By Elodie Iko
PORTO-NOVO, Benin, May 24 2023 – This upcoming weekend, on May 28, we are commemorating World Hunger Day. The day serves as a reminder that more than 800 million people around the world are living with hunger and malnutrition. That number is staggering, but there is hope.
World Hunger Day also celebrates the fact that hunger can end. We can create sustainable food systems, to ensure that everyone has access to nutritious and affordable food, both now and in the future.
I see it every day in my role as the Country Director of The Hunger Project-Benin.
So, what does it take? In my experience, the single greatest change that a community can make to end hunger and improve nutrition is a shift in mindset around gender equality.
In Benin, in West Africa, the government has put in place many policies to improve access to drinking water and sanitation, improve healthcare and increase access to nutritious food.
Yet high child mortality and morbidity rates reveal the existence of important underlying factors that catalyze malnutrition, but are generally minimized in policymaking. One of these factors is gender inequality.
When looking at the distribution of resources and responsibilities in the household, particularly between men and women, the negative influence of gender inequality on household nutrition becomes quite evident.
In our patriarchal society, men are seen as the heads of households. They have the social responsibility of making resources available to the household to provide meals. It is expected that women then use these resources to ensure household nutrition.
In today’s world, where the price of food and agriculture inputs has skyrocketed, feeding a family is becoming challenging for many. It is often falling to women to find extra sources of income to guarantee their family has food, though many face barriers like a lack of education, lack of resources and little time due to household tasks, like childcare, fetching water, and tending to livestock.
Though she may be the one closing the gap and ensuring the family has food on the table, in the service of the meal, both in quantity and in quality, priority is given to men. Women usually ensure that others have eaten first.
They then eat what is left, which often does not meet their daily nutritional needs, particularly for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding. Undernutrition and hidden hunger have specific consequences for the health and safety of women and girls, as they increase the risk of life-threatening complications during pregnancy and childbirth, weaken their immunity to infections, and reduce their learning potential. This is how malnutrition becomes multi-generational.
These are the challenges we face in our work to end hunger. They are deeply entrenched societal norms but they can change.
At The Hunger Project, we work with women and men, girls and boys to identify these mindsets and shift them. A proven way to overcome many systematic barriers to a woman’s success has been increased participation by women in local, regional and national legislation as empowered change agents.
So, we work with women to take on leadership roles in the community and raise their voices in public settings to demand change and accountability. Over 38,600 women and 28,000 men in 22 communities in Benin have undergone training in Women’s Empowerment.
Over 3,000 community leaders (about 50/50 women to men) have been trained to conduct THP’s Women’s Empowerment workshops in their communities, guaranteeing that the work to shift mindsets can continue even after The Hunger Project leaves a community.
We also facilitate women’s entrepreneurship and literacy courses, so that women have the agency and confidence to start and manage a business. Since 2008, over 32,500 women have gone through THP training on income generation in Benin. Through these trainings, women are able to increase their incomes to purchase nutritious foods for themselves and their families.
We are working with these local leaders to re-envision the local food system to make it work for the millions of women living with chronic hunger and malnutrition, so that they can break the cycle of malnutrition among women and girls.
This includes working with communities to plant diverse household gardens with nutritious staple foods, investments in infrastructure to process these foods adequately to preserve their nutritional value, and strong local distribution channels that ensure availability of nutritious foods throughout the year.
Women are key to ending hunger and breaking the cycle of malnutrition. To do so, they need an enabling environment around them and a belief in themselves that they can create a future for themselves and their families.
Elodie Iko became the Country Manager for The Hunger Project-Benin, in 2022. She has over 15 years of professional experience in the field of development and management of projects and human resources, with a specific focus on gender and women’s empowerment. Elodie joins the team having worked for Plan International Benin as a Gender and Inclusion Advisor. Prior to that, Elodie worked for The Hunger Project-Benin from 2013 to 2020, first as a gender program officer, then adding inclusive finance, the coordination of the ‘’Her Choice’’ program against child marriage and ”leadership and governance in the epicenters of THP-Benin” program to her responsibilities. Her creativity and collaboration on these and other projects have worked to improve the status and position of women/girls, and thereby, strengthen gender inclusion and equality across Benin.
Founded in 1977, The Hunger Project is a global non-profit organization whose mission is to end hunger and poverty by pioneering sustainable, community-led, women-centered strategies and advocating for their widespread adoption in countries throughout the globe. The Hunger Project is active in 23 countries, with global headquarters based in New York City.
IPS UN Bureau