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Is Targeting of Food Aid Directly to Women Based on Gender Roles an Appropriate Response?

Lessons from Southern Sudan

This article was edited from an article by Cassandra Chapman.

Women carry sacks of maize on their heads after a food distribution in the southern village of Acum Cum. The maize is part of a UN World Food Programme airdrop of 16 tonnes of food meant for 15,000 people

In this article I would like to examine the complex process of 'targeting'. I will use southern Sudan as an example and draw on my experience of targeting food aid while working for the World Food Programme (WFP). Like many organisations, WFP has been faced with limited resources and as a result has sought appropriate targeting procedures to reach the most vulnerable within a population. As an organisation, which has mainstreamed gender, the idea of targeting food aid directly to women is very appealing. In fact, at the Fourth World Conference on Women, the Executive Director of WFP stated that among many other strategies, WFP would 'distribute relief food directly to a household's senior female, where possible, using participatory approaches'.
Subsequent WFP strategy and policy papers have reinforced this approach. However, although commendable, I would like to caution that such policies may ignore other relations and processes at play within communities which can result in community opposition and sabotage. I would like to emphasise that the following account is my experience in Bahr-El-Ghazal and that the same arguments cannot necessarily be carried over into other regions of the operation, likewise, the arguments presented here are my views and not those of WFP as an organisation.
I will argue that the options of targeting resources through the chief structure or male head of household are not appropriate solutions and that while there is a strong case for targeting food aid directly to women based on their gender roles, such a strategy by itself is ineffective. Finally, I will describe the system that was created through discussion and participation of various community actors.

Targeting through the Chieftancy Structure

Proponents of targeting resources directly to or through the chiefs argue that chiefs have knowledge about their communities and are in the best position to make decisions concerning limited resources. In addition, many are still democratically elected and thus are accountable for their actions. However, change in recent years has resulted in additional roles and new pressures for these individuals. Southern Sudan serves as a very good case example of these changes where chief structure differs from region to region and has been affected by the war. The on-going civil war has had a profound impact upon the community and has led to changes in traditional values, roles, and community institutions. In fact these traditional structures are now often manipulated to serve the interest of various parties. WFP initially used the chief structure for food distribution in southern Sudan. However, with time it was discovered, that while these bodies had traditionally served as judicial bodies and settled disputes among community members and ran the hunger courts during the 'hunger gap' periods they had never had to distribute 'free' resources amongst their community. It was therefore found that this additional role created a number of problems. For example, the concept of 'targeting' the most vulnerable was foreign to the community and proved to be problematic when dealing with limited resources such as food aid. In addition the war brought new pressures that limited the capacity of these structures to carry out effective distributions to the most vulnerable, e.g. new political and social factors, taxation, family or extended family requests and demands. This centralised system of targeting therefore resulted in very little trickle down of resources to vulnerable households.
Furthermore, it became obvious that even without these pressures, the chief system could not effectively identify vulnerable households. For example, in NBEG (North Bahr El Gazal), the community hierarchy might be represented as follows:

  1. Chiefs
  2. Sub-Chiefs
  3. Ghol Leaders
  4. Headmen
  5. Women at HH level.

Each level had a responsibility and a limited understanding of vulnerability within their jurisdiction. For example, sub-chiefs were responsible for a geographic location and could identify vulnerable areas but not households, while only ghol leaders could identify affected villages within communities. However, it was not until one reached the headmen that targeting of households could take place. Even this proved to be problematic since these men were not in a position to know about intra-household conflicts or problems in meeting household consumption needs. It became obvious that women at the household level held the information needed for targeting within their villages. Also, women found it difficult to speak to a man about intra-household problems. Therefore, by using the chief structure a great deal of information was lost further limiting the capacity to target the limited resources to vulnerable households.
The headmen often distributed the proportion of food that finally reached village level equally amongst the entire community in an effort to avoid further conflicts. This 'diluted' the ration and meant that vulnerable households received only a small proportion of their nutritional needs. With limited resources, the only option was to explore an alternative targeting method.

Targeting Households as a Unit

Children and Women sit on the ground awaiting a weekly supplementary feeding session in the southern village of Pakor

In southern Sudan most women are involved in polygamous relationships. This system allows for a man to have as many wives as he can afford through payment of a dowry. While a man may have three wives, each of these spouses will normally have her own tukle (grass hut) where she and her children are based (along with any additional extended family members). A polygamous union does not mean they are wholly dependent upon men for their household's survival. In terms of agricultural production and consumption, each woman is somewhat responsible for her own household unit. The amount of sharing varies widely and depends very much on the husband and needs of each household. Although women have little bargaining power within the household, conflict does exist due to the different aims and concerns of family members. For example, men are always striving to increase their wealth so they can increase their number of wives, while women are more concerned with household consumption levels. All family members participate in cultivation activities, but men are still solely responsible for the care of large livestock while women control small livestock and budget the household grain.
The household structure therefore makes it harder to distribute to the most vulnerable, as the omnipotent head of household (commonly assumed to be a male figure) will have responsibility for dividing the food amongst his wives or household units. From previous studies we also know that hierarchies commonly exist amongst wives which may result in unequal distribution amongst these household units.

Targeting of food directly to women based on gender roles

With the above findings a strong case can be made to distribute resources directly to those responsible for them within the household. For example, in the southern Sudan context a project aimed at restocking cattle herds would be targeted at men. Several discussions at community level reinforced the idea that food aid should be given directly to the women. All parties argued that women were more responsible when it came to consumption needs at household level and that the men often had concerns outside the household unit which would result in alternative uses of grain, e.g. increasing herd size, trade, etc. However, a strategy for targeting was needed which would not alienate the chiefs, elders or other interest groups and would include women in the decision making process.

An Alternative Option

Following many discussions between WFP, members of the Sudan Relief Rehabilitation Association (SRRA), and area chiefs, the idea of locally based relief committees (RCs) emerged. It was decided that these RCs would be elected by the community and would consist of 7 women and 6 men who would be representative of their geographic region. A chairwoman was to be elected as the leader. The initial role of the RC was to help identify the most vulnerable in the community and help manage the logistics of running a food distribution in partnership with WFP and SRRA staff (these roles have since expanded to include other responsibilities such as information gathering/research and education activities). It was believed that the RCs would work with the chiefs and relieve them of some of their tasks. However, it soon became obvious that RCs couldn't identify the most vulnerable and that women belonging to a particular village were in a much better position to do so. The system then changed so that RCs provided information on geographic area and supervised the targeting process while women of each village elected a representative who had the knowledge to identify needy households. Where the village was too large or divided on clan lines two or more representatives would be chosen.
The first of these committees was created in February 1995. Later these committees extend throughout NBEG. However, as with any system there are weaknesses:

  1. the process of identifying the vulnerable is very time consuming and involves lengthy discussion between women
  2. the new role for all those involved in targeting is very stressful
  3. although many of the head chiefs or sub-chiefs supported these RCs many of the headmen and ghol leaders felt that their power had been taken away and preferred the previous system.

Despite these problems there were a number of benefits:

  1. women continuously stressesd that more of the food was able to reach household level
  2. it re-empowered women as managers of the food and allowed for women's participation in the decision making process
  3. it provided female role models through a system that allows men and women to work together for their community


WFP viewed this targeting strategy as a success story. However, the challenge remains to find a way to identify and target the most vulnerable with the participation of the community without alienating groups or creating conflict. It is important that WFP does not view the NBEG experience as a blueprint for success and try to replicate it in other areas of operation without careful analysis of the social and cultural circumstances. Each context may require different targeting strategies. I would recommend that WFP staff continue to acknowledge gender roles in an effort to design more appropriate interventions. I would also encourage all staff to acknowledge local relationships and structures and find ways to include all members of the community in creating and fulfilling a shared agenda. Finally, the inclusion of women in this process should continue but not as targeted recipients who serve as a proxy for poverty, but as active agents who are part of a large community and thus have very valuable contributions to make.

Contact the ENN for full paper.

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Reference this page

Cassandra Chapman (). Is Targeting of Food Aid Directly to Women Based on Gender Roles an Appropriate Response?. Field Exchange 6, February 1999. p21.



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