Friday, June 10, 2011

Guest Voices: The Enemy is Hunger: Women Fight Back in Malawi

Next up in our series guest posts from Concern Worldwide, we read about a farming irrigation program in Malawi that is helping women to provide enough food for their families. Country Director Anita McCabe says the program not only provides food year round, but the women can also sell the surplus for income.

As the hot, dry breeze wafts through the lakeside district of Nkhotakota, Malawi, a group of women sing as they take turns to water their near-ripe crop of maize. Further downstream, another group is busy making seed beds in preparation for another crop.

Like many women in developing countries, these women face a particular set of responsibilities and vulnerabilities when it comes to providing food for their families. Not only are they the primary caregivers, they are also the producers of food and the income earners. Women farmers in rural areas of Malawi grow, buy, sell, and cook food in order to feed their children. In fact, in all the countries in which I’ve worked during my time with Concern Worldwide, I’ve seen how very hard women must work to ensure the survival of their families, and the burdens they bear.

Women produce between 60 and 80 percent of food in developing countries, and they hold the key to tackling hunger and malnutrition. A woman’s nutritional status is critical not only to her own health but also to her ability to work, and her ability to ensure that her children are properly nourished and healthy.

Nkhotakota has suffered from recurring drought and flooding, and the people here know the consequences. “As a woman, it hurts to see my children cry with hunger” says Grace Kalowa from Thondo village. “It’s more painful as a mother to tell them that I don’t have any food to give them. In their eyes I am supposed to provide for them but knowing that I can’t do anything is heartbreaking. That feeling of desperation is what brought us together as women to drive hunger away from our families.”

Grace is the chairperson of the twenty-member Kathyothyo Women Irrigation Club. They are part of a program run by Concern Worldwide to help poor farmers to tackle hunger by improving their agricultural practices, including irrigation. Having seen the potential of the Kathyothyo Women Irrigation Club to increase the food and nutrition situation in the area, Concern offered to help them find their feet by giving them both the start-up resources, and the necessary training on irrigation.

“We spend most of our time here in the field” Grace told us. “Every member of the group now knows that to defeat hunger, we should be at the forefront of fighting it. Begging for food when we have the resources is degrading. No one would like a repeat of the past hunger experience, and that’s what keeps us going.”

For the first time in many years, Biacha Jefuri, a member of the group, has managed to harvest twice in one year. She believes that hunger is no longer a problem in her home: “I got five bags of maize after the group shared the harvest. I no longer have sleepless nights thinking about what to eat the next day.”

The group, which now has about 19.7 acres under cultivation, feels they have defeated hunger once and for all.

“I can now see a big change in our lives. Currently, we are harvesting some of our maize and the other crop will be ready in a few weeks time. We have already sold part of the crop and the money has been deposited in our village savings and loan account. Concern taught us how to save money after selling our surplus crop. We use part of the money to lend each other as capital for small businesses. As women, we know that in the household, so many things are needed.”

The Kathyothyo Women Irrigation Club has helped to transform the food situation for families in the region. Tackling hunger requires more than just increasing farm output. But empowering women to take control of their own food production is a vital step. There are many challenges ahead, but Grace now has aspirations for a better future: “Our experience has also taught us that our enemy is hunger and this is what keeps us going.”

Grace’s is not just an isolated story of change. In the past few years, Malawi has made great progress in improving food and nutrition security. This is due to political commitment to prioritize nutrition, including the government’s engagement in the international Scaling up Nutrition movement. It is also due to initiatives such as the Women’s Irrigation Club that integrate nutrition and agriculture. Sustaining this progress will of course require huge commitment and continued effort over the long haul. I know this from my work with Concern in many other extremely poor countries such as Democratic Republic of Congo, Niger and Sudan. I have seen the effects of acute and widespread child hunger, and I know there are no quick fixes. But I’ve also seen the courage of mothers like Grace who sacrifice to feed their children.

As Grace said, “Hunger is our enemy.” We know we can defeat this enemy by investing in interventions that improve nutrition for mothers and children, and that empower women to produce food and earn an income.

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