IRIN, 02 January 2003, AFRICA: Governments urged to support women

JOHANNESBURG - UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has urged that more attention be devoted to the plight of African women as the continent battles the twin threats of famine and AIDS.

This deadly combination "is threatening the backbone of Africa the women who keep African societies going and whose work makes up the economic foundation of rural communities", Annan wrote in an opinion piece that was published in the International Herald Tribune on Monday.

In famines before the AIDS crisis, women proved more resilient than men. Their survival rate was higher, and their coping skills were stronger.

"Women were the ones that found alternative foods that could sustain their children in times of drought," Annan said. "As droughts happened once a decade or so, women who had experienced previous droughts were able to pass on survival techniques to younger women. Women are the ones that nurture social networks that can help spread the burden in times of famine."

But as AIDS eroded the health of
Africa's women, it eroded the skills, experience and networks that have kept their families and communities going, Annan said. "Even before falling ill, a woman will often have to care for a sick husband, thereby reducing the time she can devote to planting, harvesting and marketing crops," he noted. "When she dies, the household will risk collapsing completely, leaving children to fend for themselves."

Africa's current food crisis was different from past famines, the Secretary-General urged policy makers to look beyond relief measures of the past, such as merely shipping in food, to combining food assistance and new approaches to farming with treatment and prevention of HIV and AIDS. He pointed to successful examples in Africa as proof that "there is reason to hope".

"We can and must build on those successes and replicate them elsewhere," Annan said. "For that, we need leadership, partnership and imagination from the international community and African governments. If we want to save
Africa from two catastrophes, we would do well to focus on saving Africa's women."