Women: the “Secret Weapon” against Hunger and Poverty

By Jennifer Parmalee
March 7, 2010

jenniferparmalee- Jennifer Parmalee is senior public affairs officer and spokesperson on global issues with the United Nations World Food Programme. The opinions expressed are her own. Reuters is hosting a “follow-the-sun” live blog on Monday, March 8, 2010, International Women’s Day. Please tune in.–-

A few years ago, I traveled to northern Bangladesh – a hardscrabble region forever whipsawed between drought and flood – to interview teenage girls and mothers at a maternal and child health center supported with nutritional food by the UN World Food Programme.

But 13-year-old Nazma, standing tall like a proud butterfly in her colorful salwar kameez, had a question for me first: “Please sing a song from your country.”

I hesitated, then reached for the song I had sung to my daughters as a lullaby: “Amazing Grace.” Nazma listened quietly and then, with ethereal poise and clarity of voice, surprised me by responding with the anthem of the U.S. civil rights movement: “… Deep in my heart, I do believe, we shall overcome, some day!”

It turns out Nazma, on the cusp of womanhood, had more to overcome than “just” impoverished circumstances. She was the only female in the room to have stayed in school as long as sixth grade and facilitators expected that soon, she too, would be called off for early marriage.

It is International Women’s Day and Nazma’s lovely, determined face is still vivid in my mind. I wonder if her evident strength and intelligence will enable her to break free of the terrible bonds of poverty.

Worldwide, women and girls bear the brunt of poverty, hunger and discrimination, comprising more than 60 percent of the world’s chronically hungry – now charted at a record one billion people. Inherited hunger – when malnourished mothers give birth to malnourished children – is a huge obstacle to development, from Afghanistan to Haiti.


On the flip side, women are crucial to unlocking sustainable solutions to hunger and poverty. As WFP Executive Director Josette Sheeran likes to say: “Women are the secret weapon to fight hunger.”

Women not only cook for their families. They sow, reap and harvest food – comprising well over half of all farmers worldwide (eight of 10 in Africa, six of 10 in Asia). An example from Kenya, where female farmers have fewer opportunities and resources than men: when women receive the same farm inputs that currently benefit the average male farmer, they increase their crop yields by 22 percent!

Our experience at the World Food Programme also shows that in the hands of a woman, food is far more likely to reach the mouths of needy children. That’s why, in emergencies like the catastrophic earthquake in Haiti, we channel our relief through women whenever and wherever feasible. More than half of the people we feed, globally, are women and children. http://www.wfp.org/stories/haiti-why-women-are-front-queue

Girls are also a major focus of WFP school meals programs: girls’ enrollment shoots up 28 percent on average when we introduce meals at schools, while attendance and academic performance also improve significantly.

Experts agree that educating women and girls is the cornerstone of economic and social development – and smashes the cycle of inherited hunger. This is what we mean when we say that empowering women is not just a “female issue” – but a human issue, key to a peaceful, healthy and prosperous future.

A woman colleague recounts a true story of “Amazing Grace” from South Africa – where the total distance women walk, collectively, each day to collect water for their families equals 16 round trips to the moon!

This astonishing tenacity, innovation and strength of women around the world makes me proud and – just like Nazma – hopeful that we shall overcome: that all our daughters will not only enjoy the opportunities to break free of hunger, poverty and discrimination, but lead the way home.

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