How women are helping communities defeat food insecurity

How women are helping communities defeat food insecurity

NickRoeder/Courtesy of WFP

María Santos Cortez Martínez, treasurer of the hammock-making cooperative Mujeres con Esperanza in El Salvador, says, “Working together as a group we’ve learned we can improve our lives and keep moving forward.”

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March 8, 2021

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Increasingly, agencies like the World Food Program that assist women in developing income-producing activities are shifting to programs they call “food-plus” that help put women in the driver’s seat of their lives.

Thus in several Middle East countries women receive training in how to expand beyond family cooking to make food for sale. In African countries, women are trained to move beyond subsistence farming to production for local markets.

Why We Wrote This

On International Women’s Day we look at a small El Salvador cooperative that helps answer the question: How can women, facing food insecurity amid a pandemic, make their families more resilient?

Elsewhere, the idea is often to take traditional “women’s work” and give it added value – thereby transforming it from a symbol of women’s second-class status to a means of building stable and prospering families.

Such is the case in eastern El Salvador with a hammock-making cooperative called “Mujeres con Esperanza” – Women with Hope. It’s proving to be a source of resilience amid a pandemic that has adversely affected so many aspects of their lives.

“We’re making a better future for ourselves with our earnings and the new skills we are developing,” says Maritza Dinora Martínez, a single mother who has been weaving hammocks since she was 5 years old. “But we are also developing a resistance and ways to overcome our problems. That helps everybody,” she adds, “because we build a stronger community.”

Since she was 5 years old, Maritza Dinora Martínez has been weaving hammocks, a tradition among the women in her isolated village in eastern El Salvador.

Life in her Cacaopera municipality, located in Central America’s Dry Corridor, is tough, marked by low precipitation for the area’s annual corn and bean crops and high immigration – to San Salvador, the capital an eight-hour drive away; and to the United States.

And for all of her 26 years, Ms. Martínez has lived with a two-pole hammock-weaving frame as a constant companion – first in her parents’ home, where her mother taught her the art, now in her own.

Why We Wrote This

On International Women’s Day we look at a small El Salvador cooperative that helps answer the question: How can women, facing food insecurity amid a pandemic, make their families more resilient?

But what was once viewed as “just women’s work” has transformed into a symbol of the determination of the women of Cacaopera to build more stable and prosperous lives: not just for themselves and their families, but for their community.

Two years ago, the women of Cacaopera formed a hammock-making cooperative that they proudly named “Mujeres con Esperanza” – Women with Hope.

The cooperative is a small but vital piece of a global trend of women banding together both to feed their families and develop new means of moving beyond subsistence in the face of worsening food insecurity. And it is a source of resilience amid a pandemic that has adversely affected so many aspects of their lives.

In short order Mujeres con Esperanza has allowed the women to turn the weaving frames in their homes into tools for building higher incomes. Hammocks that went for $5 before the cooperative now fetch $20 or more.


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Moreover, the cooperative, organized with the assistance of the United Nations World Food Program (WFP), has encouraged expansive thinking on ways beyond hammock-making to improve community life.

For Ms. Martínez, the frames represent the resilience the women are building to face both long-existing challenges and new ones such as climate change and the pandemic – both of which have fueled a rise in food insecurity in El Salvador and neighboring Central American countries, and a recent spike in immigration to the U.S.

Healthier families

To get the word out about their cooperative and to develop new markets for their hammocks despite a national lockdown, the single mother of two small children learned how to build a Facebook page and to use WhatsApp as a sales tool – earning her the role of the cooperative’s social networks administrator.

“We’re making a better future for ourselves with our earnings and the new skills we are developing,” she says, “but we are also developing a resistance and ways to overcome our problems. That helps everybody,” she adds, “because we build a stronger community.” 

NickRoeder/Courtesy of WFP

Maritza Dinora Martínez, who has been weaving hammocks since she was 5 years old, is the social networks administrator of the women’s hammock-making cooperative Mujeres con Esperanza.

Mujeres con Esperanza may seem small, involving fewer than three dozen women in a remote region of El Salvador.

But such modest initiatives by women in thousands of communities across the developing world have played a critical role in a number of positive trends over recent years, from poverty reduction to falling maternal and infant mortality and rising levels of education for girls.

“There is plenty of evidence from Africa, Latin America, and Southeast Asia that the emphasis on empowering women and girls has produced a wide array of positive effects. It’s undeniable,” says Sylvia Maier, a clinical associate professor and specialist in gender issues at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs. “When women are at the table of decision-making, families are healthier, incomes are higher, we even see reductions in domestic violence.”

Rising food insecurity

But this year on International Women’s Day, experts in the role of women in development are sounding an alarm: The global pandemic has only added to other factors that were already slowing recent gains in food security and other measures of progress for women and girls in particular.

Nearly 700 million people across the globe now live with the uncertainty of food insecurity, according to the WFP, while nearly 90 million women and girls are hungry. 

“To explain why global food insecurity is up, we speak of the three C’s: conflict, climate change, and COVID,” say Kawinzi Muiu, director of WFP’s gender office in Rome. “All of these factors have affected women’s ability to pursue the income activities they have developed,” she adds, “and as a result they absolutely have affected women and girls more.”

Moreover, evidence is emerging suggesting that as difficult as the pandemic has been for women, it may be posing the biggest setback to girls in the developing world by exacerbating the conditions leading to child marriage. In a new report released Monday, the U.N.’s child welfare agency UNICEF estimates that over the next decade an additional 10 million girls under 18 are at risk of becoming child brides – a reversal of recent progress in reducing such unions.

The ripple effect of the pandemic’s curtailment of women’s income-producing activities is stark. Studies show that when a woman starts earning an income, no matter how modest, she pours 90% of her earnings back into her family and community. For men, it’s more like 50%.

A “food-plus” program

This is one reason why international agencies like WFP and development nongovernmental organizations have shifted increasingly from basic food aid to assisting women in developing income-producing activities – often tied to food production – that help put them in the driver’s seat of their lives.

“We call it food-plus,” says Ms. Muiu, “because while it often starts with food, we then equip women with the ‘plus’ so that they don’t have to depend later on WFP” and other food-assistance organizations.

Thus in several Middle East countries women receive training in how to expand beyond family cooking to making food for sale, she says. In African countries, female farmers are trained to move beyond subsistence farming to production for local markets.

As with the Mujeres con Esperanza hammock-making cooperative, the idea is often to take traditional “women’s work” and give it added value – thereby transforming it from a symbol of women’s second-class status to a means of building stable and prospering families.

Not to mention “giving women and their daughters a strong sense of worth,” Ms. Muiu adds. Pointing to an initiative in Libya that helped women turn their sewing skills into mask-making, and one in Ivory Coast that trains women in tailoring, she says such activities “go beyond food to building livelihoods and self-reliance.”

New skills, and confidence

In many cases, women who have built new skills and confidence have used them to confront the new challenges posed by the pandemic.

Members of Mujeres con Esperanza didn’t just give up when the pandemic reduced hammock sales, for example. Instead, the women turned their attention to the small community grocery store they had recently started. With a national lockdown limiting trips to distant towns, the modest wood-frame market quickly became a lifeline for local families running out of essentials.

“The store provided a little income to our group, but we really understood its value to the community once the pandemic shut down access to other markets that are hours away,” says Elba Santos, the cooperative’s treasurer. “We’re providing a service to our neighbors,” she adds, “but [the store project] has given us new strengths we didn’t know we could have.”

For example, program officers with the regional WFP office cite the case of one member of the Mujeres cooperative who had difficulty overcoming depression after being deported from the U.S., where she left behind her American-born son to live with relatives. But participating in the store project has given this woman and others a new sense of purpose, the officers say.

The Cacaopera area has been hit with the same challenges affecting the rest of Central America and women in many parts of the globe – from crop failure due to climate change, rising food insecurity, and lost income as a result of the pandemic, to a pernicious, pandemic-abetted explosion of domestic violence, dubbed a “silent second pandemic” by some experts.

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Still, members of the cooperative stick by their decision to call themselves “Women with Hope.” Despite the hardships, they say their activities have shown them they can confront the challenges and build better futures.

“Hope is the right word,” says María Santos Cortez Martínez, another hammock maker who works one day a week at the cooperative’s store. “Working together as a group we’ve learned we can improve our lives and keep moving forward.”

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