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Food shortages in Niger affect women and children the hardest

Next week, world delegates will be exploring this year’s theme for International Women’s Day – “Empower rural women, end poverty and hunger.” The ‘Global Conference on Women in Agriculture’ will take place in India on the 13-15th March.

Speakers will focus on how the plight of poor rural women can be improved, for example through programmes which provide training to women in agriculture, or finance schemes which give women access to credit. A former senior adviser to the World Bank who will be taking part in the conference says until rural women are given more support, they will continue to find themselves in the most vulnerable of positions, particularly in times of special hardship.  “Men have been migrating from rural areas leaving women to tend to farming and the household for many, many years,” says Uma Lele.

This is exemplified by the current situation in Niger and across the Sahel region, following severe drought. The ongoing food insecurity in Niger is having a devastating impact on women and children. In a country where two-thirds of people live below the poverty line, families in many rural regions are surviving on just one meal a day. The United Nations Children’s Agency (UNICEF) is active in Niger and warning about the perilous state of rural communities.

In Niger’s Tillabery region, UNICEF spoke to two young women who were eating just one meal each day and finding it hard to keep up with their studies at school. Zara, 14 and Oumou, 16, said “we have never had so little food”. One of them continued “sometimes I am so hungry and low on energy that I cannot even see the blackboard”. These two girls are at least still attending school. UNICEF believes many are dropping out of education, because the food crisis has become so severe. It is not uncommon for fathers in Niger to leave their villages in search of work. Both the girls’ fathers have already gone to seek work in Ghana, though the families have not heard from them.

The news agency IRIN spoke to a woman in rural south-western Niger. Hani Issa is trying to feed and raise seven grandchildren single-handedly, after being left on her own. The men of her village departed six months ago when the rains failed and rarely send back money from the nearest town. Hani therefore has to walk several kilometres each day to gather wild leaves and fruits to feed the children. On other days, she resorts to begging.

The position of woman in impoverished rural regions of Niger and other parts of Africa is an unenviable one. Frequently women are left behind to support their families and carry out all food-gathering and farming tasks. Speakers at the conference next week will urge governments and agencies to do more for such women, because with the right support, women are more than capable of fending for themselves.

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