are not household heads, nor even recognized as having responsibility for their households. The place and role of women in Sahelian communities has evolved over years of food insecurity, gradually leading to their exclusion from access to natural resources. Despite of this, and in response to the growing need to generate useful resources to sustain their households in times of crisis, women continue their involvement in agricultural and pastoral production, while simultaneously becoming experts in diversification of IGAs.

Most women involved in IGAs ensure a relative well-being for their households, even in times of crisis, and ipso facto earn greater consideration within their households and communities. Despite their limited resources, these women become important actors in household food security and prove to be skilled managers of endemic shortages.

The perception of the role of women in Sahelian society is evolving, with the concept of an ideal woman as one who has a greater involvement in taking care of household needs.

'The ideal woman is an energetic woman who carries out economic activities and has financial income and property' (Hausa Women Focus Group Banibangou, Niger).

The image of the woman who expects her husband to provide for everything seems to be increasingly a thing of the past. A clear understanding of the dynamics underlying the management of family assets can help to develop more appropriate support for household resilience.

Targeting the consumption‟s sub-units, or more specifically the heads of households or responsible persons of their households, would therefore be a more appropriate approach for support in cases of food crises, since it would enable efforts to be directly targeted to improve the organization and consumption of food resources. By taking account of household realities, it should be possible to reach all of the most vulnerable family units.

In 2012, food aid was delivered to the rural communities surveyed in a timely manner, in relatively sufficient quantities, and in a variety of forms.

Several organizations came to the assistance of vulnerable households, and each one developed approaches and tools to ensure that they effectively reached those households most in need. Direct food aid was cited by the people interviewed as being the most effective form of aid in a food crisis. Methods that involved intermediaries between the organizations and beneficiaries were deemed less effective, due to risks of speculation in light of the beneficiaries‟ pressing need. Some of those methods, such as coupons to be exchanged for goods with local merchants, were considered to be less effective for beneficiaries, even though it was recognized that they made a positive contribution to strengthening the local economy. These methods need to be appropriately monitored to ensure that the beneficiaries receive the goods without having to pay an additional cost for the transaction.

A good combination of local strategies and humanitarian aid has allowed directly and indirectly targeted households to survive through the protracted crisis. Other development actions have also helped to build more sustainable strategies within households, thereby reinforcing their resilience.