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23-24 October 1998
Rome, Italy

Women in Food Aid Interventions: Impacts and Issues


This paper was written by Martha Walsh of the
Institute of Development Studies,
University of Sussex, United Kingdom.

Table of Contents


Skills and Assets
Self-confidence and Empowerment
Additional Time and Energy Requirements for Women
Gender Roles and Marginalization

References and Bibliography



In the context of decreased food aid availability, it has become necessary for food aid providers to identify the most effective and efficient means of achieving their objectives, while illustrating the benefits of food aid over other types of development assistance. Targeting women is favoured as a means of achieving the objective of reducing hunger through increased consumption at the household level, particularly among children. It is also seen as contributing to "improving the condition of women", which will, in turn, contribute to reducing hunger and poverty.

This report is an extensive review of academic and programme-related literature, which attempts to document the results and effects of women participating in food-related development activities. It specifically looks at experiences other than WFP’s. This paper is structured around two critical questions:


Why target women in food aid INTERVENTIONS?

Since the seventies, women have been seen as key to ensuring household food security as well as adequate child nutrition. This perception is based on the presumed relationships between women’s role as food producers, providers and carers, and food security. The following discussion examines these relationships and their importance for effective food aid interventions.

A. Women’s roles in the gender division of labour are inextricably linked to household food security and nutrition. Thus food aid should help them meet these responsibilities more effectively.

As income earners, food producers, food preparers and child carers, inter alia, women are heavily involved in ensuring household food security and adequate child nutrition. Women are said to account for 70 to 80 percent of household food production in sub-Saharan Africa, 65 percent in Asia, and 45 percent in Latin America (Quisumbing et al., 1995). In Africa, it is estimated that women contribute 70 percent of all time expended on food production, 100 percent on food processing, 50 percent on food storage and husbandry, 60 percent on marketing and 90 percent on beer brewing (Elias, 1990). Whitehead (1990) suggests, however, that in sub-Saharan Africa, estimates of women’s contribution to food production may be exaggerated, as much food production is joint between men and women.

In addition to production for home consumption, women contribute significantly in cash, including export crop production as well as participating in a range of off-farm income-generating activities (Elias, 1990). This is sometimes characterized as a split between food and cash crops, which is misleading in that food crops may be produced primarily for the market or surpluses marketed. They are also principally responsible for tasks such as collection of water and fuelwood, preparing and serving food, rearing children, and family health care. The extent to which women fulfill these roles to the satisfaction of the household and the community has been seen as a significant determinant of status (Holmboe-Ottesen et al., 1988). Thus food aid should complement women’s work and can indeed be critical in meeting obligations. It is from this understanding of women’s roles that the other reasons for targeting women, explored below, follow.

However, this focus on women’s productive and reproductive roles does not present a complete picture. There are other activities in which women are engaged within the community, so-called "community manager" roles (Moser, 1994). Women in most societies have a role in sustaining informal networks of family and friends, which can prove vital to ensuring food security in the long run by preserving or enhancing one’s resource base as well as political influence in the household and community (Kabeer, 1994). This may entail contributing both time and food to fulfill social obligations (Bennett, 1988).

The involvement of women in community-based activities is seen as an extension of their domestic roles and is usually unremunerated (ibid.). This has led some development projects to exploit this aspect of women’s lives, thus unintentionally reinforcing imbalances, by utilizing women as unpaid volunteers while men are placed in paid positions or positions of decision-making, requiring little extra time (ibid.). For example, in Haiti, in committees created to supervise canteen management, major positions were allocated to men, with women representing only a quarter of the members. Women, on the other hand, were exclusively used as cooks and help in the canteens, requiring hours of work almost every day. Thus, Haitian communities tend to utilize women as free labour while decision-making positions are given to men.

Moreover, generalizations about women’s roles may imply a misleading homogeneity, which fails to account sufficiently for differences in caste, class, ethnicity, skill level, religion and so on, factors that define the ways in which women carry out their socially ascribed responsibilities (Kabeer, 1994). In some societies women may be barred from participating directly in community activities (ibid.). This can have consequences at the operational level. A comparative review of food aid projects in Latin America found that failing to recognize the different resource endowments among women targeted for a group project severely constrained the effectiveness of the intervention (WFP, 1989).

Lastly, a focus on women’s roles begs the question: "Where are the men?". While some societies do maintain a strict division of labour, in other cultures, tasks are performed jointly or sequentially by men and women (Whitehead, 1981). Programmes have backfired when they only consider what women do (Goetz, 1989).

But gender roles are fluid and can change over time and space. In a case study from Uganda, for example, men were seen to assume increased responsibilities in the home to ease the burden on their wives who were contributing economically to the household (Hadjipateras, 1995). This was also found to occur in India (Katona-Apte, 1986). Some studies on household allocation and child nutrition have in fact called for greater attention to increasing the responsibility of men in domestic as well as productive tasks as a means of improving child nutrition and the well-being of the household (Chaterjee, 1988; Elias, 1990; Harriss, 1990; Holmboe-Ottesen and Wandel, 1991; Bruce and Lloyd, 1997; IFAD, 1997).

Through their socially ascribed productive, domestic and "community management" roles, women play a key part in ensuring household food security and child nutrition. Food aid transfers can be effective in assisting women to meet their obligations. However, women also engage in non-food-related activities that demand their time, so that food aid activities may have opportunity costs.

B. Women have a marginal propensity to spend more than men on child welfare provisioning. Thus when resources are under their control they are more likely to benefit children than when controlled by men.

Numerous household expenditure surveys from a variety of contexts show that women are more likely to spend their income on food and child welfare (such as education and health care) while men spend more on personal consumption (alcohol, tobacco and other leisure) and on agricultural inputs (Katona-Apte, 1986; Holmboe-Ottesen and Wandel, 1991; Rogers, 1995).

Women’s income is also found to be invested in foods that produce better nutritional outcomes, as revealed by analyses that link women’s expenditure to child anthropometric status (Haddad and Hoddinott, 1994). In addition, children in the poorest households headed by women have been found to have better nutritional status than those in poor households headed by men (Kennedy and Peters, 1992; Kennedy and Haddad, 1994).

The gender differential in expenditure patterns appears to be explained by a number of interrelated factors. It has been suggested, for example, that poor women may lack other investment opportunities. Thus, they spend proportionally more on children and have a greater return on this investment than wealthier women. (Buvinic and Gupta, 1997). Greater nutritional status of children in households headed by women has been linked to the absence of conflicts or negotiations with a male partner over the use of household resources (Buvinic and Gupta, 1994).

Access to and control over resources are influenced by such factors as perceived contributions to the household and differences in power between individual members (Sen, 1989). In Tanzania, for example, women used men’s dependence on their labour to increase their bargaining power (Holmboe-Ottesen and Wandel, 1991). Thus, increasing women’s contributions (in food, for example) should result in increased control of women over the resources they bring in and, in turn, better child nutrition.

Yet this has not always proved to be the case. Harriss (1990) found no association between women wage earners and women’s control over food expenditure and purchase decisions in India. Moreover, Papanek (1990) suggests that the distribution of available resources among a group or community’s members reflects not only power and authority relations but also its consensus about distributive justice and its implicit priorities. Consensus about distributive justice and priorities, however, is closely linked to perceived needs and household survival strategies. As Katona-Apte (1983) states, "If infants and women are not as healthy as wage earners, the effects on the household are not as devastating as when the wage earner’s ability is impaired".

That women sometimes intentionally discriminate against their daughters, thus perpetuating intergenerational malnourishment, can be difficult to understand. However, Jackson and Palmer-Jones (1998) argue that women’s commonly cited altruism and their concern for others may be "a reflection of the extent to which their personal material well-being indeed depends on health of spouses, children and so on". In South Asia, embedded institutional biases against women and girls mean that sons are considered a better investment. Thus cultural norms may dictate that both status and survival necessitate discrimination, when food is scarce.

There is significant evidence that women are more likely than men to spend their incomes on children and household welfare. What is less clear is the extent to which women’s increased contributions of time, money or other resources such as food will directly benefit themselves and, in addition, which of their children. Even if women are given direct access to and control over food for consumption, benefit dilution and unequal distribution may not be totally preventable.

C. Women are more likely to gain control over food resources than cash, thus better ensuring food consumption and household food security.

A number of studies confirm women’s preference for remuneration in food-for-work projects where part payment is cash as a wage and part is in food items rather than cash. In Burundi, wives of men participating in a food-for-work project preferred part of the wage in food as they were responsible for feeding their households (Katona-Apte, 1986). This was also found to be true of women in Guatemala engaged in food for work who preferred to be paid in food items, which they can control, "while men do street corner business and bring in cash" (Bryson et al., 1992).

This is not universally the case, however. In Bangladesh, women labouring on food-for-work schemes actually preferred cash. The reason seems to be that they did not have husbands and could maintain control of money (ibid.). WFP experience in Haiti appears to support these findings. More generally, women are relatively disadvantaged in options for acquiring cash, so that schemes that provide them with some cash income may sometimes be preferred.

The type of food resource distributed may also be important in determining control. Women in Peru told representatives of Oxfam UK/Ireland that they needed "resources to meet the immediate nutritional needs of their families, resources that they could control themselves, and that would support their own role in the household economy". In this case, it was decided to raise guinea pigs, which were not as valuable to men as llamas and potatoes (Gell, 1997).

These testimonies reflect important and related aspects of the gender division of labour. Women have principal responsibility for feeding their families and they may be responsible for growing, storing and controlling separate crops for home consumption while men maintain control over cash crops (Harrell-Bond, 1986).

However, the notion that women control food because they grow and cook it has been challenged. The ability of wives to maintain control over food they grow and store is also linked to their relative position within the household and their degree of decision-making authority. There is also evidence that men can demand food from stores of women’s crops to sell when they run out of cash (Holmboe-Ottesen and Wandel, 1991; Geisler, 1993). In Zambia, when men’s maize crops failed, they assumed control over millet, which had traditionally been a women’s crop (Geisler, 1993). Men can also decide how much food to buy and prepare (Holmboe-Ottesen and Wandel, 1991).

Primarily responsible for feeding the household, women need not only access to, but also control over food resources. However, it is not always the case that food resources remain under women’s control; this may depend on the type of resources and how they are distributed, as well as on household structure and decision-making. Women may be particularly vulnerable to claims on "their" resources during times of stress.

D. Women are less likely to sell or trade food for non-food items. Thus, targeting women decreases leakages, increasing project efficiency and cost-effectiveness.

Women’s participation in food aid projects has been found to yield a higher nutritional return, as food earned by women is more likely to be consumed than food earned by men (Harrell-Bond, 1986; Brown et al., 1994). Women’s identity is often tied to being a good wife and mother. This entails, among other things, ensuring that the family has enough to eat (Holmboe-Ottesen et al., 1988). Selling food would thus constitute a departure from an ascribed identity and may result in being "socially condemned" (Holmboe-Ottesen and Wandel, 1991). By contrast, socializing may constitute an important part of male identity. Selling food by men to enable them to continue socializing may be more accepted or at least tolerated.

Although it is unlikely that leakages would occur from women selling or trading food items for "vice items" such as tobacco or alcohol, benefits may be diluted by sharing with non-intended beneficiaries in the household or externally. Women may, for example, share food provided in supplementary rations as they may find it difficult to deny a portion to other family members. In their roles as community managers, sharing food may be a means of securing support.

Household nutritional gains from women’s participation in food aid activities are likely to be greater than those from men’s participation, as women are less likely to sell food to obtain goods for personal consumption. However, the dilution of benefits cannot be fully prevented as sharing may constitute an important part of women’s roles in the family and community.

E Women, particularly those who head households, are over-represented among the poor and are thus more likely to be food-insecure.

The feminization of poverty has become a major concern in developed and developing nations alike (UNDP, 1995). According to the 1995 Human Development Report, 70 percent of the world’s poor are women (ibid.). The increasingly female face of poverty has been closely linked to a rise in the number of households headed by women, assumed to be the poorest and most vulnerable (Chant, 1997). For example, an analysis of 65 studies conducted across the developing world found that households headed by women were "overrepresented among the poor" in more than half of the cases studied (Buvinic and Gupta, 1997).

Yet, other recent research finds limited evidence to substantiate the claim that households headed by women are always the "poorest of the poor" (Chant, 1997; Kennedy and Peters, 1992; Kennedy and Haddad, 1994; Appleton, 1996). In fact, some studies indicate that some households headed by women are, purely in terms of income, better off than households headed by men. For example, Lloyd and Gage-Brandon’s 1993 (cited in Baden with Milward, 1995) analysis of household survey data from Ghana found that expenditure levels were higher on average for households headed by women than for those headed by men, and the difference was even greater once household size was accounted for. However, women who were household heads worked on average longer hours than their male counterparts.

Using households headed by women as a proxy for the most food-insecure can thus be misplaced. In a recent survey of over 4,000 households in Ethiopia (Clay et al., 1998) no significant difference in net food availability between households headed by men and those headed by women was found; yet households headed by women received more than four times the amount of food aid delivered to households headed by men. Other studiesThey also conclude that children in some households headed by women fare as well, if not better, in terms of anthropometric status and school enrolment than children in households headed by men (Chant, 1997; Kennedy and Peters, 1992; Kennedy and Haddad, 1994; Appleton, 1996).

What do appear more significant are important differences in vulnerability and poverty between different types of households headed by women, which vary between and within countries (Appleton, 1996; Chant, 1997; Kennedy and Haddad, 1994; Buvinic and Gupta, 1997). In Sudan, community representatives identified widows as the most vulnerable among the Dinka population. This was "not because they were widows per se, but for having limited access to cattle, which traditionally comes through marriage and not having access to support from the brothers-in-law whose traditional social obligation seems to have broken down" (Aidan Timlin, cited in Voutira, 1995). In this respect, gender sensitivity without cultural knowledge is ineffective (Voutira, 1995).

Certain categories of households headed by women, under specific conditions, may indeed be the most vulnerable, but this needs to be assessed on a case-by-case basis. Thus targeting women because they head households, without further analysis, may not be an appropriate mechanism for identifying and directing resources to the neediest in a population. With regard to de facto women heads, where a spouse has migrated for work, the regularity of remittances has been found to be a key determinant of vulnerability (Chant, 1997; Appleton, 1996). Moreover, it has been argued that by focusing on households headed by women, the poverty of women within households headed by men, still the majority, may be underemphasized. More accurate targeting would consider the range of factors that interact with headship and gender in determining vulnerability and the need for special assistance.

The case for targeting women with food aid is motivated by several assumptions about intrahousehold roles and relationships. The literature surveyed provides support for these assumptions. However, it must be emphasized that findings are context-specific and the following generalizations cannot be applied uncritically in all contexts.1

These observations suggest that there are significant gains from targeting women, and specifically from delivering food resources to women, if improved household food security and child nutrition are important goals and objectives of project interventions. However, while there is evidence for the increasing "feminization of poverty", the view that households headed by women are poorer and more vulnerable or food-insecure is not generally supported and must be investigated on a case-by-case basis.


What are the positive and negative impacts of targeting women?

A policy of targeting women carries with it implications for the household, children, and women themselves, which reach far beyond food consumption. This section explores some of the observed or potential side-effects of targeting women with food aid.

Skills and Assets

Food aid projects aim to leave beneficiaries with more than food. Transferral of skills and the creation of community assets are two additional benefits that may be derived from food aid projects, such as food for training and food for work.

Food aid has the potential to create assets, largely through labour-intensive food-for-work programmes, in addition to increasing food availability. The key questions are: who are the direct beneficiaries of the assets created and who controls them? It has long been argued that projects that target women should result in the creation of assets which are of direct benefit to them, such as health clinics and boreholes (Bryson et al., 1992). In addition to facilitating their daily lives, asset creation for women by women is also a recognition of the importance and difficulty of their many responsibilities. There appears to be little empirical information on projects that have undertaken such tasks. However, in Tigray, Ethiopia, the Employment Generation Scheme now has a policy whereby food-for-work projects must result in projects of direct benefit to women (DPPC, 1997).

With regard to training of women, however, there are common biases (which also feature in other development programmes) that have negative impacts on both women and household food security. First, the extent to which skills transfer through food-for-training or food-for-work programmes constitutes long-term benefits for women is determined by the type of skills women learn and their marketability. All too often training for women is concentrated in gender-typed, low-wage activities. Katona-Apte (1986) found that food-for-training programmes targeting women did not improve their lot, since the skills acquired did not enable them to generate much income.

Second, the skills and knowledge that women already possess in their various capacities are seldom considered or appreciated (Trujillo, 1997). For instance, women’s knowledge of crop and seed varieties, and diverse uses of agricultural products, which could be vital for improving the food security of the household, may be bypassed or undervalued. Moreover, few women are found in technical, supervisory or management positions on food aid projects, also testifying to an apparent unwillingness to challenge pre-existing norms about appropriate roles for women (Baden, 1997; Bryson et al., 1992).

Food aid has great potential to deliver significant additional (non-food) benefits to women in the form of skills transfer and community assets, especially through food-for-work activities. This potential is not fully realized, however, if skills transferred are low-level and inappropriate, or when assets created are not useful to the women themselves. Stronger efforts should be made to link the benefits of assets created through food aid projects directly to the expressed needs of women participants.

Self-confidence and Empowerment

The importance of raising the self-confidence of women is not to be underestimated. It can contribute to their bargaining power within the household and their capacity to articulate demands there and in the community at large. This may serve to offset aspects of disadvantage and vulnerability experienced by women.

Some reports have indicated that self-confidence among women is a key element in the overall food security situation (Baja, 1989). In Ethiopia, food-for-work projects that involved men and women working side by side on a community project earned women a new measure of respect from the community, improving their status and raising their self-esteem (Byron, personal communication). In Latin America, women’s participation in food-aided mothers’ clubs was reported to result in increased solidarity and self-confidence among women, which enabled participants to express their concerns at the community level and to "service and be serviced by their communities through group action" (WFP, 1989).

However, it is unclear to what extent increased self-confidence gained through participation in food aid projects translates into "empowerment". Defining and measuring empowerment is difficult and controversial (Oxaal with Baden, 1996). Recent studies on rural credit for women have attempted to identify a range of indicators to measure empowerment, including mobility, family life, decision-making, assets, political involvement and awareness (Hashemi, Schuler and Riley, 1996, cited in Oxaal with Baden). If it is assumed that women and female children are the worst off, it is unlikely that gaining access to food income alone will in itself improve their standing (Voutira et al., 1995). Gaining access to food resources may be a necessary condition for improved status, but it is certainly not a sufficient one. In Haiti a gender study on agriculture food-for-work schemes found that imposing gender equity, when equity was not requested among management committees, would result in the obligation for women to provide favours to male community management members (communication with WFP Haiti Office).

The process by which women become involved in food aid interventions has been seen as is significant in terms of resulting empowerment. In Malawi, women were reportedly unable to utilize food aid in a way that fostered their empowerment, because they were not sufficiently involved in the various levels and stages of the project as equal partners (Cammack, 1996). Projects that involve women in all phases of the intervention, as participants and beneficiaries, acknowledging their abilities, are more likely to yield greater long-term gains for women’s status. Excluding or minimizing the participation of participants or beneficiaries can undermine a project’s success.

Empowerment of women is an extremely important potential benefit of food aid interventions. Women need to be as fully involved as possible in all stages of a food aid project in order to maximize such benefits.

Additional Time and Energy Requirements for Women

Women’s days are much longer than men’s, as illustrated by numerous cross-cultural time allocation studies (see examples in McGuire and Popkin, 1990; UN, 1995; UNDP, 1995). One of the potential dangers in targeting women for any type of project is adding to their already excessive workloads. For example, the collection of food rations may take women away from other tasks, including food production, child care and income generation.

There has been much debate on whether increasing women’s time dedicated to productive activities has negative implications for child health. However, analysis of 50 studies on women’s work and infant feeding practices found no clear correlation between an increase in women’s productive activity and a decrease in child nutritional status (Leslie, 1988). In fact, some reports have found a positive link between work performed by mothers and child nutrition (Leslie, 1988; Senauer, 1990). Thus women’s participation in food aid projects may not necessarily have a negative impact on children’s nutritional status. Indeed, it has been suggested that the income-transfer effect of food aid could be sufficient to free women from extra work for wages, thereby creating more time for child care or leisure (Katona-Apte, 1986).

The type of food provided can either increase or decrease women’s burden. In Mozambique, women were provided with rations of beans and maize. Beans have a lengthy cooking time necessitating additional fuel and water collection, while grinding maize is both labour-intensive and time-consuming. Women reported spending four to six hours of their day pounding the maize using a mortar and pestle as there were no grinding mills in the area. Had maize meal been provided, the women’s workload would have been considerably lightened (Murungu, 1995). A similar situation was found in food aid projects in Malawi (Cammack, 1996).

Because of the implications for child health and home food production, the demands projects may make on women’s time have been much debated. There has been less discussion of the impacts of projects, particularly labour-intensive public works, on women’s own health and well-being. Recent research has highlighted the physical impacts of gender-differentiated labour-intensive tasks. For example, women have been found to be more prone to muscular and skeletal injury from carrying water, or indeed heavy sacks of food (Sims, 1997, cited in Jackson and Palmer-Jones, 1998).

Without depriving women of opportunities, or reinforcing stereotypes, food-for-work project planners need to consider the physical impact of activities on women’s health. Targeting those already malnourished to engage in high-energy expenditure, physically demanding tasks would seem counterproductive in terms of improvements in nutritional status.

There are real concerns about the possibility of overburdening women who may already be fully employed in domestic and other work with requirements to expend additional time and energy in acquiring food aid. This concern is raised most frequently in the case of food-for-work projects. However, the literature is inconclusive on this. The evidence shows no clear link between women’s participation in productive activities and the nutritional status of their children.

Gender Roles and Marginalization

Where food-for-work programmes offer women the opportunity to break into male-dominated activities, this creates a shift away from traditional gender roles. However, there is a risk that targeting women for work and food may reduce men’s contributions to household expenditure. Osmani (IFAD, 1997) found, for example, that women targeted for a food security project in rural Asia saw their workload increase and benefits decrease as their husbands spent less time working and more time drinking.

On the other hand, targeting women in their traditional roles may have the effect of contributing to their marginalization from mainstream development in two ways. First, it focuses on domestic chores, which have no market value. Second, food aid interventions, particularly food for work or food for training, target women who are assumed to have been "crowded out" of other opportunities, if indeed these exist. It has been recognized that targeting women may be a necessary stepping stone to a more mainstream approach (Gell, 1997; WFP, 1987).

Different food-for-work activities have complex implications for women, sometimes reinforcing "traditional" gender roles, sometimes enabling women to move into new (even male-dominated) activities. It is important to recognize that women’s subordinate roles can be reinforced and that women may face resentment or reduced contributions to the household from their male partners when they participate in development activities such as food-for-work projects.

In summary, food aid projects often benefit women by transferring skills to them, extending traditional gender roles, transferring resources and creating assets that facilitate their daily tasks, and by increasing their self-confidence, with implications for their status and influence in the household and wider community. These benefits are not, however, automatic but require specific efforts. The balance of evidence available suggests that such efforts are not made on a sufficiently consistent or systematic basis.

Negative impacts can also result from food aid interventions targeting women. These are: demands on women’s time and energy that are not compensated by the resources transferred, with potentially negative effects on nutritional status and well-being; and the marginalization of women from mainstream development activities through the creation of separate projects that target women mainly in their domestic roles. Again, these are not inevitable outcomes, but can be prevented through consultation processes, and thorough gender analysis.


The literature surveyed and the many case studies cited support the assumptions that are often made by food aid providers: targeting women with food aid is a particularly effective means of achieving the objective of reducing hunger, particularly among children, through increased consumption at the household level. The literature suggests that, if improved household food security and child nutrition are the desired goals, significant gains can be made by targeting women and delivering food resources to them. However, there is increasing evidence that households headed by women are not necessarily more food-insecure than other households. Their automatic use as a proxy for the most vulnerable can be misplaced, and targeted food aid interventions need to bear this in mind.

The review underlines the issue of intrahousehold relationships and inequalities, and how these can affect the outcomes of targeting food aid to women. Inequalities within the household may mean that women do not benefit as much as they could through the provision of food resources, even if their household as a whole benefits. Moreover, it is clear that in many households not all children benefit equally when mothers are targeted with food aid resources. The sometimes contradictory results of different interventions in terms of their direct impact on women and children suggest that the socio-cultural context is all important.

The literature points to a number of lessons to be learned regarding both the positive and negative impacts of targeting women with food aid. Improved child nutrition, the potential to increase self-confidence and the creation of women’s skills and assets have been documented. However, although food aid has great potential to deliver significant additional (non-food) benefits to women, this potential is not always realized. Faulty project design and a lack of understanding of men’s and women’s roles and relationships are often the reason. In order to avoid negative impacts such as the overburdening of women and the reinforcement of "traditional" gender roles, possible unwanted consequences need to be understood and considered in advance.

Although it is not possible to identify generic conditions for targeting women to achieve the best results, the literature has helped to bring out issues and questions to be addressed before determining targeting strategies. The sometimes conflicting evidence serves to highlight some of the trade-offs inherent in various interventions, and planners need to recognize these to meet short-term and long-term objectives and link them effectively. An example of this is the desire to increase the participation of women in activities without increasing their workload in ways that affect them negatively.

A gender approach to food security and food aid may nuance some of the assumptions underlying the targeting of women and help prevent some of the adverse outcomes. Gender analysis and gender-aware planning, which increasingly are being carried out by food aid providers, need to be implemented more thoroughly. The relations and interaction between men and women are critical elements that have been underappreciated.

1 There is a vast huge literature on gender and household issues and a variety of models have been developed which attempt to situate gender relations in the context of the household. For a review see Kabeer (1994).


References and Bibliography

The table above is a schematic presentation of some of the issues raised in sections 1 and 2, drawing out from these where targeting women may be appropriate and where it may not. It is important to note here that decisions could not be taken about appropriate targeting without a prior ‘gender analysis’ of the situation, touching, inter alia, on the roles and activities, relative time and energy inputs, and relations between women and men, as well as children, in a given community.

To complement this table, the checklist below suggests questions to explore in an effort to draw out critical information which could be used to inform targeting decisions.

Approaches to targeting womento targeting womentargeting women

The inappropriateness of a blueprint here also relates to the fundamental question: do women want to be targeted? This and the questions presented in the checklist are best answered in the community of the proposed intervention. Community-oriented, participatory planning has been seen to be both more developmental and gender-sensitive (Voutira 1995:21). A ‘community contract’ would entail exploring reasons for food insecurity, and what has changed so that the traditional division of labour is no longer able to provide sufficient food for all. This process offers the potential for, and indeed may require, gender issues to be raised (Bryson et al 1992 :19). It also creates space for ‘community consensus on actions needed to alter the current role division -so that all might eat-could then emerge. Food commodities would serve as leverage, catalyst, and a process initiating input’ (ibid.). However, it is important to allow for potential conflict within communities and resistance from particular social groups to changes in the patterns of distribution of resources; in all cases the views and priorities of women should be sought, if necessary, separately from those of men.

The case study of food insecurity in the Sudan, presented below, illustrates the importance of community involvement in determining when women should be targeted and how.

Objectives and Interventionsand InterventionsInterventions

In the case study, targeting women was essential to achieve the objective of reaching the most vulnerable in the food insecure area. Thus a standard food aid intervention (direct distribution in this case) was tailored to the prevailing conditions in order to meet that goal. The process through which the project was implemented (i.e. community participation) had the knock-on effect of enabling the involvement of women in decision-making, distribution and monitoring thereby addressing some of the gender inequalities in the society. As such, it created a positive link between short-term objectives of addressing hunger to long term objectives of enhancing the position of women in society. Short-term and long-term objectives are not necessarily complementary but may entail conflicts and trade-offs. Who is targeted, when and through what interventions, may either lessen or exacerbate conflict in different situations. The following section looks at specific interventions which target women with food aid, food for work and supplementary feeding programmes. It explores the extent to which targeting women can achieve immediate objectives of ending hunger and malnutrition, what the trade-offs are, and where there are alternatives.

Food for Work for Work Work

Labour-intensive public works projects have targeted women both administratively and through self-selection. In addition to supplying food necessary for immediate household consumption, targeting women in food for work has the potential to produce longer term gains for women by recognising and/or expanding their skill base, creating useful assets, and raising their profile in the community.

However, it is necessary to reflect on conditions on the ground before implementing a policy of targeting in order to meet short-term and long-term objectives. For example, in the lean season food deficits are at a peak. Simultaneously, it is the most labour intensive, particularly for women. Seasonal food for work programmes could help to make up the difference in food supplies and prevent the family from going hungry. However, as malnutrition, particularly among women, is found to be the highest during this period, productivity can be expected to be low and the food rations accompanying the work may not compensate for the additional energy expenditure. Women are unlikely to forgo other work when employed on food for work programmes that would then constitute additional burdens on their already long days.

A food for work project in Ethiopia tried to address this by allowing women to arrive up to an hour late for work and leave an hour early. However, this provision was largely ignored (Byron, personal communication). Targeting women for labour-intensive food for work programmes thus may achieve the objective of increased household food intake but may also have long-lasting deleterious effects on women’s health which will in turn impact on their capacities in productive and reproductive activities (Bryson et al 1992).

Interesting alternatives to labour intensive public works projects have emerged out of recent evaluation reports. In an assessment of food security in Malawi, Cammack (1996) suggests paying people to work on their own fields. While the benefit will only accrue to the beneficiary households rather than to the community as most labour intensive projects do, the immediate objective of decreasing hunger will have been satisfied. Moreover, it would enable beneficiaries to concentrate on their own production, possibly increasing yields for the future. This would also address one of the possible disincentives of food for work which is the neglect of a household’s own crops to participate in food for work (Bryson et al 1992:19). Here it would be important to determine the gender division of labour in terms of tasks and time on crop production. Where women are largely responsible for the production of food crops, paying women to work on their fields may enable them to eliminate the double duty. Cammack (ibid.) also suggests that families may wish to divide food for work duties according to workloads, and that men and women could arrange for alternate receipt of food payment.

Similarly, Voutira et al (1995: 35) propose that men be targeted with food for work to collect fuel and firewood. This is a more radical suggestion, but could yield numerous benefits. Although it has yet to be piloted, it has the potential for reaching the short-term objective of increasing consumption (the caveats highlighted in section 1 notwithstanding) while equalising the burden of work, freeing up women to dedicate more time to production, child-care, and other activities. As the previous section noted, men are willing to move beyond gender stereotypes when they perceive advantage in doing so. Oxfam is currently experimenting in Peru with food security programmes that target women through income generation but also actively involve men (Oxfam 1997).

Another maximising intervention targeting women which is suggested by Cammack (1996) is to use food for work to pay for child-care groups. Again, pressure on mothers can be reduced and the likelihood of children being adequately cared for would presumably increase if there is compensation, particularly in food, so that minders do not lose household food stocks to their charges. This approach was also recommended in an evaluation of a food for work scheme in Ethiopia, as other efforts to accommodate women’s childcare responsibilities had failed (Byron, personal communication).

It has also been suggested that food for work projects aimed at reducing seasonal hunger commence in the off-peak season, with delayed payments which could see the household through the lean period (Chatterjee and Lambert 1989:21). Here, targeting women may be more reasonable, but the constraints and obligations they face are only lessened and do not disappear. Again, it may be possible to design an intervention in which both partners in the household take part and share responsibility.

Maternal and Child Malnourishmentand Child MalnourishmentChild Malnourishment

While food for work projects are aimed at ending hunger by increasing consumption within the household as a whole, it has been established that all members of the household are not likely to be equally hungry. Women and children are assumed to be most nutritionally at risk. Targeting pregnant and lactating women and children under five represent efforts to address the intergenerational cycle of hunger, as women’s health during pregnancy is a key determinant of the health of the infant and nutritional intake among under fives is linked to stunting and wasting (WHO 1997:9).

Supplementary and Therapeutic Feeding

Supplementary and therapeutic feeding programmes are interventions designed to target ‘at risk’ members within the household. Supplementary feeding may either be administered on-site or through take-home rations, while therapeutic feeding normally involves residential rehabilitation treatment. On-site feedings are known to lead to substitution while take home rations commonly result in sharing (Bryson et al 1992:15; Rogers 1995; WHO 1997). There are debates, however, as to whether these consequences are necessarily negative.

In Haiti, 77 percent of participating mothers were sharing food supplements among the family. A report on the project noted that ‘Although sharing may be seen as leakage in a targeted programme, it must be recognised also as a benefit to the family’ (Beaton and Ghassemi 1982 in WHO 1997:20). The income transfer effect of both take home rations and substitute feeding can be significant in a household’s overall food security situation. While the objective of an intervention may be improved nutritional status of children, ‘focusing exclusively on nutritional status of a target child, however, completely devalues any effects of the program on the nutritional welfare of other household members, as well as non-nutritional welfare effects of the increased level of household resources resulting from an intervention’ (Rogers 1995:201).

These realities place individual needs at odds with those of the overall household and highlight trade-offs between the corresponding immediate and long-term objectives of food aid interventions. While sharing and substitution may benefit the household in the long-run, the loss to women and/or children targeted may not be recoverable. Thus efforts to reduce leakages have included providing baby food that no other family member will eat, prescribing food as medicine, and doubling the take-home ration to compensate (Bryson et al 1992:16; Rogers 1995; WFP 1997 para 29). A study in Chad revealed that children targeted in on-site feeding programmes gained more weight, although more children dropped out than with take-home rations. However, under the take-home system, ‘not only was the weight gain well within the range of gains... but maternal involvement was higher and the cost was lower’ (WHO 1997:13). In Malawi, a therapeutic feeding programme which admitted children for a 42-day rehabilitation period allocated food commodities to the child’s family so that the mother and child could remain in the rehabilitation unit (Cammack 1996:51). This approach recognises the opportunity costs involved in targeted feeding programmes, both for women and for households.

Further trade-offs entailed in such programmes may be the health and well-being of other household members if women are obliged to transport children or themselves for regular feedings or to collect rations in locations distant from their homes. Distance may also be a disincentive even when other objectives in the programme are increased, such as utilisation of maternal and child health care facilities (WFP 1997). This may be an area in which to experiment with targeting men to strengthen their role assuring the nutritional status of their children.

Health and nutrition are of course inextricably linked. Where access to health and sanitation facilities are poor, even the impact of food aid interventions which do reach intended beneficiaries may be limited. The higher prevalence of malnourishment among women and girl children has been associated with socio-cultural norms which result in both inadequate nutritional intake and disadvantaged access to health facilities. In this respect, food aid alone cannot guarantee long-term nutritional gains among women and children. Rather, this must be addressed by multi-pronged and integrated interventions, of which food supplements can play a part.

Education is critical. However, the emphasis on imparting proper nutritional knowledge among women through supplementary feeding programmes assumes a lack of awareness among mothers when, in fact, their feeding practices may be a product of cultural norms and/or time constraints. Here again is an important area in which to increase the participation of men. As pointed out by the Red Cross in Mozambique, educating men in matters which are associated with women is critical in life and death matters, such as family planning and vaccinations for pregnant women, as men took the decisions on these issues (Murungu 1995).

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