I had an exciting breakfast with a new friend, Kathryn Johnson, a while back. As I was chowing down on a delicious high-calorie pastry filled with ham and eggs, Kathryn handed me a brochure about the World Food Program USA’s Women’s Empowerment Fund. Inside the brochure was a list of ten facts about women and hunger.  These are disturbing statistics.


10 Facts of Women and Hunger

  1. Women make up slightly more than 50% of the world’s population but account for over 60% of the world’s hungry.
  2. Women produce between 60 and 80% of the food in most developing countries, even though they may have less access to land and credit than men.
  3. Women are the sole breadwinners in 1 out of 3 households around the world.
  4. Women in Africa work an average of 50% longer each day than men.
  5. If women had better access to farming land, fertilizers and agricultural training, yields in sub-Saharan Africa would improve by as much as 22%.
  6. Two-thirds of the 75 million children denied access to education around the world are girls. In rural Africa, about 70% of girls do not finish primary school.
  7. Educated mothers have healthier families. Their children are better nourished, less likely to die in infancy and more likely to attend school.
  8. On average, women invest 90% of their incomes into their households, whereas men only reinvest about 30 to 40%.
  9. Nearly 50% of all pregnant women in developing countries are anemic. Iron deficiency causes about 110,000 deaths during child birth each year.
  10. Malnourished mothers often give birth to underweight babies who are 20% more likely to die before the age of five. Up to 17 million children are born underweight every year.

Although I know this stuff happens, as a woman who directly and profoundly benefited from the women’s movement in this country, I am disturbed to see how little progress we have made in advancing women’s circumstances around the globe.


The impact of the womens’ movement

Many years ago, I was told by my pre-med advisor at San Jose State that I should not bother trying to get into medical school because “women just don’t get in – apply to medical technician school instead.” After a few years of grad school at UC Berkeley (no one told me that was hard to get into as well), I decided to apply to medical school anyway.  My first application was rejected so fast that I thought I had forgotten to put postage on the envelope. By the next year when I applied, the women’s movement was in full bloom, and unlike the year before, Deans of Admissions were now overtly vying for their institutions to be amongst the first medical schools in the country to have 50% women.

So I was lucky…I was in the right place at the right time. I got to live my dream of becoming a physician. And I got to train at UC San Francisco, one of the best medical schools in the country. But, right now, in 2010, 50 million girls around the world cannot even get a basic grammar school education. In fact, in some areas of the world, they are violently attacked if they try to go to school.

Women libbers became notorious for insisting that their mates (partners, husbands, etc. etc.) help with household chores – this was the 70’s. Now, men not only cook (and like it) and share in childcare experiences (and love it), they also help clean the house, shop, and miss work to wait for Comcast people to show up (they may not love it, but they DO it).  Men now perform many family-related chores that previously fell only to women.


Great for us, but not for African women

So this is great, but in Africa, women are still working 50% longer each day than men (and this is not household chores with modern appliances, rather this is planting in hot, arid fields, chopping fire wood, fetching water from a pump two miles away, and other types of miserably hard labor).  When these women work outside the home, they contribute whatever wages they earn to meet the family’s needs, but they really don’t own anything.

The physical abuse of girls and women in some areas of the world is horrific.  Girls in Yemen are forced to marry old men – often before they hit puberty.  They are raped and then ostracized if they dare leave their abusers and disclose the abuse.  Mass rapes are occurring regularly in areas like the Congo.  A recent story on the net described an Afghan woman forced to marry a Taliban militia man who abused her.  When she tried to leave him, he cut off her nose. Can you imagine that? And, on a more basic level, women die from health problems easily treated in the developed world, such as iron deficiency anemia, a condition that can be treated for pennies a day.

Women and girls make up a disproportionate share of the hungry and yet we know that when women are educated and empowered, the whole family benefits. In our flat world, the plight of women in developing countries is not just “their” problem, it is our problem.  Failure to get engaged in a solution should be perceived as colluding with the perpetuators of these dire social conditions. Remember the mantra, “if you are not part of the solution, then you are a part of the problem.” If you want to be a part of the solution, consider supporting the World Food Program USA’s Women’s Empowerment Fund: donate, donate, donate, advocate, and, if you can, volunteer to help.

BTW, October 16 is World Food Day – what a great day to do something concrete to end world hunger.

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