Do men and women see hunger differently?

ladies and tree

A new campaign that Oxfam is launching next week will have a big focus on gender – almost every issue in development looks very different depending on whether you are a man or a women.

I saw that in graphic form last week in Tanzania, during a training session for 40 ‘farmer animators’ – local activists who are helping to galvanize their communities in Shinyanga, one of Tanzania’s poorest regions. Men and women split into two separate groups to discuss the causes of hunger, its impacts, and how people respond.

Here’s what they came up with. First the men: Causes: lack of fertilisers, infrastructure and seeds; drought; environmental mismanagement Impacts: hunger; sickness; death; street kids; rising crime and poverty How people respond: reduce the number of meals; do more day labour on other farms; sell off cattle and assets; borrow money and as a last resort, split the family up and send members to places where they can find food (eg with relatives elsewhere in Tanzania).

Compare this with the women’s list: Causes: drought; deforestation; lack of tools; infidelity, prostitution and drunkenness (which all deprive families of income) Impacts: disease; divorce; ignorance (kids dropping out of school) How people respond: women look to friends and family for support, men try to find other women; women forced to start unprofitable petty businesses; children forced to beg

At which point a largely good-humoured battle of the sexes broke out (nothing livens up a meeting more than a discussion of gender differences). The men accused the women of stealing food for their lovers, while the women told stories of men sneaking out of the house off to their mistresses with the family rice stock down their trousers (with a hilarious mime of a man caught in the act). Eventually an animator who was also a (male) pastor intervened and said ‘men have to acknowledge the problem’ and was awarded with a loud ululation from the women.

What differences emerge from this? Mainly that women place much more emphasis on intra-household relationships as both cause and consequence of either hunger or survival. Men prefer to stick to talking about stuff – seeds, roads, fertilizers. Beyond this particular conversation, the gender differences include the mass exclusion of women from owning land, accessing state support services like agricultural extension, or getting credit. Despite these obstacles, they already grow much of Africa’s food. Simply equalizing their access to such things would provide a substantial boost to the food supply.

Gender issues matter not just because of equality and human rights, but because the uphill battle facing Africa’s women farmers entails a horrendous waste of human and economic potential.

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9 Responses to “Do men and women see hunger differently?”
  1. IMO not only do women and men see hunger differently but also understand (& measure) it differently.
    In a food sufficiency study that I was involved in Afghanistan a couple of years ago, we had interesting findings which showed that
    Men claimed household food sufficiency (through income from all sources) to be around 5.8 months in a ‘normal’ year.
    Women, on the other hand, came up with a figure of 4.2 months – a significant difference.
    and before someone asks, no we did not ‘ask’ them a direct question but got these figures from analyzing response to a series of questions, observations etc.
    This was interesting enough to delve further into and we found that in most households women were in charge of the harvest storage & protection, ration management and the actual cooking. Men really did not have much clue on how ‘intra-family’ food distribution happened. They assumed that if they had eaten, so had others – not the case always as the women very well knew since they (&girls) often ate after the men (&boys) had and had to ‘make do’ most times.
    This finding gave us guidance in our further interventions & monitoring system of course but then that is another story.

  2. John Magrath

    There’s that food storage and preservation/protection issue coming up again, and how it’s particularly important for women….maybe that’s why it keeps getting somewhat neglected?!
    Duncan: nah, think you’re overselling there John, men farmers see it as incredibly important too. A lot of people do focus on it, but they tend to be the bricks-and-mortar people – perhaps it is insufficiently linked to power and relationships to attract the NGOs. I have seen some really interesting communal grain banks in Uganda, run by women pastoralists – one of the benefits is that it makes it harder for the men to take the grain to make beer!

  3. Patti Petesch

    Really important blog. You have articulated an issue that I’ve been thinking a lot about these days — the power of marital relations, and household relations more generally, to be both great assets or great barriers for women. Many studies emphasize the barriers, and for good reason. But I think there are also lessons to take away from households with strong economic cooperation and healthy emotional bonds, from which women often derive a great sense of strength, self-efficacy, and resilience. Harmonious household relationships are deeply valued where present, as you say, because of many barriers in women’s access to other assets, but also because these bonds themselves can sometimes unlock new opportunities for women. In some new cross-country work on women and conflict that I’ve just completed, women in the conflict region of Mindanao, Philippines displayed the highest levels of empowerment, and they were also the ones to speak the most highly of their relationship with their husbands and the support they received in their family. Many of these women also were better educated than the women in the conflict regions from the other study countries. They also controlled major assets due to bride wealth and inheritance practices there (which, unfortunately, can also be sources of violence against poor women …). There is a real policy opportunity to think more systematically about the dynamics of cooperative households and the underlying forces that may drive this (i.e. greater gender equality across a range of assets and capabilities). Many of the households that move out of poverty feature relatively harmonious households with multiple income earners. Of course, some women get their households out of poverty single-handedly, especially if they can find a way to keep their children in school and her adult children then help her lift the household up. But this is a longer and harder road. Here’s a link to the new USAID report as an FYI. Thank you for sharing some of your great fieldwork and analysis from Shinyanga. Patti

  4. John Magrath

    Storage can seem like a sideshow compared to the bigger issues of intra-household relationships you explore so well,; on the other hand, it can be an integral part of those power dynamics.You say “Men farmers [in Tanzania?]see it [storage] as incredibly important too” – but I was quoting Makarand Saharasrabuddhe’s research in Afghanistan: “that in most households women were in charge of the harvest storage & protection” and men weren’t, and have little clue what’s going on. Does that finding hold more true for Afghanistan than for African countries?.
    Duncan: not sure, but my guess would be that there is a different story on consumption crops (mainly grown by women), and cash crops (more male involvement), possibly with slightly different storage issues around each

  5. gawain kripke

    Thanks for this duncan. interesting reading and not surprising. I think this issue of intra-household distribution and, of course, power, is difficult frontier for development actors. Just conceiving how to get at these issues is a huge challenge. And they seem inherently culturally-specific, so might be hard to get to large-scale.
    In any case, understanding something about this helps make it clear why setting indicators is critically important, i.e. measuring household income or consumption doesn’t come close to ensuring that benefits are reaching all household members.

  6. John, Duncan – In case of Afghanistan (the area where this study was done) I was talking of consumption crops ONLY, wheat and potatoes mainly. Almost no cash-crops were grown and in any case there were not too many formal markets to sell produce in. All farmers grew almost the same things. Luckily alcohol was not an issue, adding to further poverty, in Afghanistan.

  7. Gawain – as some one who has spent some time now in trying to get to ‘monitor and evaluate’ outcomes and impacts, I could not agree more with you on
    1. setting appropriate indicators (gender sensitive)
    2. reaching (however difficult it may be) women members of the household to understand disparity of outcomes experienced.
    Perhaps we may have to sacrifice third decimal accuracy but believe me, the picture (& perception) is invariably different as Duncan has brought out from this experience.

  8. Thalia Kidder

    It’s affirming, but not surprising, to hear how important Power is in women’s lives. The ‘Things’ that many development actors promote, however strategic and well targeted, won’t necessarily resolve material poverty. Perhaps this should be debated more explicitly in our understanding of how change happens for food justice…
    Thanks to Patti for her blog. A Mindinao programme that I’ve supported also found that a significant barrier to a women’s enterprise project was gendered power relations at the household-level – and the programme is now addressing this! Yesterday I went to a talk about Nepal ‘Raising Her Voice’- the significant impact of daily ‘community discussion classes’ for women, where women build their confidence, knowledge and skills to speak up about intra-household and community POWER dynamics. One of the results is more cooperation and less violence between all members of households. Yes, fascinating to hear how important the dimension of social/political power is – and I’m someone that has worked for women’s Economic leadership.