Niger's women and children starve as men hoard food

What happened to Noura at a village near Zinder is replicated through much of the stricken communities of Niger. In the midst of starvation and disease, many men in rural areas are determined to control the meagre supplies, seemingly oblivious to the suffering of their families.

So acute is the problem that Unicef and international charities have launched urgent projects focusing exclusively on women. It is, they say, a far more certain way of ensuring the children and the elderly - the most vulnerable - get at least the very minimum needed for survival.

This extraordinary situation appears to be peculiar to Niger. Neighbouring countries caught up in the crisis caused by droughts and plagues of locusts - Mali, Mauritania and Burkina - are also predominantly Muslim with patriarchal cultures. Yet there, aid workers say, women are not sidelined to anything like the same degree.

In some villages, men have stopped women from having contact with Unicef officials, insisting that only they were entitled to speak for the community. There have also been repeated cases of men selling food given as aid, or passing it on to male members of extended families.

"We have millet and sorghum at the back of our hut, but we are not allowed to get it," 33-year-old Noura said. "The room was bolted by my husband when he went to Nigeria to find a job and his father and brothers have the key. They say it is up to me to feed my children, but that is not easy. A lot of families round here are in the same situation. There is nothing we can do."

Khalida Habib, a neighbour in her mid-fifties, added: "The mothers share all that we have, but the men do not do this. We have no rights over the food. We have to do all the hard work, but the men think they should control the food given us by foreigners." The government says it is aware of the problem but it is proving difficult to change ingrained attitudes. Unicef, which has refused to deal with villages where it has not been allowed access to women, has set up ventures concentrating on females, from arranging microcredit to providing livestock. Men in the community benefiting from the scheme have to agree to contracts pledging that they will not appropriate the aid.

The loan system is open only to women, although some include a "token man" as years of official neglect of female education means there are difficulties in finding literate women in rural areas. Unicef and international charities say women are better credit risks.

Maman Abdou, the village chief of Sabonkasi, said: "Mothers are happy to give back what they are given. The women are afraid they will be ridiculed by their friends if they don't pay back. Men don't care what other people say."

The aid agency Care International says: "Women's savings groups are shielding whole communities from the full onslaught of the food crisis in Niger."

Unicef has provided 12,000 Chevrenouffe goats - which produce a richer milk and more offspring than other varieties - to women. The milk enriches the diet of children and cheese and meat can be sold at markets to supplement incomes. Kids from donated goats are handed to other women in the community.

Sabine Dolan, a communications officer with Unicef, said: "Women are unlikely to sell off aid, as some men have done. We don't know why this is the case in Niger with women. Neighbouring countries such as Mali are also Muslim but we don't have the same problem there. It appears to be a matter of local dynamics. In a few villages, the men have refused to co-operate and allow us access to the women, but the schemes are working pretty well and the women are into the decision-making process. We have contracts with the communities, mainly verbal in front of witnesses, that the men will not try to grab the aid."

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