Washington Area Women's Foundation

Women are last to eat, first to be impacted by economic crisis.

The Post headline, "Africa’s Last and Least: Cultural Expectations Ensure Women are Hit Hardest by Burgeoning Food Crisis," really strikes me.  And not just because I’ve been there and have seen it firsthand. 

That women eat last, at every meal, every time.  After their husband, and after their children.  Even after their foreign guest, who has more than enough money to fend for herself (and who falls, incidentally, after the husband, but before the children, in the hierarchy of food service).

This, they tell me, is culture. 

So if resources are tight, she gets the smallest portions, the least desirable, least nutritious parts of the meal.  And sometimes, nothing at all.

I have been there, wondering how they can do this, given that these women also consume the most energy–fetching the water (sometimes miles away), buying the food, cooking the food, doing the laundry, caring for the kids, and generally while either pregnant or nursing a newborn. 

I would be exhausted just watching them go through their day from my comfortable position as the ex-pat teacher.  I couldn’t imagine how they did it, and on so few calories, such little sustenance.

Nevermind that other sacrifices would impact them first, because they were women.  If there wasn’t money for school fees, the girls would be the first to be pulled out to help earn extra income, or to care for younger siblings so that mom could go to work seeling wares at the market or on her front stoop.  More work.

Yes, the headline struck me, but not just because I had seen it before, because I knew it not only as newsprint but as a daily reality of women and girls that I had known, but because it didn’t seem that far removed from what I hear now, about the impact of our own economic downturn on women.

Because the articles findings about Africa and the impact of poverty on its women, didn’t seem that far removed from the words of Tracey Turner in one of our annual reports, saying, "I know about the sleepless nights.  I know about the emotional breakdowns.  I know what it’s like to go without a meal so your children have something to eat." 

Tracey Turner, in Washington, D.C.  Not Windhoek.

The Post article states, "It’s a cultural thing," said Herve Kone, director of a group that promotes development, social justice and human rights in Burkina Faso. "When the kids are hungry, they go to their mother, not their father. And when there is less food, women are the first to eat less."

Leading me to wonder.  Is it really a cultural thing, as in an African cultural thing?  Or a cultural thing as in a gender normal, spread throughout not only Africa, but the world. 

And is "cultural thing" just a convenient way of pretending to be unable to change something that really should be changed?

Because really, how different were these two women, a world apart, caring for their children in tough economic times?

How different were these women from my own divorced, single mom who raised two girls on a tight salary.  Who didn’t buy herself clothes and gave up on the activities that she loved and worked two, exhausting jobs, so that we could eat, feel good about ourselves at school and not end up in debt after college?  The economic times may not have been as hard, and the sacrifices not as great, but the principle still applies.  She sacrificed her own needs, first, for her children. 

The article about Africa explains that when money is tight, mothers are first to give up their own medical care to conserve resources.

Something jogs me.  This sounds familiar.  I go back to a Post story a few weeks back where single mom Christina Hall was profiled, discussing the challenges she faces living on food stamps in this economic crunch with children to support.  The article states, "She has employed a few tricks to save here and there: picking up food from food pantries, grilling meat and vegetables on the porch to keep the gas bill down; rationing the medication that manages her Crohn’s disease by only periodically taking pills that she is supposed to take daily."

Cultural differences?  Perhaps in extremes, in scope, but fundamentally, I am not entirely convinced.

I Google "women + economic downturn".  The headlines that pop up are not optimistic.  And they are not about women in far off places.

I scan our blog, find Jennifer’s post on surviving in a tough economy, and the impossible decisions that come of it for low-wage workers. 

To pay for health insurance or food?     

This is an unfair choice, in any culture.  And yet over and over, research, observation and experience show us that it is women, every day, making these impossible choices.  The choices may vary in their specifics from country to country, culture to culture, but the principle seems to always remain the same.

That when women must make sacrifices, they will, inevitably, put their children and their husbands before themselves, and stand on the front lines alone, facing down poverty.

Wherever they are.  In Africa, in America, in Asia.