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Last Updated: Wednesday, 24 August 2005, 11:50 GMT 12:50 UK
Niger women 'banned from grain stores'
By Martin Plaut
BBC Africa analyst

Niger's women with their children. File photo
Polygamy is common in Niger - and men control the food
The UN, aid agencies and the government of Niger have all been blamed for their slow response to aid some 2.5m people in the country who are facing severe food shortages.

But the story may be more complex, as evidence is now emerging that some problems spring from the country's social structures.

Journalists who have visited Niger are reporting finding a strange phenomenon: villages in which women and children are going hungry, while there is still food in their households.

Kim Sengupta of the UK's Independent newspaper found that men had left their families, locking the grain store, while they were away.

"They've gone away to look for work or look for money and sometimes across the border in Nigeria. And you have this strange situation where there were women in the villages with stocks of sorghum and millet with hungry children, but no access to the food," he says.

Complex phenomena

There are reports that women are not even allowed to look in the family grain store - that it is taboo.

There is widespread polygamy in Niger, and with men taking more than one wife, each woman is given a small plot to support herself and her own children.

Sacks of food aid arrive in Maradi. File photo
Some men may calculate that their families will get food aid

"There is a tradition that women are more or less supposed to cater for themselves and their children with the produce that they manage to get out of the tiny plots they are given when they are married," says Moira Eknes of Care aid agency, who has just returned from Niger.

"They also have to work on the larger family fields but the production from these large fields they have no control over and no access to," she says.

If only the men control the family reserve, individual women and their children can be left to fend for themselves.

This may be a way of keeping back stocks of food until the worst times: the hungry season when the next harvest is being planted, but there is nothing yet on the table.

And men may be calculating - correctly - that if they don't provide for their families, aid agencies will step in to fill the gap.

As the renowned Indian economist, Amartya Sen pointed out many years ago, famines are complex social phenomena, and a lack of food is seldom the reason why people starve.

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