Violence in the hungry season

Naomi HossainNaomi Hossain

Tackling violence against women and girls is rightly riding high on the development agenda and so too is food insecurity. But it has only been in the last few days, travelling around Malawi at the start of a particularly hungry season, that the direct nature of the causal link between the two has crystallised for me. Tackling violence in poor families and communities must start with protecting people’s – all people’s – rights to food.

Malawi blog 1

A boy playing at the refugee camp near Lilongwe; parents prefer to keep girls this age at home, as young girls are said to be more vulnerable to abuse during the hungry season

How does food insecurity cause sexual- and gender-based violence? I can only tell you what we heard from staff in government and UN agency facilities, including a refugee camp near Lilongwe and from women we met there. The consistency and the clarity of the message were startling: cases of violence against women and girls tend to increase sharply with hunger, and they are currently seeing a rise. Simple as that. Other factors – cultural acceptance, patriarchal privilege, perpetrator impunity, women’s lack of economic power – all matter, but are ever-present background factors, not triggers for the current rise. And after a bad maize harvest, widely attributed to climate change, this looks sadly like being a bumper year for abuse.

It is not immediately obvious why food insecurity leads so directly to more violence, and of course it does not always do so. Nor is it just poor people in Malawi for whom this is true. But two things happen when a family or a community is threatened with (worse) hunger that breed conditions for aggression and abuse. First, facing constant pressure from their children’s suffering, women push their menfolk to do more to secure food. The strains this can put on relationships that are already fraught with the tensions of everyday poverty can be immense. As Alex Kelbert and I argue in a forthcoming paper in the IDS Bulletin on Undressing Patriarchy, food shocks force acknowledgement of men’s inability to provide for their families. Drawing on research from the Life in a Time of Food Price Volatility project, that paper notes that societies tend to share norms about the primary role of men as breadwinners and providers: the inability to perform what your family, community, government and you yourself think is your primary responsibility is a source of profound pain for many men. When the options for providing are so limited, as they are in Malawi as in so many places, the alternatives are to lash out at those nearest, to drown your sorrows, or to leave.

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Vegetable vending on the Blantyre road

The second thing that happens when people go hungry is the urgent hunt for alternatives, including using ‘assets’ they would prefer not to. In Nairobi, researchers in the Life in a Time project heard that when prices go up, young girls are told they ‘are sitting on a food source’ – i.e. they could sell sex if they want to eat. Both boys and girls are said to do so when prices are particularly high in that particular Kenyan community. In the refugee camp near Lilongwe we visited yesterday, people from DRC and Burundi told us they feared letting their 9 year old daughters out of their sight, because young girls were believed to accept sweets and food without understanding what they were giving in return. A camp official said child pregnancy rates had gone up with the worsening food situation there.

It seems pretty plain that if you want to tackle violence in poor families and communities, the starting point must be that people have secure rights to the most basic resources of life. Without that, all bets are off: no amount of awareness-raising and efforts to change men’s behaviour will do much when the very basis of life is threatened, when deeply-held cultural norms about what it means to be a man are dishonoured, and when parents face the constant clamour of hungry children. In such conditions, the miracle is that there is not more violence. This does not excuse violence, but recognises that structural conditions pattern the bad choices of individual men.

The real worry now is that the developed world increasingly treats gender inequality and violence as cultural problems of male behaviour, detached from the structural conditions of increasingly volatile food prices, unpredictable harvests and precarious livelihoods. There is increasing clamour for gender equality, but apparently less support for protecting rights to food, let alone other basic economic and social rights. These things must go together.

Many thanks to Leigh Hildyard for sharing her insights about gender and food security in Malawi.

Naomi Hossain is a Research Fellow in the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS.

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