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The Role of Women in Food Management

The author of this article is Zhara Mirghani with assistance from Rita Bhatia. Rita is the senior nutritionist in the Professional and Technical Support Services of UNHCR. Zhara is a Nutritionist working for UNHCR as Food and Nutrition coordinator in Kigoma Tanzania. Zhara worked for UNHCR in the Ngara refugee camps in Tanzania between December 1994 and April 1997. This case study relates to the period between July 1995 and January 1996 when she was involved in piloting a form of general ration distribution system initiated by UNHCR in Ethiopia(1989) and Goma DRC (1994). The system is referred to as 'The Family Group Distribution System' and replaced the traditional scooping' system involving distribution by agency staff to heads of families joining a series of queues for different ration commodities. Women played a major role in the new system which proved to be highly successful and popular. This is a short article about why and how the family group distribution system was established and some of the lessons learnt along the way.

Over 200000 Rwandan refugees crossed the border into Tanzania in a 24 hour period following the tragic genocide in early 1994. Refugees walked through Rosomo Bridge to Ngara district which is 20 kms away from the border. Benaco was the first camp to be established. This was subsequently decongested by opening up other camps in the same area. By 1995 there were four camps, (Benaco, Musuhura, Lumasi and Lukoli). Another two camps had been opened by early 1996. At this time there were an estimated 410,000 refugees in the district.

The camps were run by UNHCR and NGO implementing partners. The general food ration given out to refugees provided 1900 kcals per person per day and comprised maize grain (400 gins) or flour (320 gins), beans (100 gins), CSB (50 gins) and oil (25 gins). Although the food pipeline was generally stable there were interruptions and shortages were experienced from time to time. Officially, refugees were not allowed to farm. However, some made arrangements with locals whereby they rented land or shared the crop or obtained cash or food in exchange for their work on farms. Government later restricted these activities by imposing a ban on activities carried out further than 4 km from the camps. There was some employment within the camps mainly working for agencies. There were also markets where refugees and locals could exchange produce and commodities.

The traditional food distribution system

The traditional food distribution system used to give out general rations was operational in the camps from the beginning of May 1994 to August 1995. Distribution centres were built to allow refugees to queue in lines. Heads of families would pass through a number of counters where one of a number of commodities would be allocated. A refugee worker would scoop the food commodity and pour it into the individual family container: quantity was based, on number of family members.

There were many problems with this system.

  1. It was difficult to monitor the scooping which often led to shortages of food for families at the end of the distribution. This put UNHCR and WFP in a difficult position so that additional food would need to be given to these families. This also created situations where refugees would push their way to get to the front of the queues. Crowd control was therefore difficult and although the police were always present they often had to call for additional back-up. This created a very insecure and unsafe environment for the refugees in general, but for women in particular.
  2. Some scoopers made deals with people, i.e. they gave relatives or friends additional food which they would share outside of the distribution centre. Women as beneficiaries were asked for sexual favours at times.
  3. When there were interruptions to the food aid pipeline UNHCR were forced to reduce rations, therefore the old scoops were either adjusted by making marks or new scoops frequently had to be manufactured to cater for the new ration scales. This was costly and it was difficult to get the materials locally.
  4. Refugees would often have to line up all day to get their rations
  5. Ration cards and food were often reported to be stolen inside the distribution centre in spite of security measures
  6. Refugees would often fight amongst themselves largely in an atmosphere of mistrust and accusations
  7. The food distribution activities were expensive, labour intensive and time consuming and even life threatening.

The Family Group Distribution System

The family group distribution system was introduced in August 1995 based on UNHCR's previous experience in Ethiopia (1989). Experience of women being involved in the traditional distribution system employed as scoopers showed that they were more honest and created less problems than the men resulting in more equitable distribution. When it was decided to change the distribution system to the 'Family Group Distribution System' we were unsure whether it would work or not, however it seemed like a good idea in the interest of equity to involve as many women as possible. In this system food is given in bulk to groups of 20-30 families of the same family size organised by the refugees themselves (Family Size 1- 10). The group elects one person as a group representative. The representative collects the food on behalf of the group members based on the number of ration card (over 50 people on average) from the counter and brings it out into the open for further distribution within the group. Monitoring was carried out at the distribution sites by the refugees themselves, UNHCR and implementing agency staff.. Monitoring was facilitated by the fact that each family within a group received the same quantity of food so that any discrepancies or disparities in the food given to each family was easily visible. Women carried out the distribution within the group by scooping. It was noted that women did not act as group representatives. The reasons given included the fact that women in this culture, particularly young women, do not take a leading role in community activities while men are available, as they feared being rejected or ostracised if they assumed this type of responsibility. Also literacy among women is low and this activity requires some sort of record keeping. However it was agreed that women were more honest and patient in the context of a distribution which was why eventually most of the scoopers in a group were women.

Increasing the role of women in the Family Group Distribution System


It was agreed to set up a task force to look into ways and means of involving women more effectively in the overall food management process. A committee comprised of agencies responsible for food distribution (CARE), community services (Christian Out Reach), WFP and UNHCR was established. Musuhura camp with a population of 78,000 mainly Rwandan refugees was selected as the pilot site for increasing the role of women. As the camp was very big one commune was selected to start with. Women in this commune were invited for a meeting at the distribution centre. A small number attended the first meeting. However, the follow-up meetings were attended by 300-400 women of different ages. Women were asked to share their views about the ongoing family group distribution system and how it could be improved. They came up with several interesting points and were pleased to see that UNHCR! WFP and agencies were listening to them carefully and responding to their enquiries. They made a number of suggestions, which, if within the capacity of field staff, were mostly acted upon. This made the meeting really interesting and attracted more refugee participants. Also, during these meetings other issues related to food and nutrition were discussed, e.g. cooking practices, soaking of food (beans), firewood consumption, supporting other vulnerable groups etc. All staff involved in food delivery attended the meetings which were held every two weeks. Women were motivated to discuss matters openly and take a more effective role in food management (the meetings lasted for 3 hours or more). Involvement in the meetings was so great that we had to limit the time as there were so many speakers. The women were encouraged at the meeting to take up appointments as the group representatives. However, most of them were hesitant as they were unsure of what type of reaction men within the group would have. Nevertheless, women did agree to take on the role of assistant group representative. Each group therefore had a female assistant representative which allowed women to be closer to events and more exposed to the challenges of the programme.


After three months the number of women collecting the food increased from 40 to 65 % (of course there was a weekly variation). Furthermore, 100% of assistant group representatives were women (in Musuhura). At the same time agencies were requested to employ more women as distributors, and monitors and to carry out activities like book keeping, punching cards, etc. The proportion of women employed in the whole distribution process increased markedly in a short period of time.


The involvement of women in this system helped them to develop greater confidence. Women proved effective in discovering and eliminating cheating which occurred at a number of different levels. For example,

  1. A Group representative might make a deal with the distributor to allocate less than the correct amount of food for his group and both would subsequently meet up to split the difference among themselves.
  2. some refugees would obtain more than one ration card, e.g. there was a market for ration cards available from already repatriated refugees

Also, scooping was mostly done by women who were more precise and careful than men. As a result of women's increased involvement, distribution was fair, equitable and more effective.

Cost effectiveness

The family group distribution system has been cost-effective in terms of money, human resources and logistics. The number of staff and distribution sites were reduced by 40-50%. Time spent on distribution for both implementing partners and the recipients was halved.

Gender issues

During the first few days some men got irritated because of the attention given to women participating in the distribution. There were also examples, where women were lifting heavy loads and fell down with the bags of maize (50 kg). Following these incidents an intensive information campaign was mounted to encourage men to help women collecting food and in cases where there were a lack of men within the group, groups of women would carry the food together.

Community perception

No one in Tanzanian camps wanted to revert to the traditional scooping method which took 4-5 days and meant queuing for 6-8 hours and even then not being sure of receiving the correct ration. There was also the security benefit. During the traditional scooping system distributions police often had to be called to control the crowds. With the new system, police were no longer needed and refugees received food with dignity.

Everyone appeared happy and satisfied, refugees, field officers, WFP, implementing partners and the local authorities.


The 'Family Group Distribution system', established in the Ngara camps allowed high levels of community participation especially involving women. It was more effective and efficient than the previous system and had a number of 'knock on' benefits for women and the wider community. All in all the experience was very positive. Eventually even men were happy, as improvements were made in the distribution system which benefited everybody. The kind of meetings established as part of this process led to greater transparency in the overall distribution system. Women from other communes requested UNHCR to organise other similar meetings.

Foot note: The UNHCR guide book on Commodity Distribution describes the family group distribution system in detail.

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Reference this page

Zhara Mirghani and Rita Bhatia (). The Role of Women in Food Management. Field Exchange 3, January 1998. p17.



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