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Not just food shortages: understanding the hunger crisis

23rd May 2022 - 10 min read

What is driving global hunger and how are girls affected?

Laura Oakley
is Editorial & Content Manager at Plan International UK

“This year’s drought is on another level,” said 19-year-old Jenitor.

“Sincerely speaking, since January this year, we have not seen even a single drop of water."

This was Jenitor speaking in June 2021 from Kilifi County, Kenya. Almost one year on, the situation there remains grave.

“School learning has greatly reduced due to girls dropping out of school to look for money and feed their families,” says Jenitor. She is the only one of six sisters still going to school.
“School learning has greatly reduced due to girls dropping out of school to look for money and feed their families,” says Jenitor. She is the only one of six sisters still going to school.


Persistent drought means harvests have failed and livestock have died. Food and water are running short.

You might think drought in places like Kenya is just something that happens. But not like this. Kenya’s weather patterns are changing. Time after time the rainy seasons are failing.

“All our water sources are dry and we have to travel long distances to look for water,” explained Jenitor. “Eating is also a big challenge.”

And it is that challenge, shared by children and young people around the world right now, that is of growing concern. A hunger crisis is unfolding.

An experience shared by millions

Jenitor is one of 811 million people who are struggling to find and afford the food they need to survive. And that number is growing.

The hunger crisis is severe in East African countries like Kenya where Jenitor lives. But it is also happening in places like Central Sahel and Haiti.

Conflict, coronavirus, the climate emergency and economic turbulence have all contributed to a steep rise in global hunger.

Those affected live in places where these crises have layered up and impacted on the availability, cost and quality of food.

Those most affected have been experiencing hunger for some time, affecting their health and wellbeing.

The situation is becoming even more urgent now that the conflict in Ukraine has caused another shock to global food costs. Ukraine previously played a key role supplying food (especially wheat) to countries around the world.

As the story currently stands, many people, including children, are set to lose their lives from hunger. But we can change the ending if we act soon.

"Famine is quite literally knocking on the door."
Dr Unni Krishnan, Global Humanitarian Director, Plan International

Understanding hunger

Put simply, you experience hunger when you don’t have enough food to eat. You experience malnutrition when you don’t consume enough nutrients to grow or sustain your body.

If you routinely experience hunger, you aren’t eating enough and therefore this can lead to malnutrition.

If you drink dirty water that makes you ill, your body will struggle to absorb nutrients and therefore this can also lead to malnutrition.

Malnutrition can turn into wasting when you become dangerously thin.

At least 45 million children are suffering from wasting. That’s almost equivalent to the entire population of Spain.

malnourished child hunger crisis
A young girl has her arm measured to check how malnourished she is

You are less likely to experience hunger if you are food secure. This means you can access enough good food at all times. If you can’t, you are food insecure.

Some people may face more food insecurity than others depending on the quality and accessibility of food available, and how long this situation lasts.

Right now, 1 in 8 people in the world are severely food insecure.

The global food crisis is a crisis of both hunger and malnutrition with knock-on effects on all areas of life. It is often particularly devastating for girls.

How the hunger crisis affects girls

The hunger crisis posts a huge threat to girls – to their bodies, their education, their safety and, ultimately, their lives.

Girls’ bodies

“Even if girls are hungry, we only eat leftovers, if there is any left. The younger children eat first,’ explains 11-year-old Najma in Somalia.

“Mothers do the same thing, only eating their children’s leftovers.”

Drought forced Najma’s family to move. Now they live in a displacement camp where there is no school.

Najma Hunger crisis
“I miss living a happy and normal life,” says Najma. “I would like the government to enrol all children in school. Education is the most important thing.”

Women and girls account for 70% of people experiencing hunger worldwide. Najma’s experience of eating last and least is something we see again and again when food is scarce.

This takes its toll, especially as girls have unique nutritional needs. As Najma says:

“It affects girls in different ways. Their bodies become malnourished and you can see it from their appearance.”

Hunger is particularly dangerous for adolescent girls and women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, increasing their risk of miscarriage or dying in childbirth.

For their children, it can increase the risk of stillbirth or newborn death, low birth weight and stunting (when a child is too short for their age). The effects of stunting often last a lifetime.

These are the risks 19-year-old Francisca in Guatemala faces with the birth of her first child.

“When there are shortages, I feel hungry and thirsty and can't work, I have no strength, that's what worries me, that's why I don't like food shortages,” says Francisca.

Francisca has struggled with hunger throughout her pregnancy.
Francisca has struggled with hunger throughout her pregnancy.
Francisca hunger crisis
Francisca has struggled with hunger throughout her pregnancy

For girls facing hunger caused by drought, the lack of water poses a hygiene problem too – especially during their period.

“Many girls are unable to wash before coming to school because of the water shortages,” explains Jenitor.

“At school, the situation is the same. We don’t have water to drink nor wash our hands. Toilets run without water and become dirty and a breeding point for diseases.

Girls’ education

Girls are also being forced to give up their education to help make ends meet. Instead of going to school, they help their family find food, water or things that can be sold to buy food.

“Things have become tough and we need to support our parents whether we like it or not,” says 14-year-old Ramla in Kenya.

“As children, we spend a lot of time working, cutting trees for charcoal or fetching firewood to sell, instead of going to school.”

Ramla lives in the same region as Jenitor and shares her concern for girls’ education during this crisis.

“Our rights as children are being violated every day during the drought periods but we don’t have any say,” says Ramla.

Beti Hunger crisis
“I want to finish school so I can become a nurse,” says Beti. But her siblings and grandmother rely on her to find food.

Over in Mozambique, Beti is another young girl shouldering a heavy weight of responsibility at such a young age.

She and her seven siblings were orphaned during conflict. They now live with their grandmother.

Beti wants to be a nurse but doesn’t go to school so she can care for her family instead.

“I am worried that if we do not have food, my grandmother will not eat,” says Beti.

Beti is just 15.

For the girls who do manage to stay in school, they often turn up with an empty stomach making it much harder to concentrate – like Amina who also lives in Mozambique.

“I wake up at 5am to walk to school. I study for four hours and I come every day. I do not have breakfast so sometimes I get very tired,” says Amina.

If girls become stunted it can affect their cognitive development too, impacting on what they are able to achieve at school.

Amina hunger crisis
“When I finish school I want to become a teacher,” says Amina

Girls’ safety

A hunger crisis can also push girls to take extreme measures to survive.

These impede their dignity and put them at risk of harm: from child marriage (which is often arranged to relieve families of finding food for one more person) to sexual exploitation. Both have lasting consequences.

"Girls are forced to lose their dignity in order to be able to eat."
Adalvira dos Santos, Children Protection Supervisor, Plan International Mozambique

What can be done?

To change the direction of this crisis we need a large-scale effort to alleviate and prevent further hunger and malnutrition.

This means helping communities to reduce their food insecurity and access nutritional services – services that the World Health Organisation (WHO) reports were some of those most disrupted by the pandemic.

It also means helping communities build resilience against further shocks.

We have the know-how. What’s lacking is global funding and urgent political action.

Governments could make a huge difference right now through new large-scale funding to tackle hunger and prevent famine.

Until then, Plan International and many others are doing what is within our reach – and with your support we can do even more.

Oscar - Hunger crisis
Oscar works for Plan International in Guatemala where the coronavirus pandemic had a big impact on families' access to food

Reducing food insecurity

The barriers to food security vary. There might not be enough food. The food might be too expensive. Or the food might not be good.

Or it might be that a family isn’t earning enough money to buy food. They might live in difficult conditions after fleeing their home. Or they might rely on drought-affected crops to eat.

By addressing these barriers and helping families improve their access to food, children can better avoid hunger and malnutrition.

To do this, Plan International is working with communities and partners to provide immediate relief with food packages, water trucks and emergency cash or vouchers.

For the longer term, we’re also providing drought-resistant seeds, fishing equipment and helping communities to set up ways to earn money.

"I am part of a Plan International entrepreneurship project which supports women with their businesses... My dream for my future is to get ahead."
Francisca, expectant mother in Guatemala

Focus on nutrition

Plan International is also helping communities to improve the nutritional content of food available and provide key nutrition services.

These include malnutrition screenings, to find and help those at risk, and nutritional supplements that provide vital vitamins and minerals.

In Ramla’s school in Kenya, school meals are also making a difference and ensuring children get at least one nutritious meal a day.

“I can confidently say that the school feeding programme has brought hope for many children,” says Ramla.

“Children from different corners of Ganze, especially those who were not attending school before, are now benefiting from the food available.”

Ramla hunger crisis
Ramla and a friend enjoying a nutritious meal at school

What needs to happen next

Many people, including children, are already at a life-threatening stage of hunger. And many others are quickly catching up to this devastating reality.

The scale of this far-reaching hunger crisis makes it difficult to tackle. But we must find ways to do so urgently – for girls and young women like Jenitor, Najma, Francisca, Ramla, Beti, and Amina.

Behind the statistics are more people just like them. Their lives, futures, hopes and dreams all matter. And they won’t achieve them on an empty stomach.

The situation is life threatening and something needs to be done.
— Jenitor, 19, Kenya


Hunger crisis
(top left to right) Jenitor, Najma, Francisca (bottom left to right) Ramla, Beti, Amina

Plan International is expanding its work to help children through this crisis, especially girls, before it’s too late.

Through our Hunger Crisis Appeal, we are targeting those most affected in 8 countries: Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Haiti. 

We’re also upping the pressure on the UK Government to do more.

This includes calling on them to urgently commit to and disburse £750 million in new and additional aid to tackle the huge rise in hunger specifically in the Horn of Africa (a region of Eastern Africa).

This aid must reach girls with immediate nutritious food and measures to protect them from threats like child marriage and gender-based violence.

And we’re calling on the UK Government to galvanise the international community to act now on the global hunger crisis to save millions of lives.

You can play a role too.

If you can, please donate to our Hunger Crisis Appeal so we can do more for those most affected by this crisis.

If you can’t, please help spread the word by sharing this blog. This is a silent but deadly crisis and we need your support.

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