Girls and women risk becoming “invisible” victims of global food crisis

26 January 2023

Girls and women are at greater risk of gender-based violence as a result of global food shortages according to latest research.

Mother comforts hungry baby in Niger.
Mother comforts hungry baby in Ouallam, Niger.

Girls risk becoming “invisible” victims as a combination of the climate crisis, conflict in Ukraine and other countries, and economic shocks have left 50 million people worldwide on the brink of starvation.

Interviews and analysis carried out across eight countries – Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso and Haiti – found that although the exact causes of hunger differ from country to country, there is evidence in almost all that violence against girls and women is increasing.

Rape, intimate partner violence, child, early and forced marriages, sexual harassment and sexual exploitation were all reported by study respondents to be on the rise.

Desperate families try to make ends meet

In Ethiopia, which together with Kenya and Somalia is currently suffering the worst drought experienced in the Horn of Africa in 40 years, external data suggests child marriage has increased by 51% in a year as desperate families resort to marrying their daughters to relieve pressure on household finances or obtain dowry payments.

Girls and women also face sexual and physical violence as they search for scarce drinking water, often travelling 15 to 25km to do so, including at night to avoid crowds.

One woman in Ethiopia who contributed to the study explained: “Traveling long distances at night time is very risky for us, younger girls and women are exposed to sexual violence risks including rape and they are endangered by dangerous wild animals like a hyena, however, mostly we prefer to go to the water sources by night just to avoid the competition and get water.”

Research shows girls eat least and last

The study, called Beyond Hunger: The gendered impacts of the global food crisis, is based on evidence provided by 7,158 respondents through a combination of household surveys, focus groups and key informants, carried out by Plan International and partners.

Across the eight countries, it also found that social norms mean girls and women often eat less and after boys and men in the same household, with profound consequences for their health and development.

Dr Unni Krishnan, Plan International’s global humanitarian director, said: “The world is in the grip of a deadly and escalating hunger crisis. Globally, there are now 50 million people on the brink of starvation. Many of them, including infants and pregnant women, are teetering on the edge of famine.

“While these statistics paint a terrifying picture, they fail to tell us how hunger impacts people differently. Girls, because of their age and gender are often the most vulnerable when food is scarce. They are often the last to eat, the first to be taken out of school, and most at risk of child marriage and other forms of gender-based violence – but this is often overlooked.

“Unless international support is scaled up urgently, countless girls risk becoming invisible victims of this devastating hunger crisis. Hunger is a solvable problem, but urgent action is needed to stop this food crisis from becoming a full-blown famine which will hit children, especially girls, the hardest. Donors need to step up funding.”

Hunger also disrupts education

The report found that hunger is also disrupting children’s education, as school enrolment and attendance drops as food insecurity increases – with girls’ education disproportionately deprioritised. Families report that when children do attend school, they are struggling to keep up with their studies due to being hungry.

Unintended or unwanted pregnancies are also reported by study respondents to be on the rise, as is a lack of access to menstrual health and hygiene supplies.

Plan International has joined the urgent call to donor governments to provide USD$ 22.2 billion to avert the risk of starvation for 50 million people who are on the brink of famine.

We are also calling for funding to be earmarked for child protection, gender-based violence, nutrition, mental health and psychosocial support, sexual and reproductive health and rights, and education programmes.

This includes funding for critical school meals programmes and supporting locally led responses wherever possible.

We are currently providing life-saving support across the eight countries included in the study, including cash assistance, emergency food and water supplies and school meals.