Empowering women can lead to solutions for hunger, poverty, report says

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In the fight against worldwide hunger and poverty, a new report found that when women are empowered, everyone wins.

The Bread for the World Institute, which provides policy analyses on hunger and offers strategies to end it, presented the results from its recent hunger report, "When Women Flourish ... We Can End Hunger," in a panel discussion Monday.

The panelists, including directors from several nonprofit groups and other organizations, spoke about ways to support women experiencing poverty and hunger.

"We have made great strides in reducing hunger and poverty around the world, yet women continue to be treated like second-class citizens," said the Rev. David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World, a Christian citizens' anti-hunger lobby that includes the institute. "Progress toward women's empowerment has been slow due to discriminatory laws, unpaid work caring for the family and traditions that demean their capacity as decision-makers."

The main findings of the hunger report indicated that by empowering women and girls around the world, hunger, extreme poverty and malnutrition can be diminished. It stated that women are disproportionately affected by these issues due to discrimination, especially in developing countries.

Victoria Stanley, a senior rural development and land specialist at the World Bank, emphasized the importance of supporting women who work in agriculture, a field in which many poor and marginalized women work.

"We're not going to end hunger in this world if we don't figure out a way to be more productive in the agricultural sector globally," she said. "We can't do that without women, especially since they're 43 percent of the agricultural labor force."

Stanley noted, however, that "there are some very pervasive structural inequalities" that make it hard for women to succeed in agriculture.

"One is access to credit, which is a perennial problem for women (and) access to markets, so being able to get your produce physically to the market but also to ... get the best price for whatever you're producing," Stanley said. According to the hunger report, if female farmers had the same access to productive resources as male farmers, agricultural output in developing countries would increase by up to four percent.

Outside of the labor force, the panelists discussed the social issues that prohibit women from thriving in their communities and "lead to systematic underinvestment in their well-being," according to the report.

Fouzia Dahir, founder of the Northern Organization of Social Empowerment in Kenya, spoke about the prominent cultural structures in her home country that limit women's opportunities.

"Where I come from my role should be ... sitting in the kitchen and taking care of the children and stuff like that, and doing the chores, that is the conventional role of women," she said. "We are still inferior to men, and up to today we cannot ... vote unless your husband tells you that you should vote. So we cannot even make those decisions, let alone any other decision in the household."

As the hunger report pointed out, "when the norm is for women to be excluded from decision-making, then they will have little say over policy formation that is in the best interest of everyone."

Gary Barker, founder of Promundo, an organization that seeks to engage men in advocating for gender equality, said men play an important role in changing gender discrepancies, especially when it comes to women's health.

"We're ... engaging men around getting women to have access to the life-saving services they need in terms of maternal health," such as prenatal visits, he said. "What we're seeing is when [a man is] invited in that process, he is more likely to be supportive [and] she is more likely to get the services she needs.

These types of initiatives, Barker said, expand on "what men themselves already want."

"They often want better for their partners and their children," he said. "So we're trying to tap into that to make that possible."

Asma Lateef, director of Bread for the World Institute, said no matter what issue an organization advocates for, it is essential that they have empowering women as the ultimate objective.

"If you don't have that as an objective you're not going to achieve it," she said. "So, I think, being very clear ... about the goal of empowering women is critical."

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