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Women’s day: Danish support for gender equality and food security buoys WFP’s work with UNFPA

‘Gender-based violence must be a key priority in all humanitarian response plans’
, WFP Staff Writers
Cash assistance Congo_brazzaville
Ponteciana buys groceries and food thanks to WFP cash transfers. Photo: WFP/Alice Rahmoun

In times of emergencies and humanitarian crises, the exposure of women and girls to risks associated with pregnancy, reproductive health, sexual violence and exploitation are heightened. Yet access to sexual and reproductive health services becomes severely limited and the needs of women and girls are more likely to be overlooked within households, communities or by emergency responders. 

This disproportionality has been evident in the Pool region in the southeastern Republic of Congo, where violence and insecurity resulting from social and political tensions led to the displacement of nearly one in every three people between April 2016 and December 2017 – 180,000 women, men, girls and boys were trapped in isolated areas with no, or very limited, access to basic services and healthcare. 

Tensions and subsequent displacement only exacerbated gender-based violence, especially towards women and adolescent girls. Coupled with the lack of attention to their sexual and reproductive health needs, interventions and programmes in not only the Republic of Congo, but all humanitarian settings, must include a gender lens to address the specific needs of women and girls. 

Being ready to invest in innovative and creative ways to address gender inequality, mitigate risks, and respond to gender-based violence is key to achieving results

With support from the Government of Denmark, the United Nations World Food Programme in the Republic of Congo conducted a pilot programme in partnership with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) from 2018-21. The initiative sought to address the food and nutritional needs, as well as to support the sexual and reproductive health and rights of women and girls. 

Under this joint partnership, WFP launched the Cash for Dignity project for the purchase of menstrual and hygiene items to women participating in their Food for Assets programmes. Simultaneously UNFPA provided the same Beneficiaries with awareness-raising activities on gender-based violence, unplanned pregnancies, and contraception. UNFPA also trained local authorities, religious leaders, police, schoolteachers and judicial officers on gender-based violence identification, and recourse to support.

The partnership between UNFPA and WFP in Sri Lanka ensured that the project’s two components of nutrition and sexual reproductive health mutually reinforced each other. Photo: UNFPA

WFP was providing cash-based transfers to support food and nutrition needs to the internally displaced people in the region. But there was also a big issue around access to sexual, reproductive and hygiene needs as well as gender-based violence. Thanks to Denmark and the collaboration with UNFPA and with the country's Ministry of Health, WFP was able to leverage the platform used for food support through cash-based transfers to also provide dignity kits to women, explains Jean-Martin Bauer, who was WFP’s Country Director in the Republic of Congo during the implementation of the project.

“These kits included menstrual pads, soap, clothing, underwear, flipflops, household items,” explains Jean-Martin Bauer, who was WFP’s Country Director in the Republic of Congo during the implementation of the project.

“The transfer of money over the phone has made things easier for us,” said one participant in the project. “In the choice of the items of the kits that are distributed to us, but also with less risk of losing the money received.” 

This pilot initiative was not only implemented in the Republic of Congo, but in seven other countries as well. As in the Congo, the initiative in Afghanistan, Cameroon, Ecuador, Lebanon, Nigeria, South Sudan and Sri Lanka was funded by the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and implemented in partnership with UNFPA. Although respective projects had the same aim to advance WFP’s food security and nutrition objectives, enhance awareness around the rights of women and girls, as well as to explore new partnerships, programme activities were uniquely designed to fit the needs of each individual country. 

As Ulla Mueller, UNFPA Country Representative in Nigeria, notes: “We need to consider the linkages between food insecurity, demographics, and climate change, in particular the impact of the rapid population growth. Climate change is causing desertification which means that there is less arable land, and this has an impact on food insecurity. When more women can access sexual and reproductive health services including contraception this contributes to a demographic shift through a slower population growth. Thus, fulfilling the reproductive rights of women can be beneficial in the context of food insecurity.” 

Lessons from this WFP-UNFPA partnership in conflict and post-conflict settings have just been presented by WFP’s Gender Office in an event co-hosted by Denmark at WFP’s Executive Board Meeting in Rome. For Jean-Martin Bauer, one of the key lessons learned was that it was possible to innovate without reinventing the wheel. 

The one-year project by UNFPA and WFP aimed to provide critical information and services on sexual and reproductive health and nutrition to women and adolescents in six districts in Sri Lanka, including Monaragala. Photo: UNFPA

“The single platform that WFP had could also serve to meet the needs of this population that was vulnerable to gender-based violence,” he said. “We also learned that this approach was something we could mainstream. And the following year, when the COVID pandemic started spreading in the Republic of Congo, we started cash-based transfers in urban Brazzaville, and we were able to use the same approach to ensure that vulnerable women and girls in Brazzaville also got the same support.” 

In Sri Lanka, the project allowed the WFP team to work collectively with UNFPA to create a stronger integration of Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights with WFP’s nutrition and livelihoods programmes.

“We did this by creating safe spaces for women and girls to receive this important information while holding trainings on healthy diets and sexual and reproductive health,” says WFP’s former Country Director in Sri Lanka, Brenda Barton. “This was embraced by the Ministry of Health because they felt comfortable facilitating these dialogues through the lens of achieving better nutrition and health… this dual approach proved to be a winning formula.” 

Nutrition must be based – and delivered – through a gender-sensitive approach

Being ready to invest in innovative and creative ways to address gender inequality, mitigate risks, and respond to gender-based violence is key to achieving results, according to Mette Thygesen, Director, Department of Humanitarian Action, Civil Society and Engagement at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Denmark.  

Thygesen adds: “The results of the joint WFP/UNFPA pilot project have provided important and valuable lessons for all of us. That nutrition must be based – and delivered – through a gender-sensitive approach. And that gender equality and the protection from gender-based violence must be a key priority in all humanitarian response plans.”

For more information, see the full Lessons Learned report here

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