Children and women bearing the brunt of Niger's food security crisis

By Marlene Barger and Jihun Sohn

MARADI, Niger, 13 July 2005 - Children and women in Niger are bearing the brunt of this year's food security crisis, brought on by a combination of drought and locust infestation during the 2004 growing season. In many villages of the Maradi Region in southern Niger, the lack of food has sent children begging on the streets.

For the past two months, eleven-year-old Souleymane Mahamane has lived on Maradi's city streets, sleeping at the bus station with only a thin piece of cardboard to protect him from the cold cement benches he lies on. He begs for his midday meal. In the evenings, he joins several other street children working for a woman who sells rice and sauce at the bus station. The boys serve the meals and wash the dishes. In exchange, they get to eat the leftover food scraped from customers' plates. The woman often rewards each of the boys with 100 to 150 Communauté Financière Africaine francs ($0.20 to $0.30) for their evening's work.

Souleymane had left his village, Malamawa, for the city as hunger pangs in his empty stomach became increasingly unbearable. "Sometimes we went for two weeks without preparing a meal," he says. "I couldn't live like that," the boy continues. "I was hungry all of the time. So one day, I started walking toward Maradi." He didn't know anybody in the city, but he felt that conditions had to be better than those back home.

In the village of Angoual Mata, not far from Souleymane's hometown, women are conspicuously absent. When asked where all the women have gone, a villager says they are out looking for leaves to feed their families.

Although rains began early this year and have fallen regularly - giving hope for a better agricultural season - relief will not come before the harvest in October. Villagers are just now entering into the critical period known as the lean season (April through September) - the months when food stocks are at their lowest and farmers need extra strength to plant and cultivate their crops.

In order to help alleviate the problem of food insecurity, UNICEF had helped the village build a cereal bank where women could buy or borrow grain a few years ago. Last year, however, most people in Angoual Mata did not harvest enough crops, leaving many cereal banks severely depleted or empty. With nothing else to eat, the women were forced to search for foods in the wild - foraging for leaves and searching in termite mounds for wild grains. It is often risky work, and many women have had their skin scratched and scraped raw from climbing trees.

UNICEF has responded to Niger's current food security crisis by restocking cereal banks in selected villages. Angoual Mata has received ten tons of millet. Assistance is also available for street children like Souleymane at a UNICEF-supported youth centre in Maradi. Here, Souleymane joined other boys who have left the streets to learn vocational skills such as carpentry, and he has begun thinking beyond his next meal. He, too, would like to learn a skill and earn a living.

The food shortage in Niger impacts some 3.3 million people - including 800,000 children under age five - in almost 4,000 villages. As the relief effort swings into full gear UNICEF has supplied 614 tons of grain but much more is needed.

As Niger remains in a persistent state of ongoing 'silent emergency' in essential areas such as health, nutrition, education and access to water, UNICEF is appealing to donor countries for funds of $812,600 to provide short-term responses to the nutritional needs of Nigerien children.