Development Frames

Mainstreaming gender: Transforming the debate on food security

Published on 1 August 2017

Kelly Shephard

Head of Knowledge, Impact and Policy

IDS Development Frames 002

The issues

Global food security and gender equality are closely linked.

Women and girls play a central role in global food systems and are typically responsible for the process of getting food to families – growing, gathering, buying, cooking and feeding.

Yet women and girls are often the hardest hit by hunger, including in protracted crises. Pregnancy and breastfeeding leave women vulnerable particularly to malnutrition. Social norms means men and boys get to eat first and better; and gender inequalities impede women’s access to markets and agricultural inputs.

Zero Hunger – a pledge to end hunger, achieve food security, improve nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture – is the second of 17 Global Goals for Sustainable Development adopted by the global community in 2015. Food security programmes are ideally placed to help achieve this Goal by 2030. But to do so involves transforming unequal power relations and addressing gender-based disparities.

Gender mainstreaming

As the leading humanitarian organisation fighting hunger worldwide, the World Food Programme(WFP) faces numerous gender-related challenges. From countering deeply rooted cultural norms in local projects to supporting gender mainstreaming in crisis and emergency situations, the organization has been continuously strengthening its gender policy and accountability frameworks.

In 2010, the opportunity arose to scale up and disseminate undocumented good practices and lessons learned in the field. A partnership between WFP and the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) followed, and in 2013, Innovations from the Field: Gender Mainstreaming from the Ground Up, funded by USAID, was launched. Innovations from the Field is a participatory action learning (PAL) programme which involved eight countries – Benin, Cambodia, Guatemala, Kenya, Lebanon, Lesotho, Malawi and Senegal.

The programme aimed to capture, share and embed successful innovations for gender mainstreaming, already underway in WFP’s programmes and partnerships around the world.

A small team of WFP staff from each country explored a range of themes over a period of six to eight months, supported by the IDS team. They then developed knowledge sharing activities and products (e.g. videos such as ‘Who Cares’, presentations and toolkits) for promoting learning across the organization and with WFP partners. So what did they learn? Where were the strong, innovative approaches? And which lessons could be applied to other food security programmes?

Learning and approaches

1. Care is central

Food security programmes must recognise the crucial role that unpaid care work plays in tackling hunger and malnutrition.

Women and girls undertake the vast majority of unpaid care work globally – including ensuring families are fed and clean, and children, as well as disabled and older people, are physically and emotionally looked after. In food-insecure contexts, this often means maintaining family farms, carrying water and fuel over long distances, and gathering, preparing and cooking food. Such tasks are often undervalued by societies and create obstacles for women in earning an income, travelling and engaging in civic life. This also hinders the meaningful participation of most women and girls in community activities and in decision-making on issues that affect their lives.

Innovations from the Field – Gender mainstreaming from the ground up for the World Food Programme

Source: YouTube

Food security programming can either empower women by recognising, reducing or redistributing unpaid care work, or it can burden them further. For example, programmes that require women to travel long distances to collect rations, or those that rely on women’s unpaid labour as community volunteers for cooking, involve additional time away from home and increase the net burden of unpaid care work. Innovations from the Field found many examples of WFP programmes that had failed to take these impacts into account – a consideration which is now included in the design guidance.

UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka
Credit: Julie Lunde Lillesæter/PRIO


Programmes have a unique opportunity to reduce gender inequalities around care. They should be designed to alleviate tough domestic work, so that women doubly benefit from cash or food transfers, and from the release of their time and energy for other activities that would promote their agency and remove the barriers for their empowerment.

For example, Malawi’s School Meals Programmes are highly reliant on the voluntary work of students’ mothers who prepare and serve food – sometimes for as many as eight hours a day. The WFP team have been exploring ways to reduce the hazard and drudgery of school meals preparation by providing new, safer cooking equipment. And they have also recognized women’s contribution by awarding certificates to volunteers in public ceremonies.

One women explained the impact of this:

“The certificate remains hanging on the wall of the living room of my house, not only as an object of decoration but it […communicates] to both my relatives and children that hard work pays and it is indeed a source of inspiration to all people around me.” (Asiyatu James, 33, Mbwadzulu primary school)

WFP Malawi continues to learn from this experience, with a view to redistributing care work between men and women.

2. Men matter too

Food security programmes must involve men, as well as women, in tackling gender inequality.

Innovations from the Field researchers and participating WFP staff found that many programmes were based on stereotypes about men’s roles. Some have swung from the assumption that men are benevolent dictators working in the interests of the whole family, to a stereotypical view of men as useless and unreliable. For example, in some WFP projects there is an untested belief that women will always use money or vouchers for their families, whereas men will squander their resources irresponsibly. But researchers found that the reality often differs from fixed notions about gender identities and behaviour.

Group discussion with men who are part of the WFP Food for Assets Programme in Turkana County, Kenya.

To address the unequal gender power relations underpinning poverty, programmes cannot focus on women alone. In many contexts, men want to be involved in food and nutrition programmes, and can make a difference when they do. WFP’s gender policy stresses the need for women and men to “participate equally in the design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of gender-transformative food security and nutrition programmes and policies”.

Empowering women to tackle hunger also requires men to recognise women’s care work, and for this work to be redistributed more equally. Providing spaces for reflection on unpaid careresponsibilities can be a useful starting point for shifting perceptions about gender norms and can lead to greater male involvement in the care and nutrition of children, alleviating women’s burden and empowering men as caregivers.

In Lesotho, the researchers examined the Early Care Child and Childhood (ECCD) programme, where WFP supplies mid-morning snacks and lunch for children at community-based nurseries or preschool. ECCD care-givers are paid a nominal fee for their work, and even though the posts are open to both women and men, the majority are female because men feel it is not suitable for them. Those men who are involved avoid cooking or other ‘female tasks.’

Shifting the association of care work away from ‘women’s work’ can help to change men’s and women’s attitudes around gender norms. Community leaders, district authorities and parliamentarians are encouraging more men to contribute to care work in their communities through these opportunities. Their efforts have led to an increase in the number of men in the role. One male caregiver, Mofuta, argues that men still face a lot of criticism from others, saying:

“Despite the criticisms, I always engage in discussions with young boys in my area to consider taking this career. It may take time but with more advocacy it will soon be uniform.”

Further research could explore the extent to which the men involved are practising these transformations in other social spheres, including at home.

3. Gender is mission-critical

Gender mainstreaming must not be perceived as a luxury. It is critical to the success of all food security programmes and the global achievement of the Zero Hunger goal.

Patrick Teixeira

Those countries that have accepted to join [the Innovations from the Field programme] are role models. They show how [gender mainstreaming] has brought about the change they wanted to see in their programmes – and we hope this will inspire others.


In some situations, such as humanitarian disasters or conflicts, gender analysis may appear to be a luxury. But in fact, it always makes sense to take gender – and other aspects of social difference – into account in food security programmes, as this allows for more effective and efficient delivery of assistance. WFP gender policy states that applying a gender lens in a crisis increases the effectiveness of targeting and the efficiency of programme delivery to the people whose lives are most at risk.

For WFP, gender and age analysis is an essential tool that ensures that all food assistance is adapted to the different needs and capacities of the women, men, girls and boys whom it serves. By ensuring staff are gender-aware and equipped with the right tools and approaches, gender analysis does not need to be a lengthy process. When staff are mandated to think about gender they produce smarter programmes. And it draws their attention to other sources of social difference such as indigeneity and disability, which may make people particularly vulnerable to hunger.

If gender mainstreaming is mission-critical, it requires financial and human resources to bring about change. Innovations from the Field researchers found that gender advocates and advisors, supported by senior management, are improving staff understanding of gender issues across WFP. But these gender-focused staff have limited capacities, scope, budgets and influence. Programme budgets must include the true costs of gender mainstreaming, and secure resources that are reliable.

Innovations from the Field identified positive examples where gender is being made central to WFP’s work. As a result of the PAL process, WFP Guatemala has made a number of changes to promote gender mainstreaming. For example, country office staff are exploring how to integrate better gender analysis in vulnerability assessments and make gender results visible in reporting. The team are also exploring with the Human Resources unit how to mainstream gender into processes for contracting services and hiring staff, such as including gender in the evaluation of tenders, and featuring gender training in the formal on boarding process for new staff.

4. Gender is personal

Gender mainstreaming in food security is personal, not just programmatic.

Innovations from the Field researchers found that leadership on gender across the visited WFP country offices is uneven, and ultimately depends on individual commitment rather than institutional imperatives.

Staff cannot design or deliver gender-sensitive programmes if they are unaware of their own preconceptions and biases. The PAL process enabled staff to take a step back, think about their own personal work and what gender means to them. Although this was not necessarily easy or comfortable, many of those who took part were inspired to make changes – both big and small – in their day-to-day work.

Thea Shahrokh


Engaging with personal preconceptions about gender can break down stereotypes.

In Senegal, for example, women are given cash vouchers on the premise that men will not spend the money they receive on their families. Men refuted this assumption in focus groups, and both men and women reflected that it would sometimes be easier for men to collect the vouchers, given security, time and travel pressures on women. In fact, husbands were usually obliged to come too in order to carry the goods home, losing a day’s work. Extra childcare was also required. Breaking down these stereotypes and assumptions held within WFP led to an improved programme.

5. Plan, learn and adapt

Food security programming requires organizations to be well-prepared and smart about gender, enabling them to respond and adapt to the changing environment.

Alyson Brody


Food security programmes operate in a volatile and complex environment, with new challenges and trends emerging with little warning. It is vital that staff and volunteers involved in programming have the skills, tools and inclination to learn about how gender works, how care is organised, the roles of men and women in feeding their families, the relationships, household and community dynamics and the wider context. Being smarter about gender will help organisations adapt to a rapidly changing context by encouraging experimentation grounded in local solutions.

Researchers found that gender mainstreaming works best when WFP staff had space to reflect, listen, learn – and apply their learning. Training and investing in staff; identifying gender focal points within each section; and ensuring core staff are skilled with gender analysis will ensure gender is mainstreamed throughout all aspects of the organisation, including proposal preparation, programme design, logistics and procurement, Vulnerability Analysis and Mapping (VAM), Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) and reporting.

Using the “river of life” to document a community based education programme in Totonicapán, Guatemala.

6. Gender counts in emergencies

Taking gender into account is critical even in emergency or humanitarian settings. Each year, WFP assists millions of people displaced or deprived of basic resources by disasters. If humanitarian interventions are not planned with gender dynamics in mind, the needs of those under most severe threat may not be adequately met, and an opportunity to support positive change will be lost.

In the extremely pressurised atmosphere of emergency and humanitarian aid work, it is not surprising that staff often lack the time or space to consider gender mainstreaming. To engage with this problem food security programmes need to build a robust business case, setting out why it is essential that gender be taken into account in all situations – including emergencies.

In response to the Syrian refugee crisis, in 2013 WFP Lebanon launched an electronic voucher programme to allow hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees to meet their food needs. The ‘e-card’ is loaded monthly with a set amount, which can be redeemed against a list of items at participating local stores. As part of the Innovations from the Field programme, WFP staff based in Beirut examined whether the e-card economically empowers women, by reducing incidences of gender-based violence as women travel to/from food distribution points.

They found that other social characteristics, besides gender, need to be taken into account with regard to the allocation of benefits. Social Safety Nets (SSN) are not just important for pregnant women, but especially valuable for the elderly and “non-autonomous” individuals who cannot work. SSN reduced overall pressure on men to generate income, and reduced the fears and feelings of people over 60 that they are useless and a burden to the family.

During the PAL process staff found that existing data from Post Distribution Monitoring lacked the necessary information to assess dimensions of empowerment. One WFP staff member commented:

“The PAL exercise helped me to think critically. It invited me to check if we are really doing what we say [we are]. It made me look at our own data and realise what they do not tell us.”


Methods to mainstream gender in an organisation will not be transformative if implemented from the top down.

This research programme has shown that gender mainstreaming is most effective when WFP staff, partners and affected populations have the opportunity to reflect, listen, learn and for that learning to be applied. Regular fieldwork is essential to gather feedback from those on the ground and to underscore their right to participate in the decisions and processes that affect their lives. This should be supported by a programme of guided reflection and learning, which enables staff to make the changes needed to transform their processes and personal ways of working, as well as food security programmes themselves.

Gender mainstreaming requires active gender-sensitive support from donors, who recognise the space and time needed for innovation and learning, and hold organisations such as WFP to account for their actions. There is an urgent need for increased funding to support gender mainstreaming – not just in the programmes themselves, but across all levels of the organisation.

Innovations from the Field is a collaboration between IDS and WFP. It is funded through USAID.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IDS.


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