Women hold the key to a world with zero hunger

Elisabeth Rasmusson. WFP/Rein Skullerud

Elisabeth Rasmusson.
WFP/Rein Skullerud

In an editorial originally published in The Guardian Sustainable Business Partner Zone, Elisabeth Rasmusson, World Food Programme assistant executive director for partnership and governance services, tells how the WFP is working alongside companies such as Unilever and DSM to invest in and promote the important roles that women play in eradicating world hunger.

On International Women’s Day we should remind ourselves that as both producers of food from the soil and providers of food to the family, women hold the key to nourishing the next generation. Whether it is our response to a disaster like last year’s Typhoon Haiyan, providing food assistance to refugees fleeing Syria, or while helping to build resilience among communities farming the marginal lands of the Sahel region of West Africa, women and girls are front and central in our minds.

Every year, WFP provides special nutritional support to around 3 million vulnerable women, improving their health and the survival rates of their children. Our school meal programmes provide free school meals to around eleven million school-age girls, encouraging them to stay in education, and helping them to focus on their lessons.

WFP is also working with women smallholder farmers as part of “Purchase for Progress,” a pilot programme that helps farmers build capacity and connects them more directly to markets. In significant ways, all of this work empowers women – both young and old – and boosts our efforts to end hunger.

WFP is proud of its work supporting women and girls, but we are also acutely aware that we could – and should – be doing so much more. There are around 842 million hungry people in the world and in most years we reach around 10% of this number, particularly the most vulnerable caught up in sudden onset natural or human-made disasters.

Currently, we are sharply focused on how we can reach more people and strive further towards the UN Secretary General’s Zero Hunger Challenge. This identifies five areas including improved access to food and improved nutrition that can help us to eliminate hunger.

As we work towards the objectives set out in the Zero Hunger Challenge, we recognise that no single organisation – however committed it is, and however deep its pockets – will be able to help the world reach these goals on its own. Working in partnership with other organisations can help to mobilise more of the resources and engage more of the expertise that are vitally needed if we are going to get closer to zero hunger.

Many of our partners, whether governments or in the private sector, also support a women-focused approach. There is recognition that those who make household purchasing decisions are more likely to be women, and support for women-focused programmes is more likely to resonate with this demographic. Put simply, women consumers in donor countries recognise the value of humanitarian programmes that help the women who are themselves the primary producers and providers in many developing countries.

WFP’s partnerships with companies such as Unilever and DSM, the Netherlands based nutrition and science company, focus sharply on programmes that improve access to nutritious food for women and thereby improve the chances that the children these women bear will have a better chance in life.

WFP engages ultra poor rural women and men in the planning and building of assets that increase their communities' resilience. Photograph: WFP/Rein Skullerud

WFP engages ultra poor rural women and men in the planning and building of assets that increase their communities’ resilience.
Photograph: WFP/Ranak Martin

In Bangladesh, Unilever has invested more than $800,000 in programmes to improve the nutritional health of pregnant and breastfeeding mothers as well as supporting a free school meals programme that is reaching more than 47,000 children – many of them young girls. Under its “Improving Nutrition, Improving Lives” partnership, DSM is providing its expertise to help WFP improve the nutritional value of the food it distributes in the form of micronutrient powders and fortified rice.

WFP’s partners know that working with women and girls provides a guaranteed return on investment in the future of the next generation. The first 1,000 days from conception until the age of two years provides a critical window of opportunity to lay a strong nutritional foundation for future life. If we can ensure that pregnant and breastfeeding women, as well as young women of a reproductive age, are properly nourished, then we can stop hunger being inherited by their unborn children.

Empowering women by providing them with the skills and tools to help them produce more from the land they farm is also a critical part of our work with partners like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The Purchase for Progress pilot – which helps farmers to improve yields and connects them more closely to local markets – has helped to train some 200,000 women. In the words of WFP’s executive director, Ertharin Cousin: “Giving women the power to make choices over their lives is one of the first steps towards a world with zero hunger.”

On this International Women’s Day we can reflect on the real impact that partnerships between WFP and the private sector are having, not only the lives of women in developing countries, but also in our broader goals of reaching a world of zero hunger. Working together we can turn that from a dream into reality.

Republished with the permission of the Business Call to Action (BCtA), a global alliance hosted by the United Nations Development Programme Headquarters in New York.


This post does not reflect the views or opinion of the Zero Hunger Challenge, and does not imply endorsement by the United Nations.