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Food Security and Sexual Violence » Women's Courage

Food Security and Sexual Violence

February 24th, 2012 by margaret Leave a reply »

One thing that we read about in class this week briefly was food distribution in refugee camps and how sometimes those distributing food withhold the food from women in exchange for sex acts, or give women more than their ration in exchange for sex acts. I had a difficult time again this week in finding empirical evidence (or even qualitative evidence, for that matter) that a particular intervention against sexual violence has been transformative. There may be numbers out there on their success, but I was unable to find them — more research needs to be done on interventions in refugee camps. Nevertheless, several agencies have guidelines for reducing sexual violence against women, and several suggest that food distribution is very much related to sexual violence and other issues. While I didn’t find any articles specific to Somalian refugees, what I found can most likely be applicable to women refugees most anywhere.

Many articles I read discuss how in some cultures, before coming to a refugee camp, women are responsible for many/most aspects of food cultivation, production, and management. However, when they arrive in refugee camps, quite often the food ration card is given to a male member of a household (if there is one). Sometimes, men end up selling their food rations for luxury items like beer or cigarettes, and the women have no control. Many camps have attempted to give women control of their family’s nutrition by¬† making females the ones who are able to pick up their family’s food rations. While this is a good practice, it still doesn’t guarantee that women have control of the food.

Specifically related to sexual violence, many camps are having women distribute the actual food rations to other women, rather than having men do so (which puts women at risk when men demand sexual favors in exchange for food). One study in the late 80s in a refugee camp in Tanzania found that when women distributed the food, the rations were more equal and the outcomes more fair.

However, the use of females in distributing the rations does not fix every problem. For example, typically in refugee camps, food rations consist of only grains and oils. Thus, some reports have found that women perform sexual favors in exchange for other foods like fish, and sometimes don’t actually receive the food they were promised. I think a good intervention to solve this issue is to find ways for refugees to work and earn a livelihood, which will increase their agency and protect their dignity while providing them with funds to purchase more desirable and nutritious food.

Several groups have issued reports relating sexual violence and unequal access to nutrition to food distribution, and these groups have guidelines for female-controlled distribution of food. For example, the Inter-Agency Standing Committee, a non-profit focused on coordinating humanitarian assistance between UN and non-UN groups, has entire section devoted to food security and nutrition in its gender-based violence guidelines. Here are just a few examples:

  • women need to be involved in all decisions about food security and distribution
  • food must be distributed during the day with enough time for women to return home during daylight hours
  • food ration cards should be registered under the names of women and children
  • locations of distribution points should be far from areas where a lot of men congregate, especially in places where alcohol is used liberally
  • help women find access to cooking tools, firewood, etc. so they do not fall prey to gaining these things through sexual acts
  • encourage women to form collectives to collect their food
  • road to food distribution site must be well-lit and often used by other members of community, and also, not farther than nearest firewood or water site
  • secure funding for transportation for women who cannot travel from home to food distribution site
  • hold food distributions twice a month

This is just a start, but it seems several agencies and groups are recognizing women need to be in charge of their food sources as one way to potentially keep them safe.



1) Forbes Martin, Susan. Refugee Women. 2004 (book).

2 Inter-Agency Standing Committee. Guidelines for Gender-Based Violence Prevention Programs in Humanitarian Settings. September 2005 (http://www.ccsdpt.org/download/GBV_guidelines_Eng.pdf)

3) http://www.iiz-dvv.de/index.php?article_id=724&clang=1

4) http://fex.ennonline.net/3/role.aspx

5) http://www.unhcr.org/refworld/country,,HRW,,BTN,,3fe47e244,0.html




  1. isabelle says:

    This is a fascinating issue. I had never thought about food security in relation to women in particular. This brings to mind, however, the mention in last week’s readings about UN peacekeepers and humanitarian aid workers being culpable in violence against women. In Professor Murray’s book, for example, there are details regarding women being denied food rations if they are unwilling to exchange sex or that of another female relative. While I think the greater power of women in food distribution and security issues is critical, there must be another intervention layer regarding those in charge of the food rations, too.

  2. surabhi says:

    I think that giving women control over food rations is an example of a small intervention that has much larger implications because of the way in which seemingly minor social hierarchies can lead to much larger forms of discrimination. I would be really interested to see whether this approach can be applied to other situations of sexual violence against women, by finding the resources that women lack control over and redefining them.

  3. natalie says:

    How to keep women safe in refugee situation is a difficult and complex issue, but I can’t help but feel skeptical that ensuring that women are the gatekeepers for food distribution is necessarily an effective strategy. From your blog, it seems like there is a big issue with husbands trading food for luxury items and not sharing their rations with their families, thus potentially forcing their wives to perform sexual favors for other men in exchange for food. I am concerned that by taking the power of controlling the food supply for a family away from a husband and giving it to the wife, the man might feel that his authority of his family was being threatened and he would then be more likely to sexually and otherwise assault his wife. In short, putting a woman in charge of food rations in a culture where women are generally subjugated might spare her from one danger, but put her at greater risk of another. Unfortunately, I don’t have an alternate suggestion for how to remedy this issue, but I find it so sad that it is so difficult to come up with interventions to help women in refugee situations.

  4. catalina says:

    Using women as the ‘gatekeepers’ for food distribution seems like such a simple yet effective method of taking male exploitation out of the equation. With regard to women trading sex for other, non distributed foods such as fish, this is not a shortcoming of the female distribution aspect of the system, but rather of the aspect of the system that determines what foods are going to be provided e.g. oils, grains). I am also curious as to whether giving women the power to give out rations would make them a target for sexual harassment, violence, or both from men looking for a handout.

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