A silver lining has emerged in Swaziland's current food crisis through the efforts of thousands of Swazi women who have been put in charge of food aid distribution.
"We use the phrase, 'Teach one man, and you teach one man, teach one woman and you teach 50 women," Erika MacLean, emergency coordinator for the World Food Programme (WFP) in Swaziland, told IRIN.
Nearly 300,000 people - a third of the population - is currently dependant on food aid from international donor organisations because of crop failure and bleak crop forecasts for this year suggest a continuation of food relief into 2004.
The WFP, Swaziland’s primary source of food aid, has initiated a programme to put women in the community in charge of the three key stages of the emergency response to the food crisis: targeting families in need, distribution of food, and the management of programme resources.
MacLean introduced the system, which was based on projects she initiated previously in Eritrea and Afghanistan.
"We needed to know where the food should go and which families are in need. To get this information, we went to the women - they know what goes on in their communities. Men don’t know what goes in other households, but women know whose pot is empty," MacLean said.
In Swaziland, 179 Women Relief Committees were set up, one at each food distribution point, consisting of 13 members. Seventy percent of the non-paid committee members had to be women, but in some areas committees were wholly staffed by women.
"We needed to address the concerns of male leaders about the empowerment of women. We would ask a chief, who did his cooking? He would answer the women did. We said it was right to put women in charge of the food," MacLean said.
With the chiefs' permission, women were trained to identify the vulnerable people in their communities who were most in need of assistance: female-headed households, child-headed households where parents were incapacitated by HIV/AIDS or other illnesses, orphans, the elderly and the disabled.
Food aid was then calculated with the information the committees gathered, based on a daily allotment of 400 grams of maize, 25 grams of oil, and 60 grams of beans per person. At distribution points, the committee members then handed over food to families according to pre-determined needs.
"This cut back on wastefulness and corruption. Before, we found some people were selling seeds, and some families were made to pay a 'registration fee'.
Committee members were also shown videos that traced the journey of food aid from points of origin in foreign lands.
To lessen the chance of corruption, the women were told the simple rule of entitlement, that every qualified recipient is entitled to free food.
"Also, if we give food to women, we know it will get to children, who are the most in need," said MacLean.
United Nations studies in Swaziland have indicated a problem of chronic malnutrition among children under five. Small children are not taken to clinics often enough, where food supplements are available, and they are too young to go to school to participate in feeding schemes there.
WFP is also promoting a fortified, high-protein food blend called Corn Soya Blend (CSB). Because Swazis have previously been wary of the combination of yellow maize, preferring white maize and soya beans, not well known in the country, WFP have produced a recipe book to help households prepare different dishes with the CSB.
The committees will also promote the blend, which is considered a good way to provide sustenance to malnourished under-five children, as well as to people with HIV/AIDS.
The women's committees may also be utilised for the dissemination of HIV/AIDS-related information and it is hoped that hearing important messages about the disease from neighbours, instead of strangers, will make a difference.
The programme will train 2327 committee members and they will in turn each train 50 women from their communities. It is hoped that these managerial skills can be extended to their own business ventures and other community projects.
"When assistance is needed, ordinary people won't come to the WFP, and they might not even go to their government officials in the capital, but they will turn to people they know in their own communities," MacLean said.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
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