James Schneider  

Feminizing Famine

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Recently, I've been rereading parts of Cormac Ó Gráda's Famine: A Short History. The book juxtaposes an interesting pair of facts.

The first fact describes how famine is marketed (for lack of a better word):

The sense that the horrors of famine fall disproportionately on women ... is often reflected today in the publicity campaigns of development aid agencies and the writings of campaigning journalists. According to Agence France-Presse in 2003, "Despite international efforts to avert more suffering caused by food shortages in Ethiopia, women and children are still dying of malnutrition and diseases."

Shortly thereafter, he states:

Today the feminization of famine, by highlighting women as its main victims, is commonplace. Yet most of the evidence suggests that males are more likely to perish during famines than females.

He includes a brief survey of famines in places such as Ireland, Iceland, India, Russia, China, and Greece. Then Ó Gráda writes, "The evidence that females survive famine better than males is by now overwhelming."

Ó Gráda does not discuss why famine is feminized despite the fact that men are its more likely victims. Perhaps, aid agencies are more interested in raising money to save lives than they are in teaching demography. This explanation implies a certain irony. An aid agency might focus on female victims to increase donations. But these donations would presumably be spent disproportionately on men, who are more likely to be famine's victims. (If my explanation is correct, I doubt donors would resent the bait and switch. Admittedly, I haven't yet found any research about whether the gender of victims influences donations. If you know of any, please leave it in the comments.)

Ó Gráda finds the "most plausible explanation" for the gender differential in survival to be body dimorphism. On average, men have greater muscle mass and a lower proportion of body fat.

One final fact that I found interesting:

The gender advantage is not confined to humans: there is a good deal of research showing that other male mammals also suffer disproportionately in times of food shortage. Among Siberian deer, for example, the harsh winter of 1976-77 "produced a particularly high mortality differential between stags and hinds."


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