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Under the radar, African women struggle more than others in food crisis

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Catholic News Service reports once again from the frontlines of the East Africa food crisis, this time focusing on the drought’s impact on women.

NAIROBI, Kenya (CNS) — The year 2011 was not good for women such as Joan Ochieng. Just about everything was a struggle.

“We were not treated fairly,” the Nairobi resident and single mother said of life in 2011, noting the many pressures, including spiraling food prices that caused her and her family of four children and one grandchild to often go to bed hungry.

When things like rice doubled in price in six months, a bowl of porridge was often the only salve in a day in which eating three meals was almost unheard of. Even eating two meals was often a rarity.

That was not good for a woman who must also take anti-viral medicines for treating HIV. Such treatment can be debilitating on an empty stomach, and it caused Ochieng to shake and experience nausea.

These factors left Ochieng, 41, who lives in the Kiamaiko section of Kenya’s capital city, pessimistic as the new year began.

“It’s out of our control,” she said, “it’s up to God.” It also made her angry that the experiences of her and other poor Nairobi residents do not seem to be a priority for Kenyan politicians — nor for the larger world.

A Catholic Relief Services staffer from our Ethiopia program provides the context for this phenomenon.

Any humanitarian crisis “will affect women more than men,” said Dr. Dehab Belay, an HIV/AIDS specialist with Catholic Relief Services’ Ethiopia program, based in Addis Ababa.

When there are regional or national traumas like drought, men in rural areas leave to find work and leave behind women and children, Belay said. But when men do not return, women are forced to look for work that causes them to migrate to the nearest town.

Begging becomes one way to cope; another is to become a sex worker. Many women experience a downward spiral that can often end in death on the streets.

“Women don’t have ownership of land, so women are already economically disadvantaged,” Belay said. But even at the level of household economy, women and girls are the last to eat.

“What is offered first goes to men, what is left goes to the child,” Belay said of family life when men are still within the household. “Sometimes the mother doesn’t get anything.”

“It’s not fair,” she said. “It’s not fair.”

Of course, nothing is fair in a humanitarian crisis. Ochieng notes that when she is sick and cannot work, something terrible awaits her children and grandchild.

“My family doesn’t eat at all,” she said.