(September 2004) Since February 2003, Arab militias backed by the Sudanese government have driven three African ethnic groups—Zaghawa, Fur, and Masalit—off their land in the Darfur area of western Sudan. The conflict has killed as many as 50,000 people and displaced 1.2 million—most to refugee camps in Darfur and neighboring Chad. Other displaced people have joined the rebel groups fighting the Arab militias or have migrated elsewhere to look for work.

But the humanitarian crisis in Darfur now threatens the lives of millions more through malnutrition and starvation. Darfur exemplifies how vulnerable many women in developing countries are to food insecurity.

Darfur: A Silent Struggle for Women and Children

In the wake of the attacks in Sudan, Darfurian women have often found themselves alone, left to care for their children, relatives, friends, and even strangers. Many other women are unable or unwilling to stay in war-ravaged villages: In several of the refugee camps, women now make up about 90 percent of the adult population.1

Stress, lack of food, and dehydration have made many of these women unable to produce milk to nurse their infants and children.2 The situation has contributed to the malnourishment—and even the starvation—of the youngest and most vulnerable of the refugee camp population.

According to a survey by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, four of 10 Sudanese refugee children younger than 5 in Chadian camps are acutely malnourished.3 Children exposed to such early malnutrition are likely either to die or to fail to develop to full physical and mental potential, thus perpetuating an already chronic intergenerational cycle of malnutrition and poverty.

Women Crucial to Food Production, Yet Often Chronically Hungry

Darfurian women and children are not alone in suffering from severe food insecurity. Over 800 million people in the developing world are chronically hungry, including an estimated 185 million children under age 5.

But in times of crises—such as periods of prolonged conflict or disease—malnutrition becomes even more acute, especially among women and children. Cultural practices in many societies mean that women and girls eat last and least.

Ironically, however, women in developing countries are indispensable to achieving food security, defined by the Food and Agriculture Organization as “access for all people at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life.” Women produce more than half of the food grown worldwide. In sub-Saharan Africa, they contribute as much as 80 percent of the labor in agricultural production.

And not only do rural women in developing countries work in the fields—hoeing, planting, weeding, watering, harvesting, processing—but they also undertake the everyday household management tasks of gathering fuelwood, collecting water, preparing and cooking food, cleaning, caring for children and livestock, and engaging in marketing and business activities.

In the best conditions, poor women in developing countries struggle to keep their families safe, fed, and healthy. When a crisis such as Darfur hits, the burden to provide food can become overwhelming.

Food Insecurity and Malnutrition in Africa

Both the number and the percentage of rural households headed by women have been increasing worldwide. But the feminization of agricultural work has become particularly prominent in sub-Saharan Africa, caused mainly by sickness, war, and the out-migration of men to urban areas, and all these causes have led to the breakdown of traditional gender-based divisions of labor. An estimated 31 percent of sub-Saharan households are now led by women.4

The loss of male labor and the inability of female heads of households to hire replacement labor have led to adjustments in women’s cropping patterns and farming systems, resulting in a decrease in production and, in some cases, to production shifts toward less-nutritious crops. In Darfur, thousands of African villagers who have been driven off their land but who are still out of reach of UN food aid now rely on a type of toxic pea known as mukheit.5

Mukheit does little more than fill the stomach, however; it does not provide real nourishment. Even in other parts of sub-Saharan Africa, many women have stopped planting traditional food crops such as beans (which are high in protein and nutrients), replacing them with root crops that are easier to produce but are less nutritious.

Furthermore, women’s access to food and contribution to food production have been severely restricted in many African countries because of a lack of access to productive assets (such as land and technology) as well as to education and health services. A recent World Bank study found that, if women worldwide received the same education as men, global farm yields would rise by as much as 22 percent. Yet women farmers still receive only 5 percent of all agricultural extension services worldwide.

HIV/AIDS and Food Insecurity

The HIV/AIDS pandemic also hampers food security for the African rural poor. An estimated one-third of Africa’s working-age population is infected with HIV, and AIDS-related deaths among the continent’s farm workers threaten agricultural production, most notable in eastern and southern Africa.6

The epidemic has also curtailed women’s contributions to household food security and children’s nutritional status—primarily because chronic illness compromises the ability to produce and access sufficient food. Massive deaths from AIDS in Africa have also intensified hardships for family members left behind. In some African communities, for instance, a woman may lose her access to land and other assets when her husband dies.

Finally, HIV/AIDS deaths in Africa have led to a loss of technical and local agricultural knowledge in many areas. Parents often die before they can pass on generations of knowledge about farming, crop varieties, and tools to their children. As a result, young people are unable to produce their own food or the income to buy it from others, continuing the cycle of poverty, food insecurity, and malnutrition. The epidemic has orphaned 11 million children in sub-Saharan Africa alone.

Women and the Future of Food Security in Africa

In the short term, refugees in camps in Darfur and Chad will continue to be dependent on food aid supplied by the UN, especially as the rainy season sets in and roads become impassable. In the longer term, conflict-resolution mechanisms will have to be put in place and peace realized before there is any significant alleviation of the mass suffering now occurring in the region.

Beyond Darfur, food security in sub-Saharan Africa will be attained only by addressing a broad range of issues: population growth, resource distribution, security, consumption patterns, agricultural production, environmental degradation, socioeconomic status, land ownership rights, HIV/AIDS, and access to credit and health services. All of these issues are central to women.

Improving women’s access to education and health services is especially crucial for maintaining global food security. Better education and improved health contribute to women becoming better decisionmakers and more productive farmers. Furthermore, when women, and particularly rural women, secure property rights and access to finance, they have a better chance of ensuring their own food security.

Finally, research that takes into account women’s concerns and knowledge will help to increase farm productivity and the sustainable management of natural resources. The development of crops that grow rapidly, cook easily, and are higher in protein and other nutrients can also contribute to greater food security and improved health and well-being for African women—and for the continent as a whole.

Melissa Thaxton is a policy analyst in the Population, Health, and Environment Program at the Population Reference Bureau.


  1. United States Agency for International Development (USAID), “Darfur Humanitarian Emergency,” accessed online at www.usaid.gov/locations/sub-saharan_africa/sudan/darfur.html on Aug. 30, 2004.
  2. Emily Wax, “Wells of Life Run Dry for Sudanese,” Washington Post, Aug. 22, 2004.
  3. Basia Tomczyk et al., “Emergency Nutrition and Mortality Surveys Conducted among Sudanese Refugees and Chadian Villagers” (Atlanta: Center for Disease Control and Prevention, June 2004), accessed online at www.cdc.gov/nceh/ierh/research&survey/chad_report04.pdf on Aug. 26, 2004.
  4. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), “Rural Women and Food Security: Current Situation and Perspectives” (Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 1998), accessed online at www.fao.org/docrep/003/w8376e/w8376e00.htm on Aug. 26, 2004.
  5. Emily Wax, “Sudan’s Ragtag Rebels: Ambitions of Darfur Fighters Exceed Resources,” (Washington Post, Sept. 7, 2004).
  6. Roger-Mark De Souza, John S. Williams, and Frederick A.B. Meyerson, “Critical Links: Population, Health, and the Environment,” Population Bulletin 58, no. 3 (2003).