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ROME — On International Women’s Day (March 8), when thoughts turn to equality between the sexes, Aminata’s story is especially poignant. Back in 1998, she was captured while selling cake in Kabalah, Sierra Leone, and forced to join the rebels. Not only was she trained to fight and use a gun, she was also forced to marry the man who captured her. She was instructed by her superiors to order amputations and beheadings, but says she never did any herself, adding that if she had told them to stop, they would have killed her.

Aminata (her war name) is a survivor — one of several thousand ex-combatants who have received food aid from the United Nations World Food Program in Sierra Leone to ease their reintegration into society. Many fellow ex-fighters have traded their machetes for scissors — and are setting up as hairdressers. And it’s not only women’s work. In neighboring Liberia, boys who used to fight in the notorious Small Boys’ Units of Charles Taylor (warlord turned president) have chosen hairdressing as a potentially lucrative business.

But reintegration only works if women like Aminata — as well as former child soldiers — are kept busy. Ideally they are either in school or involved in programs to teach them how to earn a living. With Ivory Coast and Guinea in turmoil, it is all too easy to imagine them sliding back into violence and what recently elected Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf calls “child recycling.”

Africa’s first female leader knows that those youngsters who have not been given the opportunity to go back to school are vulnerable to being recruited to fight again. She says economic programs and job creation schemes are crucial to give them something to do.

Poverty — particularly food poverty — is the root cause of many conflicts. Someone with a full stomach and hope of food tomorrow is less likely to pick up a weapon — or turn to prostitution. Equally, women are more inclined to enroll in a training course if their worries about feeding themselves and their families are taken care of.

For example in North Darfur, Sudan, 30 women displaced from their homes by the continuing violence have been taught how to make fuel-efficient stoves. In turn, they have trained some 4,400 similar women. The benefits are immediate: 40 percent less firewood is needed for cooking, so the women make fewer trips in search of firewood and are less exposed to assault. Not only does it relieve the women’s burden, it is also better for the environment.

Women across the developing world often need to learn some skills in order to take more control of their lives. Food for training (including literacy classes) helps achieve this along with food-for-work schemes that encourage involvement in decision-making.

Until the 1990s, social taboos and the fact that working conditions were not considered “female friendly” kept women out of food-for-work activities in countries like Bangladesh. But, spurred by the interest of rural women and with its gentle encouragement of government counterparts, WFP has assisted thousands of Bangladeshi women to have a voice in their communities.

Food aid can also make a dramatic difference when used to prompt a change in cultural practices that severely damage women’s health, such as female genital mutilation. Female genital mutilation has blighted the lives of 99 percent of women in Djibouti. Globally, the World Health Organization estimates 120 million women are suffering from this mutilation.

Safia Elmi has been heading a government-backed program in Djibouti called “Motherhood without risks” in which women who perform female genital mutilation are provided with WFP food rations as an incentive to learn a new trade. The monthly 50-kg bag of rice and 3.8 liters of oil partially replaces the income lost by the circumciser, while she attends classes.

Acknowledging the link between hunger and education is key to ending world hunger, which claims more deaths per year than AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined. Women are crucial to breaking the cycle of hunger. Eliminating malnutrition among mothers gives their children a better start both in the womb and once born. The number of years that a woman has attended school can reduce the likelihood — by up to 40 percent — that her child will be malnourished.

As Aminata and others like her have shown, it’s never too late to learn. Food aid is not only about saving lives, it’s also about offering the hope of a future free from the shackles of hunger and abuse.

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