Developing strategies to end hunger

10 posts from March 2012

Enabling and Equipping Women to Improve Nutrition

Increasing women's economic power is essential to improving nutrition for families. Photo by Laura Elizabeth Pohl.

It’s the end of March and we’re wrapping up Women's History Month. In one sense, every month is Women’s History Month — after all, human history would be a very short story if women weren’t part of it! Women have a history of their own as well. All too often, it involves backbreaking work and limited opportunities. But women also leave a legacy of vital contributions to families, communities, and societies. Part of what we celebrate in March is simply a group -- billions of people strong -- who build and sustain livelihoods and families, sometimes against all odds.

What does gender have to do with policies to end hunger, our focus here at Bread for the World Institute? Our recent briefing paper, "Enabling and Equipping Women to Improve Nutrition," looks at the question more closely. Experience around the world makes it increasingly clear that the short answer is "everything."

Women nurse babies; grow, harvest, and process food; cook meals; plan how to make ends meet;  devise "plan B" and "plan C" if they don't... and more. But around the world, women have less access to resources than men -- a situation that perpetuates hunger. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that if women had the same access to productive resources as men, they could increase yields on their farms by 20-30 percent and reduce the number of hungry people in the world by 12-17 percent.

When women earn additional income and have a choice about how to spend it, they are more likely than men to invest in better nutrition and health care for their children — a finding that holds true in studies on several continents. That's why -- among the many other benefits of gender equity --  children’s nutritional status is better when their mothers have more education.

Women have made progress. Just one sign: many countries are either close to providing universal primary education for girls, or have already reached that milestone. In order to see that there's a long way to go, though, often we need only look at children. For example, among a group of children living in an urban slum in Pakistan, girls were nearly three times more likely to be stunted by malnutrition than boys.

The urgency of reaching gender equity remains after Women's History Month 2012 has ended. Whether it's April, August, or October, less hunger, better nutrition, more productive agriculture, and a host of other social benefits can come from looking through a gender lens.  

  Michele Learner is associate editor for Bread for the World Institute.

Integrated Nutrition Program Works in Guatemala

In our visit to Guatemala, Hunger Report editor Todd Post and I were fortunate to be hosted by Save the Children, who showed us an impressive project that deals with improving nutrition across development sectors.  These programs are called “integrated” in that improving nutrition – particularly in vulnerable groups like women and children – is an important indicator of success in different sectors like agriculture, health and livelihoods.

In response to the drought of 2009-2012 in the eastern “Dry Corridor” of Guatemala, nutrition interventions with a total of 21,867 vulnerable families (131,256 total recipients) helped check acute malnutrition before it became widespread and severe.  Successive crop failures due to drought necessitated an integrated program of food assistance, health and nutrition interventions, women leader education and behavior change communication.

With funding from the PL 480 Title II programs (known as Food for Peace), Save the Children Federation Inc., along with sub-grantee Mercy Corps, responded to the fast evolving food insecurity emergency with a project called “Programa de Seguridad Alimentaria y Nutricional del Oriente” (PROSANO, or the Food Security and Nutrition Program in the Dry Corridor of Eastern Guatemala). In the first year, three of the five departments (regions) of the dry corridor- Chiquimula, Zacapa, and El Progreso were supported.  These areas are in a mountainous area with depleted soils, increasing water scarcity, and recurring agricultural pest disease issues.  161 communities at high risk of acute malnutrition were reached in the first year, and a total of 11,013 vulnerable families who lost their entire subsistence corn and bean crops were served.  The program objective of reducing the impact of the food security crisis in vulnerable households, while simultaneously mitigating and managing future shocks to health, nutrition, livelihoods, and overall food security was clearly met.

PROSANO focuses on three main outcomes: increasing household access to nutritious foods, improving nutritional status of children from vulnerable households, and improving availability of nutritious foods.  Its main beneficiaries have been small children, pregnant and breastfeeding women experiencing or at risk of malnutrition. It delivered pre-packaged monthly food rations of rice, corn-soy blend, pinto beans, and fortified oil.  It also conducted health assessments (weight and middle upper arm circumference measurement), and provided nutrition education as part of the food aid distribution. 

MUAC Guate
Photo:  Scott Bleggi

As an important component to sustain program successes, more than 400 “Mother Leaders” and caregivers have been trained in health, nutrition and hygiene.  Some of these PROSANO participants have been certified by the Ministry of Health to expand their work outside the program, adding potential employment.  Additionally more than 500 “Agricultural Leaders” have been trained in crop and animal production, agro forestry, and family gardens.  Rural family livelihoods have improved by introduction of certified seeds, low cost irrigation systems, worms for compost, and grain storage silos.  Apiaries and laying hens now provide critical nutritional protein to check the advance of malnourishment in children.

Madre Lideres

Photo:  Scott Bleggi

In integrated, cross-sector assistance projects like PROSANO, malnourished women and children were not only provided food aid, but also health education and leadership training as a means to address and sustain household food security, nutrition and livelihoods. Ensuring proper nutrition, especially adequate nutrition in the 1,000 Days window can not only save lives but can set the stage for life-long benefits of improved health, better education, lower susceptibility to chronic disease, and increased economic success.

As Bread for the World Institute continues to critically examine the role of nutrition in the government’s Feed the Future and Global Health Initiatives, we can point to PROSANO as an example of well-considered emergency assistance that correctly focuses on the important role of nutrition in women and children across development sectors.

Scott Blog PicScott Bleggi is senior international policy analyst for hunger and nutrition with Bread for the World Institute.



Maria’s Story—An Immigrant’s Struggle

Labor-intensive agricultural commodities, primarily fruits, vegetables, and horticultural products, account for 35 percent of the value of all U.S. crops. Photo by Laura Elizabeth Pohl/Bread for the World.

Maria works harvesting food for other people, yet struggles to provide food for her family. Learn more about the challenges Maria and her family face daily in the United States in this excerpt of the 2012 Hunger Report

Maria came to Florida para salir adelante—to get ahead. She arrived as a teenager in the mid-1990s, escaping a life of poverty on her family’s Oaxacan corn patch.

Maria and her husband envisioned a future for their family that was out of reach in Oaxaca, one of the poorest states in Mexico. In south Florida, she worked seven days a week filling bins with squash, tomatoes, beans, and cucumbers. Neither of them enjoyed working in the Florida fields, but without papers it’s all they could do. “That’s why we came here—to work,” said Maria, now 34 years old. “In the factories or restaurants they ask for papers, but in the fields no.”

Although their lives were not easy, for years they felt they were moving ahead. But in 2008, the country plunged into a deep recession and agricultural work in Florida grew scarce. “For the past few years, we are working only to survive,” Maria said. To supplement their income, the couple would travel north to plant tomatoes during the Florida off-season. In 2010, Maria couldn’t go because she was pregnant, so her husband went to Ohio alone. The family has not been together since.

Traveling by bus on his way back to Florida, Maria’s husband was stopped by immigration officials and deported to Mexico. “He wants to return, but it’s very difficult,” she said. “They charge $4,000 to $5,000 to cross the border. This is money I don’t have.”

Maria’s husband is now in Mexico working to raise the money to return to the United States, but to earn what it costs is difficult for a laborer without a formal education or marketable skills.

Maria thought about going back to Mexico. For her U.S.-born children, Mexico is an unknown and unappealing destination; they’re American in every sense of the word. Despite Maria’s full-time job, the loss of her husband’s income means that Maria’s daughters, who are citizens, depend on federal nutrition programs to ensure they have enough to eat. Maria herself relies on support from civil society organizations like the Farm Worker Association of Florida. She continues to work in the bean fields. For the sake of her children, she’s going to stay in the United States and hope for the best.

+ Read about other strong women in honor of Women’s History Month in the 2012 Hunger Report: Rebalancing Act: Updating U.S. Food and Farm Policies.


Kate-hagenKate Hagen is Hunger Report project assistant at Bread for the World Institute.




No Water, No Food

Today, March 22, people around the world celebrate the 19th annual World Water Day.

According to the United Nations, the day is meant to “focus attention on the importance of freshwater and advocating for the sustainable management of freshwater resources."

The proportion of people who lack access to clean water has dropped in recent years. Last week, the United Nations announced that the world has met the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) target of halving the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water -- well in advance of the MDG deadline, 2015. Between 1990 and 2010, more than 2 billion people gained access to improved drinking water sources, such as piped supplies and protected wells.

This is a great achievement—and certainly very good news for children. Every day, more than 3,000 children die from diarrheal diseases because they lack access to clean water. Achieving this MDG target and sustaining progress will therefore go a long way toward saving children’s lives.

Nonetheless, the struggle for clean water is far from over. More than 884 million people still lack access to clean water. This is nearly three times the population of the United States.

The U.N.’s 2012 World Water Day events also aim to focus attention on the critical role of water in feeding the global human population.

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) says the world will have to produce up to 70 percent more food to feed a population expected to reach 9 billion by 2050, up from 7 billion now. That will require managing water better, boosting farmers’ resilience to climate change, and reducing the waste of food and water.

The amount of water that agricultural efforts consume is projected to rise 19 percent by 2050, but this figure could be much higher if crop yields and production efficiency don't improve dramatically, warns the latest U.N. World Water Development Report.

Water scarcity already affects more than 40 percent of people on the planet, and two-thirds could be living under water-stressed conditions by 2025, according to the FAO.

A view of the Runge reservoir in the town of Runge, some 60 km (37 miles) north of Santiago. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

"Agriculture has to be more efficient in water use - which means more crop per drop - otherwise the demand cannot be met and we will run into a big, big competition between water for agriculture, water for industrial purposes, and water for municipalities," Alexander Müller, FAO's assistant director-general for natural resources and the environment, told journalists last week at the World Water Forum in Marseille, France.

Strategies to build food security must go hand in hand with solutions for water security and sustainable agriculture. Or more simply: No Water, No Food.

Bonus Bucks at Farmer’s Markets

Marie Crise and her son Lee shop at the Abingdon Farmer’s Market in Abingdon, VA, taking advantage of a “bonus bucks” program with their SNAP benefits to purchase healthy foods at a discount. Photo by Laura Elizabeth Pohl/Bread for the World.

The farmer’s market is important to Marie Crise because of the quality of the food. The Abingdon Farmer’s Market is among the small fraction able to handle electronic transactions. To learn how she provides nutritious food for her son and herself, read this excerpt of the 2012 Hunger Report:

Marie Crise uses her SNAP benefits at the Abingdon farmer’s market. Crise’s situation is all too common. She fled an abusive husband with her 4-year-old son Lee. Currently homeless, they are staying with a relative, using a “couch-surfing” approach until they can afford a room or apartment. Crise is a nursing student at the local community college and she understands how important good nutrition is for Lee at this stage of his life. The farmer’s market is important to her because of the quality of the food.

State and local governments partnering with private industry and nonprofits have tied “bonus bucks” to making purchases at farmer’s markets. Wholesome Wave, a Connecticut-based nonprofit, sponsors an incentive program around the country to encourage SNAP recipients to shop at farmer’s markets, including one in Abingdon, VA. “The incentives get people to the market,” says Sara Cardinale, manager of the Abingdon Farmer’s Market. “We know that people are coming back, so eating habits appear to be changing.”

After deciding how much she wants to spend from her SNAP benefits, Crise purchases tokens from the market’s manager. For every $10 in SNAP benefits that she converts to tokens, she receives an additional $5 to spend at the market. The manager swipes the SNAP debit card through a wireless point-of-sales machine, the same one used to swipe customers’ credit and bank debit cards. 

Over the past decade, the Food Stamp Program/SNAP has made many changes to reduce the stigma once associated with the program. Perhaps the most significant has been the change from paper coupons to an electronic benefit transfer (EBT) card. At the grocery store, customers can access their SNAP benefits inconspicuously, as though they were using a bankcard. The EBT card has reduced the potential for fraud and the use of SNAP benefits for purposes other than food, but unfortunately the card has also made it harder for SNAP recipients to shop at farmer’s markets. Purchases made with SNAP benefits at farmer’s markets have plummeted since the introduction of EBT, because most vendors at the markets still deal in cash only. The Abingdon Farmer’s Market is among the small fraction able to handle electronic transactions.

Farmer’s markets offer an ideal opportunity to strengthen the relationship between U.S. nutrition and farm policy. USDA offers help to farmer’s markets that want to process SNAP benefits, but the technology to do so is expensive—the point-of-sales machine at the Abingdon Market cost $3,000—and the help USDA offers is mostly instructional, not financial. There are government programs that provide benefits for seniors and WIC families to shop at farmer’s markets, but not yet a similar program for SNAP participants. The United States has more than 40 million people receiving SNAP benefits. If the program provided participants with greater incentives to shop at farmer’s markets, markets across the country would have a powerful reason to invest in the necessary technology, while SNAP families would have more incentive to shop at farmer’s markets.

+ Read about other strong women in honor of Women’s History Month in the 2012 Hunger Report: Rebalancing Act: Updating U.S. Food and Farm Policies.


Kate-hagenKate Hagen is Hunger Report project assistant at Bread for the World Institute.




Robin Robbins—From Tobacco to Fruits and Vegetables Farmers



Robin Robbins and her family grow fruits and vegetables on the land where her grandfather grew tobacco. Find out how she helps other former tobacco farmers diversify their crops through Appalachian Sustainable Development in this excerpt of the 2012 Hunger Report:

When Robin Robbins was a little girl, she used to help her grandfather farm tobacco in southwest Virginia and thought she wanted to be a farmer some day, too. Today, she farms a portion of her grandfather’s land with her husband and daughters, but instead of tobacco, they raise fruits, vegetables, and horticultural products. Robbins also has a full-time job as the marketing and sales manager for Appalachian Sustainable Development (ASD), a nonprofit organization formed in 1995 for the express purpose of helping former tobacco farmers to diversify their crops.

This area of central Appalachia was once home to thousands of tobacco farmers, many of whom were living in poverty or near-poverty. The tobacco program was a quota and price support system. Government told farmers how much to grow, and the farmers knew exactly how much they would be paid each year.

ASD partners with 50 ex-tobacco farmers to supply local and regional markets with sustainably grown fruits and vegetables. Anthony Flaccavento, the founder of ASD and a farmer himself, trained his fellow farmers in how to produce these crops so that they meet food safety regulations. “With tobacco there was a tried and true recipe,” says Flaccavento, “one that was supported by USDA extension. But when the farmers began to switch to fruits and vegetables, the extension agents around here had no experience with these crops.” That has changed, according to Flaccavento, who credits the USDA extension offices with getting themselves up to speed quickly. 

Robbins describes ASD’s role as an aggregator. “It doesn’t make sense for one farmer to try to sell five boxes of peppers to a grocery store a hundred miles away. But I combine that farmer’s five boxes with another farmer’s 10 boxes and another farmer’s 20 and another’s 20, and with that kind of volume we can reach markets they’d never be able to get to on their own.”

ASD has an infrastructure to fulfill its orders that is matched by few of the other U.S. regions with burgeoning markets for local and regional foods. ASD has built a $750,000 processing facility where produce is washed, graded, and packed for distribution. Produce leaves the processing facility in one of ASD’s two trucks. On a white board in her office at the processing center, Robbins has drawn flow charts of the routes the trucks take to reach customers. She knows exactly how long it takes for them to reach their destinations in every one of the markets they serve. ASD and its farmers supply major grocery chains like Whole Foods, Kroger’s, and Food City. 

Photo caption: Robin Robbins is the marketing and sales manager for Appalachian Sustainable Development (ASD) in southwest Virginia. ASD has helped farmers who grow tobacco switch to sustainably produced fruits and vegetables.  Photo by Laura Elizabeth Pohl/Bread for the World.

+ Read about other strong women in honor of Women’s History Month in the 2012 Hunger Report: Rebalancing Act: Updating U.S. Food and Farm Policies.

Kate-hagenKate Hagen is Hunger Report project assistant at Bread for the World Institute.



Empowering Women to End Hunger and Poverty

Today, March 8, is International Women's Day. The 2012 U.N. theme for the day is "Empower Rural Women—End Hunger and Poverty."

Around the world, rural women play key roles in supporting their households and communities. They contribute to people’s overall well-being. They work toward food and nutrition security, generate income, and create rural job opportunities. They contribute to agriculture and rural enterprises and fuel local and global economies. There’s no doubt that they are active players in achieving the U.N. Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Yet every day on every continent, rural women and girls face persistent structural constraints that prevent them from fully reaching and enjoying their human potential and hamper their efforts to improve their lives as well as those of others around them.

On average, women make up about 43 percent of the agricultural labor force in developing countries. As I indicated in an earlier blog, evidence indicates that if women had the same access to productive resources as men, they could increase yields on their farms by 20 to 30 percent, raising total agricultural output in developing countries by 2.5 to 4 percent, in turn reducing the number of hungry people in the world by 12 to 17 percent. For rural women and men, land is perhaps the most important household asset. It supports production and provides for food, nutrition, and income security. Yet an international comparison of agricultural census data shows that less than 20 percent of landholders are women. Why? Because of a range of legal and cultural constraints on land inheritance, ownership, and use.

Freeing women from these barriers is a key step towards achieving MDGs such as significantly reducing hunger, extreme poverty, and child mortality. Women should not be seen as only the beneficiaries of development, but as real agents of change with capabilities in leadership, entrepreneurship, and peace building.

 A number of promising recent initiatives recognize the immense contributions of rural women. This is encouraging, but global efforts must be stepped up. Last week, the Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index (WEAI) was launched at the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. WEAI is a policy tool within the U.S. government’s Feed the Future initiative that will be used to monitor and evaluate its programs and their impact on gender. Its purpose is to ensure that Feed the Future efforts are empowering women and supporting the essential role they play in reducing hunger and advancing prosperity.

Bread for the World helped organize 1,000 Days: Improving the Nutrition of Rural Women, a parallel event during the Commission on the Status of Women. At the March 2 event, speakers called for investing in women as key to ending the tragedy of child malnutrition, which costs millions of young lives every year and leaves many times that number with irreversible health and/or cognitive damage. The situation is far from hopeless; in fact, there has been significant progress on child hunger in recent years. Equipping women to grow more food, generate income, and make informed decisions about feeding their children will spur the additional progress that is urgently needed.  

Last week’s release of the U.S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID) Gender Equality and Female Empowerment Policy also comes at a critical time, as global efforts to reduce gender gaps have met with only partial success. Across every development priority worldwide -- from education to economic inclusion -- gender inequality remains a significant challenge. The goal of the new USAID policy is to improve the lives of people around the world by advancing equity between females and males and by empowering women and girls to participate fully in and benefit from the development of their societies. Accordingly, USAID investments will focus on:

  • Reducing gender disparities in access to, control over, and benefit from resources, wealth, opportunities, and services - economic, social, political, and cultural;
  • Reducing gender-based violence and mitigating its harmful effects on individuals; and
  • Increasing the capability of women and girls to realize their rights, determine their life outcomes, and influence decision-making in households, communities, and societies.

Happy International Women’s Day!

The Big News on Poverty

Last week, the World Bank reported some very big news. The percentage of the world’s population living on less than $1.25 a day (the global poverty line) fell from 43 percent in 1990 to 22 percent in 2008. According to the Bank, preliminary figures indicate that in 2010, poverty fell to less than half of its 1990 level. This means the world has met the U.N. Millennium Development Goal (MDG) of reducing income poverty by half—five years ahead of the 2015 deadline.

Global poverty

Following quickly on the heels of this announcement, UNICEF reported yesterday that a key part of another Millennium Development Goal has been met—also five years ahead of the deadline. Since 1990, more than 2 billion people have gained access to safe drinking water. The sanitation component of this MDG lags behind, but it’s truly great news that 2 billion people no longer have to rely on contaminated water.

One of the ready rejoinders to dampen any good news on global development has been, “Isn’t this mostly about China?” Well, yes and no. China and India—the other rapidly- growing population giant—are a big piece of the news, but the development narrative is getting broader.  From 2005-2008, for example, poverty rates fell in every region of the world. That is the first time this has occurred over a three-year monitoring cycle since the Bank started tracking poverty – even though this cycle overlapped with a period of severe economic shocks caused by high energy and food prices.

It’s energizing that progress against global poverty is happening rapidly. Unfortunately, as we turn our attention to the United States the latest news is dismal. According to a recent report by the National Poverty Center at the University of Michigan, an estimated 1.46 million U.S. households lived on income of less than $2 per person, per day in 2011. There were 2.8 million children in those households. Given the cost of living anywhere in this country, what is it like for a family of three to try to survive on cash income of $180 a month?

Catch your breath for a second, because there is a silver lining of sorts. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as the Food Stamp Program, essentially reduced the number of children living on $2 per day by half.

Stacey Dean of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explained in a blog post yesterday why SNAP, more than other anti-poverty programs, makes such a difference to people in extreme poverty: “One reason that SNAP is so effective in fighting poverty is that it is focused overwhelmingly on the poor. Roughly 93 percent of SNAP benefits go to households below the poverty line, and 55 percent go to households below half of the poverty line (about $9,300 for a family of three). One in five SNAP households lives on cash income of less than $2 per person a day.”

I wish the news from the United States were better.  I’ll have more to say in future posts about the incongruities between what’s happening at home and elsewhere in the world.

Constantia and Gustavo—Nutrients and Nourishment

Gustavo with his mother, Constantia, whose persistent dedication to feeding him paid off.

In honor of Women’s History Month, we lift up Constantia’s story.

Constantia’s son, Gustavo, developed normally until he was a year old, but then he contracted malaria. Through sheer persistence, Constantia nursed him back to health with the aid of Plumpy’nut. Learn how one mother fought the cycle of disease and malnutrition—all too common in developing countries-- in this excerpt from the 2012 Hunger Report:

In the Mozambican village of Cobue, Constantia and her family farm a small plot of maize and cassava. They are subsistence farmers who eat what they grow themselves. Most rural Mozambican farmers have neither fertilizer nor formal training in agricultural techniques or management. A hoe and machete are the tools of their trade.

Mozambique is a southern African country of 23 million people, most of whom (81 percent) live below the international poverty threshold of $1.25 per day.

Constantia’s experience with her firstborn child, Gustavo, is all too common here and in other villages around the world where a large share of people are hungry and poor. Gustavo developed normally until he was a year old, but then he contracted malaria. Constantia stopped breastfeeding him out of fear that her milk was contributing to his illness. But this weakened Gustavo’s immune system and he developed other infections that stole his appetite.

As advised by her family and neighbors, Constantia fed him a thin porridge of maize flour and salt. The porridge kept Gustavo from becoming dehydrated, but it also worsened his malnutrition by filling his stomach without giving him the nutrients he needed. He had no appetite and began to refuse all food.

Gustavo then gained some weight back—but this was bad news because it meant his body was retaining water. At 18 months, Gustavo weighed only 17 pounds— including the water weight. His condition, known as edema, put him in mortal danger.

In addition to medical care, Gustavo needed food aid. Constantia brought him to a clinic, where she learned how to feed him a fortified milk formula with a syringe and then did so, every two to three hours around the clock. The formula was specially designed to maximize the toddler’s absorption of energy, protein, and micronutrients.

Gustavo’s appetite slowly returned and finally he could be coaxed into eating solid foods. He was given Plumpy’nut, a high-protein therapeutic food served as a paste. Though he rejected the other protein-rich foods he was offered, Gustavo found Plumpy’nut tasty and he ate it voluntarily. 

Now, a year later, Gustavo is able to eat the same food as the rest of his family. Although his attending physician had suspected he would die, the little boy runs and plays with other children in the village. But the whole family still lives on the edge of hunger.

+ Learn more about the importance of nutrition for women and children in the 2012 Hunger Report’s feature, Women and Children First

Kate-hagenKate Hagen is Hunger Report project assistant at Bread for the World Institute.



Girl in Guatemala

March 8th is International Women’s Day. In the United States, March is Women’s History Month. I celebrate with my colleagues at Bread for the World Institute the progress women everywhere have made against gender discrimination.

Visit almost any developing country, particularly the rural areas, and you will understand why progress against gender inequality also leads to progress against hunger.

The U.N. Commission on the Status on Women is meeting in New York this week and rural women are at the top of the agenda. Ann Tutwiler, deputy director of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), spoke earlier in the week at the meeting, discussing a new FAO report, Rural Women and the Millennium Development Goals. The report shows that rural women lag behind both rural men and urban women in every Millennium Development Goal (MDG) indicator.

The main way that progress on gender inequality is measured in the MDGs is by progress toward parity in female and male primary school enrollment. By that measure, the world looks to be making terrific progress, with 96 girls attending school for every 100 boys.

Educating girls is crucial to achieving long-term development gains. But I’m also concerned about the short term. Progress on gender inequality is still slow—too slow, as I realized a few weeks ago in Guatemala.

Gilma is a five-year-old girl, an adorable child whom I can’t shake from my thoughts. She lives in a village that’s precariously on the edge of food insecurity in the best of times, and in more challenging times, children like her are at grave risk of hunger. Last year there was drought in her region of the country. Without the U.S. food aid the villagers received, children there could have died of malnutrition. That almost happened to Gilma. 

She has four siblings, all of them boys, and that means she and her mother eat last and there is often nothing left. In November, Gilma was suffering from a condition known as “severe acute malnutrition,” or SAM. Her legs were swollen and ulcerated, the way children’s bodies get when they become this severely malnourished. I did not see her this way, but I was shown pictures that were horrifying.

In Guatemala, when a child falls below the SAM threshold, government health officials must be contacted. Gilma was fortunate that Save the Children was administering the food aid program in her village. The organization’s staff contacted health officials, but they didn’t respond directly. Gilma’s village, like many in Guatemala, is far away from and out of touch with the capital. She is alive today only because of the persistence of Save the Children staff members.

Plumpy’nut, the miracle food given to children with SAM, restored Gilma’s health in a matter of days. She is doing much better now. And she is living with her grandmother, so her share of food no longer depends on how much her brothers leave for her.

Before long, Gilma will be going to school. Ultimately, her education may enable her to prevent what happened to her from happening to her daughters. Social norms – such as who eats when -- change slowly. For now, Gilma’s greatest disadvantage is not that she is a poor child in a region where food is often scarce, but that she is a poor girl child there.

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