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close this bookDefeating Hunger and Ignorance - Food Aid for the Education of Girls and Women (UNESCO - WFP, 34 p.)
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View the documentPREFACE
View the documentINTRODUCTION
View the documentFROM CAUSE TO EFFECT
View the documentWFP AND EDUCATION
View the documentBIBLIOGRAPHY
View the documentBACK COVER


Until recently, WFP-assisted education projects rarely emphasised the special needs of girls and women. In school feeding programmes for example, boys and girls benefited equally from WFP aid, but no special measures were taken to decrease the disadvantages faced by girls in the field of education.

Since the Fourth World Conference on Women, WFP has reoriented its activities and given them a new gender-oriented dimension. These new principles are embedded in the “WFP Commitments to Women”.

More opportunities for girls through better nutrition

“It is obvious that hungry or sick children cannot concentrate on their studies, and in some developing countries, girls receive less food and care than boys...

Programmes to encourage the equal treatment of girls and boys and measures to feed and help the most disadvantages will allow more girls to have the necessary energy to go to school and learn.”

Source: Letting Girls Learn: Promising Approaches in Primary and Secondary Education. Washington, The World Bank, 1991

Immediately after the Beijing conference, all the regional and national offices of WFP swung into action with region and country-based plans to implement the Commitments to Women. WFP personnel at all levels (headquarters and field offices) were given special training on gender issues through seminars and workshops. Tools for the identification, evaluation and elaboration of programmes were produced to facilitate understanding of gender-related issues. Several Gender Advisors have been appointed at regional offices, as well as two at WFP Headquarters, and each Country Office nominated a Gender Focal Point.

The importance of female education in WFP’s activities has been further strengthened with the recent adoption of new directives on the use of food aid in development8. Under this new policy, a top priority of WFP will be to enable poor, under-nourished families to send their daughters to school and provide access to training or literacy programmes for their mothers.

8.Enabling development. Rome, World Food Programme, 1999.


WFP has taken a major step towards reducing inequalities between girls and boys, men and women in the field of education by implementing the following programmes:

Take-home rations9: a means to facilitate female education

9.Non-perishable food rations that children can take home.

“We have recognized what a valuable tool food aid can be in changing behaviour. In so many poorer countries, food is money, food is power. In some of our most successful food aid projects, we literally pay families who do not believe in educating their daughters to send those girls to school. A little free cooking oil can go a long way. We trade a 5 litre can of oil for 30 days of school attendance by a young girl”.10

10.Statement made by Ms. C. Bertini, Executive Director of WFP, at the Fourth World Conference on Women, Beijing, 1995.

Take-home rations enable the poorest and hungriest families to send their daughters to school and ensure they complete the entire school year. Often, a girl’s schooling is jeopardised because she is either obliged to help her mother feed the family or because the lack of food forces parents to withdraw their children from school. Time and again, girls are the most affected in such cases. WFP’s dry rations constitute an additional source of income for the family and compensate parents for the loss of their daughter’s labour. Moreover, the girl’s status in the family is enhanced because she brings food home.

Educating girls in Pakistan

Pakistan is one of the world’s least developed countries in educational and social terms. Young girls and women are the first to suffer from this situation - a mere one fourth of young girls are enrolled in primary schools, while seven women out of ten can neither read nor write. In rural areas, the situation is even more alarming. In 1992/93, the government launched a Social Action Plan aimed at meeting the educational, nutritional and primary health care needs of the rural poor. Basic education and education for women and girls are key priorities of the Plan which WFP has decided to support.

The WFP-backed project targets the North-West Frontier Province and Baluchistan, two regions in Pakistan where women have the least chance of being educated. Causes include the lack of interest in female education on the part of parents, poverty (which as usual affects the education of girls more than that of boys), and the poor quality of girls’ schools (for example, the high rate of absenteeism amongst women teachers). WFP food aid, consisting of a 5-litre can of vegetable oil is distributed to girl students and teachers at selected primary schools on a monthly basis for 20 days of school attendance (22 days for teachers). This constitutes an important source of income for families.

A recent study showed that since its inception in 1994, the project has had impressive results: a plus 200% increase in enrolment, a decrease in the number of school drop-outs and an improvement in school attendance, both on the part of teachers and students. These results are even more significant when compared to the situation of schools not covered by WFP aid. Interviews with parents have confirmed that WFP aid has helped create an interest in the education of girls, which is likely to be sustained even if the aid ceases.

The distribution of dry rations is amongst the most direct forms of using food aid to promote the education of girls. One of the first such programmes was launched in Pakistan where education, especially that of girls is extremely low. The distribution of dry rations to girls in primary schools obtained spectacular results. Enrolment tripled since the beginning of the project, school attendance stabilised and girls were less apt to drop out during the school year. WFP food aid thus helped to establish female education in a region, where just a few years previously, only a handful of girls managed to enrol in schools.

Take-home rations programmes are currently being implemented in other countries like Niger where girls enrolled in nomadic or semi-nomadic schools receive dry rations of 50 kilograms of millet/sorghum per school term. In Cameroon, girls in the last three years of primary school are given 50 kilograms of cereal (millet, sorghum, maize) and 10 kilograms of beans per school term. A project in Chad provides school meals for all students at primary schools, boys and girls, and, in addition, a dry ration each school term to all families who allow their daughters to complete the four upper classes of primary school. In Ghana, under a project targeting the three Northern regions of the country, girls in primary and secondary schools receive take-home rations in the form of vegetable oil. In Morocco finally, rural families receive 150 kilograms of wheat and 15 litres of vegetable oil per year and per girl-child enrolled in school.

WFP’s Commitments to Women: The Main Targets

· Food distributed directly to women in at least 80% of WFP-handled and subcontracted operations.

· 60% of country programme resources targeted to women and girls in countries with a significant gender gap.

· 50% of education resources targeted to girls.

· 25% of project resources for food-for-work activities to be allocated to those which create assets in which women have a direct stake.

Source: Time for Change: Food aid and development. Enabling development. Rome, World Food Programme, 1999

Support for literacy and other forms of training for girls and women

Many women are still illiterate today and do not have access to the various training programmes open to them. Illiteracy is a major handicap for these women, but the backbreaking work in the fields as well as domestic chores and the struggle to feed the family, leaves them with little time to benefit from such opportunities. It’s in these kinds of situations that the aid provided by WFP makes a difference. By distributing dry food rations to participants in literacy or practical training programmes, WFP compensates women for the loss of labour and income. Sometimes, the food brought home can also help to convince a reluctant husband to allow his wife to take part in training programmes.

A major WFP success story in this field comes from Bangladesh, where women and children suffer from the consequences of extreme poverty: a low rate of female literacy (24%), chronic malnutrition and a high female mortality rate make Bangladesh “one of the few countries where women typically die younger than men and are a minority”11. WFP’s vulnerable group support project has enabled more than 500,000 women to benefit from training in literacy and income-generating skills, gain access to credit facilities and social services and improve their self-sufficiency. The beneficiaries of this programme are the poorest of poor women, and food aid has helped in several ways: the transfer of income to women during the training period which allows them to attend training sessions regularly; compensating women for the loss of income incurred because of their participation in training programmes; and providing a supplementary source of nutrition through the distribution of monthly dry rations to the families of all women participants (trainees and teachers).

11.Summary of project WFP/Bangladesh 2226.07: “Vulnerable group development: support to rural women to move out of extreme poverty”, Rome, World Food Programme, 1995.

Similar projects are underway or will be started in other countries. In El Salvador, WFP’s food aid enabled 3000 women to become literate and receive training in sewing, carpentry, flower arrangements and other economically profitable ventures such as chicken farming. The training provided allowed them to set up income-generating activities.

In Peru, WFP aid for an adult literacy project helped raise the educational level of some 24,000 women from 500 women’s groups. The training provided access to information, helped boost their self-esteem and reinforced their leadership role in the community. WFP aid also helped increase their savings capacity. The Peruvian women’s groups were thus able to pool their savings to the tune of US$1 million.

In Nepal, a training programme for mothers and other women in the community is being developed alongside a school-feeding programme for primary schools.

Making the school environment more welcoming for girls

Promoting schooling for girls can sometimes entail seemingly secondary factors. Installing school toilets for girls for example may not at the outset seem to be a measure to encourage their education, but it can make a big difference. The story of the young girl who lost an eye at school as she was coming out of the general toilets (see insert page 8) speaks volumes. She would certainly not have been the victim of such an accident, which led to her leaving school, had there been girls’ toilets. In several countries, girls are excluded from schools because of a lack of educational establishments close enough to their homes (parents are reluctant to allow their daughters to travel long distances to school). In other cases, it’s the lack of boarding schools, or the dilapidated state of existing ones that prevent girls from continuing their schooling. Parents also tend to be more exacting about certain aspects of school when it comes to their daughters: lack of school equipment, the absence of a protective wall around the school, open-air classes, etc. A more welcoming school environment increases the enrolment and attendance of girls. This strategy, recognised as an effective one by the international community, is already being used by WFP in certain countries. WFP’s earlier method was to offer food for work in order to construct or renovate a school, but under its new development strategy, such options will be rare. WFP prefers to associate itself with other partners for the construction or improvement of school infrastructure for girls (boarding schools, additional classrooms, toilets, etc). For example, in certain regions in Cd’Ivoire, where there is a real problem of female undereducation, some schools have benefited from joint projects by WFP and other donors to construct toilets for girls.


In a few cases, WFP’s intervention has had unexpected but positive side effects. In Dehaana primary school for instance (Ethiopia), money generated by the sale of empty food tins used for school meals went towards the construction of separate toilets for girls and boys and drinking water supply at the school. These examples are however the exception rather than the rule, and should not be seen as the main aim of food aid.

Sensitising communities and parents to the importance of female education

“We are changing behaviour, we are giving hope and opportunity to young girls...each small change in behaviour will one day pay off in a change in attitude.”12

12.Statement made by Ms. C. Bertini, Executive Director of WFP at the Fourth World Conference on Women (Beijing, 1995)

Often, it is parental prejudice against women’s education that keeps girls out of school. Some parents still think educating a girl is a waste of time, since her destiny is to start a family at the earliest and education is seen as unimportant in this context. Getting parents to overcome their prejudices against the education of girls is a first step to accepting that a girl has as much a right to education as a boy. A common strategy to achieve this objective is by sensitising families and communities through different means of communication: discussion and debate during meetings with parents, distribution of posters, T-shirts and other objects, training and information sessions for people working in education or folk theatre.


Sensitisation in WFP projects is carried out in co-ordination with the authorities who implement them or with other donors.

In Niger, sensitisation work in regions targeted by WFP is handled by the national Unit for the Promotion of Girl’s Education, set up by the government. This unit fans out into villages, where it organises debates within communities on the importance of female education while listening to their opinions.

In Chad too, WFP’s efforts for the education of girls receive much support from the sensitisation work carried out by a government unit set up with funding from several donors to promote female education.

And in Nepal, WFP is implementing an awareness-raising programme for families, with training sessions focusing on self-esteem, group dynamics, the rights of women and children etc.

Bringing the community closer to the school through the more active involvement of mothers

In most developing countries, the school is still considered to be extraneous from the community. Sending a son or daughter to school is equivalent to leaving them in the hands of strangers, to which parents are particularly reluctant in the case of their daughters. Several initiatives have been launched in recent years to link the school environment to that of children’s lives. The relationship between the school and community, which is a general issue in education, takes on a different dimension when it comes to girls, because some parents remain suspicious of the school, seen in certain communities as a corrupting and threatening environment for their daughters. In most school feeding projects, the coming together of community and school takes place through the voluntary participation of parents in the operation of school canteens: cooking and distribution of food, contribution of firewood, water and condiments, labour for the construction or renovation of canteens, etc. The implementation of WFP’s Commitments to Women has resulted in the greater involvement of women in school feeding committees and parent-teacher associations. The active participation of women helps bring the school and community together.

The very presence of women in these committees, apart from promoting the education of girls, also has multiple spin-offs in terms of their status within the community. The increasing number of women active in the management of school canteens has made the school environment less hostile to girls and enables their mothers to take a more active interest in the school and in education. A more positive attitude towards the school on the part of parents is one less obstacle in the education of girls.

A project in Sudan, which involved women in food distribution committees, resulted in a more equitable distribution of food. The committees also reinforced the role of women as decision-makers in the village structure. Women have therefore become agents of change and their demands for female education carry weight with the community and can influence its decisions.

WFP-funded projects have become channels for the coming together of schools and communities.

Creating and supporting child care facilities to boost girls’ schooling

A common reason for the irregular school attendance or the under-education of girls is that they are required by their mothers to help out with the younger children. Freeing girls from their childcare duties is often a key strategy to increase their school attendance. WFP can help in the setting up of pre-school centres by supporting feeding programmes there, when it is shown that the obligation to care for younger siblings prevents girls from attending school.

Reinforcing the role and status of women

Apart from directly promoting female education, many WFP educational programmes, especially school feeding, have general advantages for girls and women. One of these advantages is the strengthening of the role and status of women in the community, as the following examples show.

“At first, I didn’t know how to cook for big groups. But I’ve learnt a lot since the village chief asked all the women to take turns to cook so that kids could eat in school. I can now cook rice for thirty, forty, fifty and even hundred people without the rice sticking to the bottom of the pan or burning.” A cook from a school canteen in southern Madagascar.


“People look at me differently since I started working at the school canteen. They even ask my help when there are marriages, funerals or baptisms in other villages. But what I learnt most from my job at the canteen is French. I spoke it badly before, I was even ashamed to speak it. But now that I spend my days at the school, I’ve become a kind of teacher. I speak French from morning to night and I’m no longer ashamed to speak it. I even read letters for the village people. Sometimes, the children call me Madam, as if I was also their teacher.” A canteen worker in a village in northern Cd’Ivoire.

These two accounts show how much the women gained in terms of experience and their reputation in the village. The social recognition is far above what would be normally accorded to someone from their background. Their work at the school canteen has made them agents of change as in the case of the cook from Cd’Ivoire, who sometimes helps the headmaster to sensitise families about the importance of schooling for girls.