26 January 2014

Africa: Now That's How You Choose a Husband!


Erin Law is a health officer for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) in southern Africa. On a recent visit to Zimbabwe, to support an emergency appeal launched due to food insecurity, she spoke to a group of women about the impact of not having enough to eat.

"That's how you choose a husband!" The woman, with her broad face and commanding tone slapped her thighs, while the younger women laughed behind her. I leaned back on a straw mat and laughed with them.

Sitting with these women for two hours under the shade of a thirsty tree, with children scrambling around us, I started to understand what it means to be food insecure.

In theory I knew. Assessments reported food insecurity was expected to affect 2.2 million people in Zimbabwe over the peak hunger period this year. But statistics say nothing about what it means to experience chronic food insecurity. The women's voices were my window into what it means to live with the burden of not knowing where your next meal would come from.

There are the immediately obvious effects of food insecurity. The women described how everyday they decide as a household which meal they would eat - breakfast, lunch or dinner. They often feel tired. Their children get sick. They spoke about how some people in their community who are on medication for HIV stop taking it because it is difficult to stomach without food, their health worsening. In a country where around 15 per cent of adults are HIV positive, this is a very real concern.

Then there are those effects that might not be immediately obvious. They spoke about how food separated their families, as men were forced to move work to buy food that seemed to be ever increasing in price. "My husband moves away from me to find work. We spend our time apart."

As the need for food increases, social dynamics are changing. One young woman, recently married and nursing a baby, complained she didn't have enough breast milk. She said that she got married because her husband could give her two meals a day. The other women smiled knowingly and nodded in affirmation, "A man who can give you two meals a day is a man you want to keep."

The broad faced leader of the group stared back me and laughed at how obvious it was. In these hard times, how else would you choose a husband?

The IFRC and the Zimbabwe Red Cross Society have launched an emergency appeal for 805,279 Swiss francs, to support 10,500 of the most vulnerable people in Gwanda, southern Zimbabwe with immediate food assistance. The operation is targeting pregnant women, child-headed houses and the unemployed. Implemented over seven months, the appeal will also support people with longer term activities, such as learning improved farming techniques so they can better prepare and adapt to future disasters.

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