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Tackling ‘terror in the home’

On International Women's Day, WFP takes the measure of how much further it — and others in the field of aid or social policy — must travel to achieve gender equality
, Andre Vornic

"How do you suggest we make this case?"

A former union organizer, Jacqueline Paul helps shape WFP's policies on gender. Photo: WFP/Giulio D'Adamo

Sitting on the edge of my desk, this senior adviser has an easy relationship with advice. Happy to proffer it, happy to seek it. The informality might be simply Australian. Or else a carryover from a past career as a union organizer. And if the latter job is one you associate with burly men — well, that's just another stereotype Paul is out to slay.

Paul is a she. Sporty and skirted.

Paul is the surname.

The given name's Jacqueline.

She is WFP's in-house gender specialist, here to scrape back layers of inference and assumption. But mostly to hammer home this point: unless WFP concentrates on gender equality, any hope it might have of delivering on its mandate is doomed.

The idea goes down well in principle; perhaps less so in fact. And while Paul smiles frequently, the smile swings from mirth to exasperation.

"There are countries, among the world's least developed, where the same programmes have been implemented for thirty years. Thirty years! Now that we're talking about the link between food security, security and peace — it's by working with women that you build peace. Studies have been showing this for well over a decade."

Equal opportunities, equal access to resources and equal voice in decisions are vital to achieve a world with Zero Hunger. Photo: Gabriela Vivacqua

Not that the idea isn't percolating. WFP's Country Strategic Plans, or CSPs, are national policy packages designed to up the chances of hitting Sustainable Development Goal 2 (end all forms of hunger and malnutrition). Devising the CSPs has sucked up truckfuls of corporate time and energy, but they have one great merit: they are helping de-enclave the concept of food assistance, writing it into wider development strategies. In the process, the CSPs mainstream gender, making it — at least theoretically — a consideration in all WFP policies and programmes.

On the nutrition front, the optics are noticeably shifting. It's now an accepted fact, for instance, that splitting nutrients equally among family members is anything but fair: the objective needs of teenage girls exceed those of their male relatives. And we know that in, say, Bangladesh, where women typically do the cooking but are the last to eat, distributing food or cash gender-neutrally only consolidates iniquity: for the men, the choice bits; for the women, the leftovers.

Nutrition programmes now acknowledge that the needs of adolescent girls exceed those of their male relatives. Photo: WFP/Wissam Nassar

But much of this understanding remains notional, Paul says. The shift in practices has far to go. And with food assistance still largely targeted at households, individuals within them — almost always the women and girls — draw the short straw.

One WFP staffer makes a related, if more startlingly graphic, point. "We like to say that we leave no one behind. But we do leave people behind. If you're a woman with a disability — say, suffering from leprosy, with no fingers to register for assistance or collect and cook your food — you're almost bound to be left behind."

Being left behind is something Paul has observed rather literally in a previous career. In Gaza, where she served with UNRWA, the UN's Palestinian refugee agency, women might be sealed inside their homes by social and family pressure.

"I will never forget this one woman in Gaza City. She was in her late 30s or early 40s. She was blind. She came to meet me and said, ‘This is the first time I have left my house in 20 years.' She must have been kept indoors since adolescence, or early youth."

"When a significant segment of the population experiences physical, sexual, psychological, financial violence — that is terror." Photo: WFP/Wissam Nassar

This may have been an extreme case, but by no means singular. One woman who'd made it out of her home, Paul recalls, returned to find she'd been written out of family history.

"This other woman lived in central Gaza. She stepped out one day. When she came back, she found that her husband had married her daughter."

A veteran of humanitarian action in conflict-ridden spots, including Afghanistan, Paul also gives rich countries short shrift. "Western nations, mine included, tend to focus on external threats. They're committed to fighting terror. But for many women, terror is in the home. When you live in fear, when a significant segment of the population experiences physical, sexual, psychological, financial violence — how is that not terror?"

Paul's definition of violence is broader than the law's — at least as the law now stands in most jurisdictions. She bristles at the perceived lack of attention paid to domestic subjugation. "Women must sustain the population without recognition. Constant, backbreaking, unremunerated work — and yes, this includes the preparation of food."

"Women must sustain the population without recognition. Constant, backbreaking, unremunerated work." Photo: WFP/Rein Skullerud

Although she often sounds like a human-rights lawyer (her tone is staccato-liberal), Paul is a psychologist by training. Where the diagnosis is blunt, the treatment is nuanced. She weaves a delicate web of scepticism around development-sector mantras such as women's empowerment.

"Empowerment is fine," she says, "but not easy to do. And it's an ethical minefield. When you raise awareness and women become conscious of their rights, the immediate reaction is more violence: it goes up before it drops. Also, if the environment the women live in has no structures that offer safety — what exactly are you encouraging? What support do you offer the women you've empowered into homelessness?"

Most of our conversation has taken place in a Roman café. Behind us, a group of women steps in and takes up a table amid boisterous chatter. What's left of our coffee has hardened in our cups. Back in my East European childhood, as often as not when middle-aged women congregated, one of them would turn over her friends' empty coffee cups. She'd let the cups stand upside down in their saucers for a bit, then flip them back up and purport to read fortunes into the spidery patterns left by the dregs.

This light-hearted ritual, it suddenly occurs to me, wasn't really to do with superstition. It was to do with fantasizing about a future unshackled.

"So where does this leave us?" I ask Paul. "What's the solution?"

Women organizing is the key to real empowerment. Photo: WFP/Giulio D'Adamo

The answer is un-technical. It may be radically old-fashioned, or surreptitiously insightful, or both.

"That," Paul says, nodding to the women bonding behind us. "Solidarity. Women getting together, swapping stories. Realizing they're not alone. Organizing."

The former union official rises. A self-described functional single parent (her husband is serving with a different UN agency in Chad), she must collect her daughter from school.

That's number one on today's to-do list.

Number two is dismantling patriarchy.

Learn more about WFP's work on gender equality