Sahel Women Have the Potential to Solve Food Insecurity in the Region

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Written by Renee Coulouris

The Sahel region is facing one of the worst food crises in years, leaving nearly six million people in urgent need of food assistance to survive. In addition to climatic factors such as irregular rainfall, low production within agriculture, and desertification, the Sahel region also faces protracted armed conflicts and terrorism, which compound the region’s vulnerability and further destabilization. Recently, international organizations have stated that they need approximately $676 million to be able to respond to the current food crisis, however, humanitarian assistance remains critically underfunded. In addition to urgently responding to the current situation, the international community must consider long-term sustainable solutions for the region. Given that the African continent has the largest percentage of women involved in the agriculture sector—particularly in the Sahel, where 90% of the economy relies on agriculture and pastoralism—the empowerment of small-scale women farmers can help the region build up its resilience against the continued reoccurrence of food crises.

During a recent joint United Nations-African Union mission to the region, delegates reflected on the fact that women and girls in the Sahel are disproportionally affected by the region’s interrelated crises. Specifically, women suffer more than men from food insecurity due to their restricted access to resources as a result of patriarchal societal norms. For example, women are typically responsible for all household chores and being the primary caretakers of their family. In times of crises, women are pushed to make choices for the benefit of their family, which includes many women eating less themselves and/or walking longer, more dangerous distances to fetch water for their family.

According to the International Labor Organization, Sahel countries have large percentages of women involved in agriculture; women make up 72% (Niger), 84% (Mauritania) and 57% (Mali) of the agricultural labor force. In Senegal, women farmers make up 70% of the workforce and produce 80% of the country’s agricultural yields, yet large disparities between male and female farmers still occur. This just shows that within the Sahel, there is a huge portion of society that could be empowered to advance the region’s resilience against food insecurity.

There is clear evidence that gender equality and the empowerment of women can play a huge role in reducing hunger and mitigating food crises. Studies have shown that increasing gender parity to land rights and agricultural assistance, such as improved seeds and fertilizers, could reduce hunger by 12-17%. However, despite women carrying out 90% of processing food crops, many are not landowners themselves, nor do they reap the benefits of their work.  The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has estimated that if women farmers had equal access to the resources that male farmers do, the number of hungry people in the world would be reduced by 150 million and agricultural yields would increase by 20-30%.

In order to build the region’s resilience against food insecurity, women in the Sahel must be empowered to mitigate the causes of future food crises and thus reduce hunger. The international community, inclusive of the UN and other international organizations, as well as partner nations to the Sahel must take the following multi-pronged approach to empower Sahelian women farmers:

Empowerment through Education

Firstly, international organizations and partners should empower women farmers through increased knowledge and learning. The FAO and respective partner government agencies should expand their reach in educating Sahelian women farmers on modernized techniques and sustainable agricultural methods in the wake of climate change effects. FAO has been aiming to address the underlying causes of food crises, such as utilizing seeds adapted to climate change and technical methods to rehabilitate the land. Organizations should also find ways to provide access to the latest research on agriculture for women farmers so that evolving methods can be implemented. By training women famers in resilience-building activities, they will be empowered to increase overall community resilience to food insecurity, which is more cost-effective than repeated humanitarian assistance. When women are empowered through a better understanding of the best practices and techniques of agricultural sustainability, they will become investments of resilience in their countries.

Empowerment through Network-Building

Secondly, women famers who are trained should be incentivized to share lessons learned with their counterparts in order to spread knowledge throughout their society. The international community could assist in doing this by developing networks of women farmers within each country of the Sahel, with the goal of sharing lessons and techniques in risk mitigation strategies. A great example of this is an initiative in Senegal known as Réseau des Femmes Agricultrices du Nord (REFAN), which is a network of women farmers involved in the production and trading of rice. The initiative aims to empower 30,000 women farmers in the country by 2021and is supported by the UN Women’s Agriculture, Women, and Sustainable Development project. This program is also active in the Segou region of Mali, where women famers are supported through cooperative training sessions on improved techniques of water usage, fertilizer use, and crop scheduling.

Empowerment through Policy

Thirdly, the international community must advocate for the removal of discriminatory policies towards women farmers in the Sahel so that they have access to appropriate resources and markets. In order to empower women farmers economically, the international community should incentivize Sahelian decision-makers to give women famers more access to ownership over land and farming resources in exchange for financial aid in the agricultural sector. International partners should also invest more financially in women farmers by directly funneling resources and then later publicizing evidence of their progress to Sahelian governments in order to gain regional buy-in for the empowerment of women. These efforts should be coupled with the overall political empowerment of Sahelian women through increased political participation and civil society in order to close the gender gap.

Women’s empowerment goes hand in hand with the long-term sustainable development of the Sahel region and it is vital in solving the reoccurrence of food crises in the Sahel.

About the author: Renee Coulouris is a Master’s degree candidate at Johns Hopkins University, studying Global Security Studies. She has previously worked at Women in International Security and in the Africa II Division of the Department of Political Affairs at the United Nations. She has conducted research in Tunisia, Israel and the West Bank and Jordan on issues relating to international security, foreign policy, and women’s roles in extremist organizations.

Photo: Flickr – Oxfam