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To give an overview of the gender-differentiated policy issues to be taken into consideration at the beginning of and during an emergency operation.


Characteristics and levels of vulnerability, Food security policy, Gender profile, Household coping strategies, Nutritional crises, Process and outcome indicators, Role of food aid, Socio-demographic service mapping.


Food security is generally defined as a state of affairs where ‘all persons at all times have access to sufficient safe and nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life’. This simple statement involves many issues from food production, distribution and marketing, preparation, processing and storage, to population and health, education, employment and income.

Food security is a multi-sectoral issue reaching far beyond agriculture and food production alone. Food security policy needs to include provision of food to urban non-food producers as well as rural landed and landless people. The need for a continuous supply of food needs to be addressed, including during transitory situations such as famine, crop failures and political and economic instability.

Food security is different to food self-sufficiency, which refers to sufficient domestic production to meet the needs of the population. Food security includes both domestic production of food together with the capacity to import in order to meet the needs of the population. Household food security refers both to the availability and to stability of food, together with the purchasing power of the household.

Food security is an issue for individuals within households, for households as a whole, for nations and for the international community. The problem of food insecurity is apparent even in countries where food is abundant, indicating that the problem is not just one of food availability.

At household level, it is possible for individual members of a household to be malnourished while others have sufficient food. At the national level, there can be sufficient food supplies available to the nation as a whole but food insecure households or areas of the country due to production shortages or low-income levels. Internationally, food production levels are more than sufficient to feed all people. At present, a lack of purchasing power remains a fundamental problem.

Improving food security therefore means either ensuring people have the means to produce sufficient food of sufficient quality for their own consumption - or the opportunity to earn enough regular income to purchase it from accessible markets. Whether in terms of labour input, decision-making, or control of production resources, there is a need to emphasize the inclusion of gender issues in food security in the real sense of availability and accessibility.

Gender is relevant to the majority of these issues since women are generally affected differently to men due to their differing access to finances and resources. In all cases, the question needs to be asked ‘Who are the targets of policy initiatives? Who is involved in the different aspects of food security? What could be done to improve the situation? Is the concerned group, women, men, youth, children, minority groups, the disabled or a combination of several groups which should be addressed separately as sub-groups (rich/poor, married, single etc.).

Many failures in programmes and policies are due to the assumption that large groups of people are homogeneous, rather than men, women, youth and various disadvantaged groups with different needs and interests. It is important that the specific target groups for all policies and programmes are identified and policies and programmes designed to reach them.

Gender sensitive policies are vital to good development practice. Goals and objectives cannot be achieved without a clear understanding of the target group. Knowing who does what work and carries out what roles in providing for household food security is essential in policy planning.

The roles, divisions of labour and expectations accorded to women, vary with societies, level of economic development and over time. What is accepted for poor women may not be the same for wealthier women and what is common practice in towns may be different to the rural areas.

If women in general are responsible for a particular aspect of food policy they need to be specifically targeted, rather than assuming that they will be reached. However, treating all women as the same can be as inappropriate as treating all men as the same. It is important to recognize that women are not a homogeneous group. A specific group or groups of women may need to be targets of policies and programmes. These could comprise the young, old, rich, poor, married, single, members of particular social or ethnic groups, minorities and disadvantaged groups, the powerful and the relatively powerless.

Emergency-situations differ from chronic food insecurity problems and therefore need to be addressed differently. In these circumstances, such as those related to crop failure, famine, drought, economic or political problems - food policy needs to be designed to restore the normal situation as rapidly as possible.

Chronic and Transitory Food Insecurity



  • A household usually runs a high risk of inability to meet the food needs of its members

  • A household faces temporary decline in the security of its entitlements, and the risk of failure to meet food needs is of short duration

The Role of Food Aid

A coherent strategy with a programme of actions providing for immediate relief and protection of the crisis’ victims priority needs is required. This should address the root causes of the crisis, decrease vulnerability, restore stability and link relief with sustainable development. The programmes engaged should be structured to mitigate the consequences of crises and prevent their re-occurrence.

Cross sector issues surrounding relief mechanisms to be employed need to be assessed against past lessons learned in the implementation of projects. Decisions should be made on the timing and how best to utilize available resources - for saving lives in the immediate term while providing for livelihoods through an ‘aid dependency escape plan’.

Roles of Food Aid[8]

The "Must" Function

The "Can" Function

  • When a disaster causes the loss of important food stocks and livelihoods, and where people are forced to live in camps, food aid may be essential for the survival and maintenance of their health. It has a MUST function, at least during the initial period of an emergency.

  • When complementary to other forms of assistance, mostly financial and technical support, or the only source of assistance available, food aid CAN be an appropriate form of assistance - where it has no serious disadvantages to existing programmes.

The effects of food aid, subsidies, and rehabilitation programmes on women, as the principle providers of food for the household, need to be considered, as opposed to looking at households as units. In such difficult circumstances, there may be no man associated with the household and even where there is, it may still be considered the women’s responsibility to provide for food by whatever means possible.

Lives and Livelihood Additive and Interactive Cross-cutting Issues





  • Lack of cash to meet non-food needs

  • Increased poverty

  • Increased workload

  • Harrassment, families disruption

  • Local market impact

  • Local food procurement

  • Cash and food for work opportunities

  • Targeting mode

  • Health and malnourishment

An emergency food aid need is not easily measurable. Food supply deficits, and national and individual coping-capacities have to be considered. Good knowledge is required of food security related socio-economic issues and an understanding of how people make their choices and how they interact. Although in many cases food aid is not the only way to address problems of food insecurity it usually has advantages with respect to improving the diet, allowing better targeting and supporting the role of women.

Possible Measures in Addressing Nutritional Crises[9]

Food Access

  • Reinforcing the capacity of households to ensure their own food security.

General Feeding

  • Provision of a general ration to all households to compensate for deficiencies in existing food supplies, particularly when no other sources of food are available. These should meet the micronutrient as well as protein and energy needs of all household members.

Supplementary Feeding

  • Short-term special protection measures targeting specific nutritionally vulnerable groups (such as pregnant and lactating women, children and elderly.) These are designed to compensate for specific deficiencies in energy, protein and micronutrients until adequate rations are provided and households can meet their own needs.

Therapeutic Feeding

  • Urgent life-saving interventions when the health system is not functioning and where there is severe widespread protein-energy and micronutrient malnutrition amongst infants and young children. A combination of medical and nutritional treatment is provided on an in-patient basis in special feeding shelters, together with education on health, hygiene and other protection issues.

Infant Feeding and Supplements

  • Based on breastfeeding, use of breastmilk substitutes and complimentary feeding measures are supplied based on need. Essential vitamins (e.g. Vit. A) are provided to children under five years (every 6 months) and mothers (after delivery and within 8 weeks).

Food aid is required when there is non-availability or extreme shortage of food supplies and lack of purchasing power (economic access to food) among the beneficiary population. Although emergency food aid can and should contribute to the rehabilitation of economical and physical assets, the primary purpose of food aid is to sufficiently improve the immediate food security of the target groups.

The role of food aid changes through the stages of an emergency. During the first stage of many emergency interventions, the role of food aid is life saving or has a key feeding function. In Protracted Relief and Rehabilitation Operations (PRROs), beneficiaries may use food aid as a resource that can be traded to cover other essential needs or to rebuild assets. When beneficiaries have uncovered non-food needs (e.g., firewood in refugee camps), a part of food aid is often used to cover these needs, sometimes at the expense of its nutritional or gender-specific impact.

Women Returning to Their Lands

Sattorova Davlatmo is a 35-year-old widow. "My husband died seven years ago and I was left with five children to care for," she says. "In 1992 when the war spread to our village, we fled to Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, with my two brothers.

There, 19 of us lived crammed together in one house. We really suffered - we could only afford four or five small loaves of bread a day, shared between the lot of us." Returning home, they found the village destroyed and homes burnt down. "But a few of the trees had fruit on them. I started looking for food for the children. We were desperate for bread. I managed to collect some fruit and vegetables, and sell then to buy some loaves."

Then, Sattorova heard about WFP’s "food for work" project on farms. WFP is working with authorities in a scheme, which enables the neediest families (mostly widowed women and children) to directly negotiate and privately lease sizable plots of irrigated land to farm (30 % of harvest rent). WFP supports them during the difficult first year - before their efforts can yield results - by paying them in food.

That means energies can be focused on farming rather than the grim daily struggle to get something to eat. "Now I have half a hectare farm plot on which to grow food, as well as my own garden. The food-for-work payments mean I can save money to buy seeds and fertilizers, and feed my children."


Vulnerability is the extent to which a household may be adversely affected and rendered more food insecure by possible future events. Several factors influence a person or household’s vulnerability in a crisis. These include events that undermine household food supplies and access by: (i) Loss of own food production or stocks; (ii) Loss of income and/or tradable assets; (iii) More difficult economic access to food (e.g. due to price increases), and (iv) Break-down of traditional support systems.

In complex emergencies and protracted crises, it is important to understand the interplay between political vulnerability and other sources of vulnerability.

Characteristics of Vulnerability


Target Groups


  • Children, pregnant and lactating women, and the elderly


  • Female-headed households, unaccompanied minors, child headed households, widows without families, and disabled


  • People exposed to rape, impregnation, and STD infection


  • Landless poor, herdless pastoralists, the poorest of caste groups and marginalised communities


  • Specifically discriminated against people because of who they are (e.g. members of the opposition, ethnic groups and religious minorities), what they have (e.g. cattle herds and mineral resources), what they represent (e.g. wives)

Female-headed households in rural areas are often the most economically and politically disadvantaged population group. Information on these households should be correlated with indicators (e.g. for maternal mortality, fertility, teenage pregnancy rate, literacy level and employment rate) in order to understand their constraints, productive capacity and their capabilities as food securers for their dependants.

Vulnerability maps identify the areas and sectors of the population most at risk of food insecurity, including the types and levels of risks involved based on past, present and projected trends. They are used to assess the needs of areas most at risk and the groups of people at particular risk. It has been reported that it is common for women to be more at risk of malnutrition than men are in emergency situations.

Levels of Vulnerability[10]

Vulnerability Levels

Conditions of Vulnerability


  • Drawing down assets while maintaining preferred production/income


  • Drawing down assets while maintaining preferred production/income

Extreme risk

  • Liquidating means of production abandoning preferred production/income, physically and socially damaging coping strategies

Approaches used in vulnerability mapping include: (a) Disaggregation of existing data on socio-economic groups; (b) Surveys to collect direct information, and (c) Rapid Appraisals. A combination of approaches is most often necessary. Vulnerability mapping is most often needed.

There are two critical steps in ensuring accurate and comprehensive incorporation of the issues for vulnerability mapping. They include: (a) Involving an appropriate cross-section of stakeholders in diagnosing constraints and identifying associated indicators, and (b) Acquiring data which is disaggregated by sex, and developing a useful set of indicators of vulnerability.

Participatory rapid appraisal techniques (PRA) provide effective tools to evaluate household food security constraints in a representative and efficient manner under emergency situations.


Ultimately, vulnerability to food insecurity is best assessed by a bottom-up approach, as insecurity, perception of risk, and their attendant strategies and responses are very specific to households and communities. A challenge for the SEAGA approach is to develop indicators that are informed by data that are collected through participatory field methods.

Given the very wide range of issues implicated in food security analysis, the array of indicators that may be employed is vast. Indicators selected vary greatly depending on the size, budget, and sophistication of the information system.

A major factor affecting the choice of indicators is how much direct household information can be cost-effectively obtained for important population groups. Indirect aggregated sources, such as district-level food production estimates and market price data, offer a more pragmatic approach.

Aggregate indicators of food security may be divided into Process Indicators and Outcome Indicators.

Process Indicators

Process Indicators are those that reflect food supply and food access, the causal or underlying components of a household’s or individual’s food security status.

Indicators that reflect food supply include inputs and measures of agricultural production, the natural resource base, institutional development, and market infrastructure.

Examples of Food Supply Process Indicators

Supply Process Indicators

  • Rainfall data

  • Essential products (inputs)

  • Crop harvest measurements

  • Food balance

  • Major staples, alternative food crops, and wild foods

  • Market access, origin of buyers and sellers, volumes

  • Different types of households

  • Levels of exchange

However, these indicators are often too aggregated to yield sensitive information on pockets of vulnerability.

Indicators that reflect food access are the various means and strategies used by households to meet their needs. These strategies will vary by region, community, social class, ethnic group, gender, and season. This information can be obtained for households. However, as gender differences are often concealed within the household, several indicators of access to food must be monitored at an intra-household level. These data may be collected for households categorized according to locally relevant criteria, such as ethnic group, landowning class/landless, occupational class, etc. Within each category, male-headed and female-headed households must be compared.

Examples of Food Access Process Indicators

Access Process Indicators

  • Household demographic characteristics such as dependency ratios, age, and generation profile of males and females

  • The household resource base, in terms of access to land (amount owned, rented, sharecropped, or accessed in other ways) or other critical productive resources (e.g., fishing equipment for households whose primary livelihood is fishing)

  • Access to labour (from within household or outside), credit, farming inputs (improved technology)

  • The household asset base (the most critical asset is often livestock, but house, furniture and jewelry are also frequently considered)

  • Livelihood strategies of male- and female-headed households, including farming strategies (crop mix, risk-minimization strategies), mode of livestock rearing, diversification into off-farm employment

  • Exchange strategies and access to markets

Outcome Indicators

Outcome Indicators reflect the food security status of households and individuals, in terms of how the available food is translated into consumed food and nutritional levels. Given the cost and time involved in gathering individual intake data, several proxies are used. Outcome indicators may be grouped into Direct Outcome Indicators or Indirect Outcome Indicators.

Direct Outcome Indicators include those that are closest to reflecting actual food consumption, as obtained through household budget and consumption surveys. Indirect Outcome Indicators are more easily obtained proxies for household consumption, used when direct information is too costly or difficult to obtain.

Examples of Direct Outcome Indicators

Direct Outcome Indicators

  • Per capita calorie consumption, annual and seasonal variations

  • Frequency and composition of meals and dietary diversity (from 24-hour recall or food frequency assessments)

  • Extent of self-provisioning (number of months consumption needs are met from household production and receipts in kind)

  • Content of market food purchases (consumption of foods purchased from the market is the most likely to suffer during crises)

Examples of Indirect Outcome Indicators

Indirect Outcome Indicators

  • Storage estimates

  • Subsistence Potential Ratio (the ratio of the household’s ability to feed itself to its consumption needs)

  • Nutritional status estimates of children under five: anthropometric measures such as weight-for-age, height-for age and weight-for-height (there are several problems with these measures as indicators of food security in the short run Maxwell and Frankenberger, 1992:99. However, they work well in identifying vulnerable populations, and are also powerful data in eliciting policy support)

Coping Strategy Indicators

Coping abilities during an emergency are the primary determinants of differences in the levels of needs across vulnerable groups (between populations, and among and within households).

Coping mechanisms are the various activities (often desperate measures) that individuals, households and communities develop to overcome poverty, adversity and crisis. They vary by region, community, social class, ethnic group and gender, and according to the nature and duration of the emergency. Patterns of coping behaviours and household assets utilized to cope with a crisis will reflect who (men and women) control household decision-making processes. Coping mechanisms tend to be expensive (financial, social and nutritional status), and can have particularly deleterious effects on the most marginalized in a society.

Household Coping Strategy Stages[11] are a special aggregate indicator category which serve both as process indicators(reflecting households’ mechanisms of access to food in lean periods) as well as outcome indicators. They are widely regarded as early warning indicators of the food security status of vulnerable groups. Coping strategies vary with the context, with households’ baseline situation, the severity of crisis, and with the household’s stage in coping with the crisis. The coping strategies used in specific contexts need to be charted and carefully monitored.

Examples of Coping Strategy Stage Indicators

Stage 1

  • Reduction in amount, frequency, or quality of meals.

  • Use of famine foods.

  • Borrowing food, or purchasing food on credit.

  • Emergency livelihood strategies.

Stage 2

  • Depletion of food and seed stocks.

  • Sale of domestic assets: jewelry, furniture.

  • Sale of productive assets such as livestock.

  • Pledging land.

Stage 3

  • Long-term or permanent migration.

  • Sale of land.

Question Tank - Food Security Policy[12]

Socio-Demographic Gender Profile Checklist

  • What are the determinants of food insecurity and the capacity of population groups to cope with the effects of disaster? Are women/men affected in different ways? How do men/women cope?

  • Where are women? What are their roles? What is their income, health and family status? What is their food security status? What characterises food insecure women?

  • Collect and/or collate the following information to review/formulate/adjust food security policy with an appropriate gender dimension.

  • Size, age, and gender structure of population

  • Geographic distribution. Rural/urban distribution

  • Land tenure/access

  • Female-headed households (rural/urban).

  • Food security indicators (e.g. iron, vit A, iodine deficiency, fuel-wood access)

  • Income levels

  • Household expenditure distribution (particularly on main food groups)

  • Labour force participation and occupations (household, formal and informal sectors)

  • Health indicators (fertility rates, maternal/infant mortality rates, under 5 mortality rates)

  • Education levels/literacy levels

  • Time Budgets

  • In reviewing existing material in all relevant areas (e.g. poverty, malnutrition, and food insecurity), are these data sex-disaggregated?

  • In which areas are secondary data insufficient?

  • Have primary data collection exercises, through rapid rural appraisal techniques using multi-disciplinary teams and local community knowledge, been planned?

  • Will these techniques provide insight to food security as experienced (differently) by both men and women?

Resources, Programmes and Services Mapping Checklist

  • What food security services/programmes are available?

  • Where are food security services available?

  • Do they specifically target women?

  • Are they accessible to women?

  • Are they located together with other services used by women (markets, health care, education)?

  • Do women have equal and effective access to food security programmes?

  • Collect and/or collate the following information to review/formulate/adjust food security policy with an appropriate gender dimension.

  • Spread of services/facilities across country.

  • Location vis-a-vis access by transport, distribution of target group and linkages vis-a-vis other services.

  • Target groups.

  • Eligibility criteria.

  • Availability of service.

  • Implementing agency.

  • Funding.

  • Planning for new/extended services.

  • How is the food security policy coordinated with other programmes and policies? Are there mechanisms (in all Ministries) for analysis of policies and programmes for gender sensitivity (e.g. within a wider framework such as land use and agro-ecological policy)?

  • What are the linkages with other (Ministries) services and programmes?

  • Are both men and women active in the policy-making bodies, targets and timetables? Are women consulted and representative views projected?

  • Do effective institutional arrangements and mechanisms exist for consultation and participation by women in decision-making, policy formulation and programme implementation at all levels?

  • Who is accountable for ensuring that the policy targets and timetable are maintained?

  • How will accountability be checked?

  • Are women and specific target groups involved?

Consultation Process Checklist

  • What levels of organisation have been consulted (national, district, village)?

  • Are women represented in key advocacy and interest groups (e.g. national labour unions, professional associations, and consumer groups)?

  • Are both women's and men's organisations represented in a task force?

  • Are women on the task force able to express views in conflict with those of the men?

  • How will any defined targets and timetable be implemented?

  • Will women be involved in implementation at all levels?

  • How will specific target groups be reached?

  • Has broad-based support been developed?

  • Are the members of the task force regularly in touch with village level problems?

  • Have comments of the various groups been addressed? Are there any major disagreements? If so, how can they be overcome?

  • Has sufficient time been allowed to incorporate comments from the different levels in the policy development? Is the process flexible or has everything been decided before consultation.

  • Progress in all programmes, projects, activities and targets should be collated at national level within a comprehensive information system.

  • Progress reports, maps, indicators, trends and causal relationships should be compiled annually in addressing gender concerns.

  • Institutional arrangements/mechanisms for projecting the views/concerns of women (at village, regional and national levels) to policy makers

  • Consultation procedures with representatives of women in the policy formulation and implementation processes

  • Methods for coordinating responses from women

  • Information flows (up and down)

  • Key NGOs advocating women's and nutritional issues

  • Number of participatory planning workshops

  • Mechanisms for involving women in decision and policy making

Strategy Areas Checklist

  • What are the constraints to women increasing household food security?

  • What opportunities exist for enhancing women's food production, income generation or nutrition levels?

  • What key strategy areas must be addressed through specific programmes, actions and services. Set a priority to each of these areas.

  • What strategies should be engaged to overcome constraints and make use of opportunities?

  • What are the indicators and their target levels that should be selected against which to measure progress?

  • Some key strategic areas common to many countries include:

  • Food crop production and targets

  • Levels of self-sufficiency in particular crops

  • Balance of food crop to cash crop production

  • Prevention of post harvest losses

  • Relief, price and income support

  • National food reserves

  • Marketing and distribution

  • Education and training

  • Employment and income

  • Population, nutrition and health

  • Participation of target groups, especially women

  • Environment and sustainable development

  • Urban food security

  • Have the effect on both women and men been considered?

  • Have target groups been identified?

  • Have women and men's views been consulted in defining strategy areas and target groups?

  • Have target group representatives been involved?

  • At what levels?

  • Is there enough flexibility for programmes to be adjusted if it becomes apparent that particular target groups are being adversely affected?

Emergency Situation Food Security Issues/Constraints Checklist.

  • State procurement, marketing boards, cooperatives, etc.

  • Emergency relief systems: Early warning and risk/poverty/vulnerability mapping, mechanisms for aid delivery

  • National, regional, and local information systems. Monitoring and evaluation of food production and supply systems to track progress

  • Seasonal, regional fluctuations in food supply

  • Appropriate levels of food stocks at national and regional levels

  • Import policies, tariffs, and their effects on domestic production and incomes

  • Export policies, export/cash crops, and their effects on food crop production, food supply, and rural incomes

  • Availability of information, with particular reference to household level accesses to agricultural extension and information on nutrition and health

  • Subsidies on products and input prices and their effects on production of food crops and incomes of the poor

  • National, regional, and local transportation infrastructure for food distribution and/or marketing

  • Cropping patterns

  • Social and environmental stability and long term sustainability of the food production and delivery systems/technologies

  • Availability of inputs: water, irrigation, fertilizer, crop protection, seeds labour, credit. Processing facilities and safe storage methods for food stocks

  • Community support for production, transport and delivery. Availability and status of common property resources (forest, pasture, and water)

  • Nutritional value of crops produced

  • Food prices: farm-gate prices, consumer prices. Incomes and purchasing power of households. Wages for agricultural labour. Off-season income opportunities (food-for-work projects, etc.)

  • Adequacy of food supplies (quantity, quality, and nutritional aspects). Stability of food supplies and access

  • Household coping strategies, key savings assets, common trade-offs. Micro-level social and cultural mechanisms for exchanging and sharing food

  • Intra-household food security. Differential access within households to production and consumption

  • Supplementary feeding programmes for at-risk sections of the population

[8] Source: WFP Needs Assessment Guidelines, October 1999.
[9] Source: WFP Emergency Needs Assessment Guidelines, October 1999.
[10] Source: Vulnerability Matrix for the U.S. Famine Early Warning System
[11] Source: Frankenberger, T. (1992): "Indicators and Data-Collection Methods for Assessing Household Food Security". In Maxwell and Frankenberger: Household Food Security: Concepts, Indicators, Measurements, A Technical Review, Jointly Sponsored by UNICEF and IFAD.
[12] Source: Bonitatibus, E., Cook, J., Walker-Leigh, V., Osei-Hwedie, K., Mufune, P., Mwansa, L. Chasi, M., Ngwira, N., Kyasiimire, E. & Al Hassan, R., 1995. Incorporating Gender in Food Security Policies in Commonwealth Africa (Botswana, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Uganda, and Ghana). Draft Handbook for Policy Makers. BC Consultants. Commonwealth Secretariat, pp. 1- 39.

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