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USAID’s Sylvia Cabus on the Sahel: “We Help Farmers… and Their Husbands”

This post was originally written by Carley Chavara for NewSecurityBeat.

In the Sahel, one of the most food-stressed regions of the world, “women bear the brunt in terms of coping mechanisms that are employed at the community level,” says Sylvia Cabus, gender advisor for USAID’s Bureau for Food Security, in this week’s podcast.

Women are the traditional guardians of family health and nutrition. But because of this responsibility, they often reduce their own food intake and make unimaginable sacrifices, including selling personal assets and even engaging in sexual bartering to pay for food. They may also take their children out of school or encourage early marriages in order to reduce household size and receive an injection of assets from bridal dowries.

“We are operating in a context of scarcity,” says Cabus, as rapid population growth stresses resources and the region has borne several major droughts.

The most common coping mechanism among males – to migrate in search of work – may actually hurt households as “the flow of remittances is often irregular or nonexistent,” says Cabus. World Bank data shows that sub-Saharan Africa (including Sahel countries) receives the lowest amount of remittances worldwide, while being the costliest region from which to send them. Male out-migration also puts women in a difficult position as they frequently become the de facto heads of household without the same rights to own property and manage resources that men have.

It’s a “very patriarchal culture where women and girls have low status” and “very limited decision-making,” Cabus says. Of the 10 worst countries to be a mother or a child, four – Mali, Niger, The Gambia, and Chad – are located in the Sahel, according to Save the Children’s latest State of the World’s Mothers report.

Still, Cabus maintains a positive attitude. “The Sahel is a very lucky region in the sense that it’s been studied and over-studied over decades now,” she says. But “it’s important to ask the right questions.” In one instance, a USAID program in Mali distributed an improved type of millet seed. When asked for feedback, women said the new millet took significantly longer to cook. At the household level, this simple change can mean a lot. More time over the fire means more firewood and more exposure to smoke. It also means higher costs for fuel and more time spent by women and girls traveling to further places for fuel, which can be dangerous.

New development strategies to diversify rural economies are working to create new livelihood pathways for women. For example, Cabus and her USAID team visited a group of women in Burkina Faso who saw a niche market for parsley and began growing in their rural community to sell in the capital, Ouagadougou. And men can help too. In Niger, the UN Population Fund began Ecole des Maris, or “husband’s schools,” that bring together groups of men to discuss reproductive health matters and promote the empowerment of women at the community level.

In the Sahel, as elsewhere, the status of women, their health, and household food security are deeply intertwined. “We know that agricultural production is highly gendered,” says Cabus. “We help farmers…and their husbands.”

Sylvia Cabus spoke at the Wilson Center on May 12.

Friday Podcasts are also available for download on iTunes.

Sources: Save the Children.

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