Intra-household vulnerability in eastern Congo

The household is the standard social unit used in planning humanitarian interventions, including cash transfers and the distribution of food and non-food items. Humanitarian assistance is often distributed to households based on the assumption that household members have uniform needs and preferences. However, households cannot simply be
characterized as places where individuals share the same priorities or even necessarily pool their resources. Households are more commonly places where competing claims, unequal power, diverse interests and access to resources are frequently negotiated and shaped by differences in age, gender and position within the household, among other factors. In this article we explore the concept of intra-household vulnerability in eastern Congo by exploring gender dynamics at play within the context of food assistance programming along with power dynamics between internally displaced persons (IDPs) and host families.

MCC has been working with partners in the eastern provinces of North and South Kivu in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) since 2008 to implement humanitarian programming in response to internal displacement. During pre-planning for food assistance projects, MCC’s program partner, the Ministry of the Church of Christ in Congo for Refugees and Emergencies (MERU)-North Kivu, conducts thorough assessments of target communities, including displaced families and their host communities. MERU’s analysis has brought to light the differing gender roles within households, particularly surrounding control over resources and the division of household labour, with women largely in charge of food storage and preparation as well as agricultural work.

Observation and monitoring by MERU staff showed that households where women were primarily responsible for managing food stocks were more often able to make food last longer and refrained from selling assets for the purchase of items considered to be non-essential. Households with male-controlled food stocks were more likely to sell food to buy items that they considered personally important, but were non-essential for the household. In response to this finding, MERU staff sought to raise awareness of social spending within the community and to encourage male participation in agricultural work as a way to share the burden and increase crop productivity. This critical understanding of intra-household dynamics allowed MERU staff to explain how placing women in key decision-making roles would be beneficial for the well-being of the entire family.

MERU staff worked with the community to define responsibilities for both
men and women in the implementation of the food assistance project. Men accepted responsibility for specific work in agricultural production, namely, clearing and preparing the soil for planting and ongoing field maintenance, including applying insecticide, transporting fertilizer and pruning. Knowing that these agricultural activities were taken care of, women were able to turn their energy to other activities, including planting, weeding and harvesting. Because of MERU’s ability to work closely with participants, understand the differing needs of different groups and make project adjustments accordingly, MERU successfully implemented its food assistance project and received strong affirmation from the communities participating in the project.

MERU’s food assistance programming also seeks to account for intra-household vulnerability due to the high number of IDPs in eastern Congo who do not take refuge in official IDP camps but rather live with host families. In combined host-IDP households, it becomes more difficult to assess the food security of IDPs, as the use of household targeting may prevent a clear understanding of additional vulnerability experienced by IDPs. Not only should more widely understood household dynamics related to gender or age differences be accounted for when designing food
assistance programing: the additional power dynamics within mixed host- IDP households must also be considered.

MERU has found that in the case of the host-IDP household, food assistance programs should determine and account for who has control over the household’s food resources and what that means for daily consumption among household members. Additionally, host families are more likely to have control over resources such as a plot of land for cultivation. In cases of combined host-IDP households, what is the impact of the IDP family on these resources? In some cases documented by MERU, host-IDP households harvested before crops matured, intensifying food insecurity. Seed stock was consumed in the immediate term, leaving families without adequate seeds for planting.

MERU’s analysis conducted at the end of each six month project phase
showed that while the average number of meals eaten per day increased
significantly for all participants over the course of the project, host family
food consumption saw a greater level of improvement than that of IDP families. Based on the intra-household dynamics observed by MERU staff, sensitization of the particular vulnerabilities of IDP families was prioritized and resulted over time in narrowing the gap of food consumption between IDPs and host families. By the fourth phase of the project, the average number of meals eaten per day was identical for both host and IDP families. A critical learning from the project is the need to assess the specific vulnerabilities experienced by the host-IDP households in order to reduce the burden on IDP and host families in negotiating how to share food, agricultural inputs and labour responsibilities.

Abandoning the household unit as a means of grouping and interacting with project participants is not likely to happen anytime soon. Thus, we at MCC must equip ourselves and our partners with tools and critical lenses through which to pay attention and respond to the complex dynamics within and between households.

Vanessa Hershberger is MCC program coordinator for the eastern provinces of the DRC, based in Bukavu, South Kivu. Annie Loewen is a humanitarian assistance coordinator for MCC, based in Winnipeg, MB.

Learn more:

Bolt, Vincent J. and Kate Bird. “The Intra-Household Disadvantages Framework: A Framework for the Analysis of Intra-Household Difference and Inequality.” Chronic Poverty Research Centre Working Paper no. 32 (2003).

Chant, Sylvia. “Dangerous Equations? How Female headed Households Became the Poorest of the Poor: Causes, Consequences and Cautions.” IDS Bulletin 35/4 (2004): 19-26.

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