Cash for dignity: putting women first

WFP and UNFPA assist displaced women and girls in the Republic of the Congo

It’s nearly midday, and a subdued crowd of women and girls have gathered at a storefront near Loutété’s hulking railway station. Many carry children strapped to their backs. They watch closely as the shopkeeper writes down the price of a list of items on the shop door, for all to see.

Since July, these women in the south-east of the Congo — displaced from their homes in the nearby Pool region — have been receiving food vouchers from the World Food Programme. But today’s distribution is different.

Today, for the first time, women are queuing up to purchase ‘dignity kits’ provided by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). People are able to buy any combination of items that include sanitary pads, soap, buckets, undergarments, skin cream, combs or clothing, using the same mobile money account they have been using for food.

Displaced women queue up for their dignity kits at a local shop. Photo: WFP/Jean-Martin Bauer

Distributing dignity, one woman at a time

The provision of these kits is taking place because the crisis that has prompted the displacement of over 80,000 people in Congo’s Pool area has affected people in many ways. The effects include gender-based violence and loss of access to critical social services, including maternal health care.

According to UNFPA, displaced women and girls find themselves discriminated against because of their unkempt appearance, and are reluctant to seek essential care or other services for fear of being looked down upon or rejected. Elderly women living alone are at specific risk of social isolation.

Providing women and girls with the items in the dignity kits helps restore their confidence, and makes them feel a little more normal at a time when their lives have been so disrupted. Charlotte was among the first who received a kit today. “I am relieved to have gotten these items. I don’t even remember the last time I used skin cream. I feel alive.” The programme presently covers 2,500 women and girls.

The market in Loutété, Bouenza. Photo: WFP/Jean-Martin Bauer

Change, without reinventing the wheel

But why and how is WFP involved? Since February, the agency has been using mobile money transfers and a network of traders to provide food assistance to the thousands of people displaced by the crisis. Women already receiving food through mobile money transfers would be eligible for the dignity kits — all it would take was a top-up to their phones to cover the cost of the additional items. So it was natural that both agencies collaborate. In a remarkable feat of bureaucratic efficiency, dignity kit distributions started in November, only a month after a verbal agreement was struck between both agencies.

Brunelle, a WFP field monitor in Nkayi, helped ascertain prices for the dignity kit items, and spoke to traders to arrange the operation. UNFPA staff turned up to ensure the distribution was well understood by traders and women. It turned out that the traders were pleased at the additional business the activity would bring, and were more than willing to place bulk orders for the items to their suppliers, a few hours’ drive away in the port city Pointe Noire. All they asked for was advance notice of the distribution.

By working together, WFP and UNFPA has in effect turned shops into places where very vulnerable people freely exercise their choice to eat, dress or care for themselves. How could we support activities that complement the assistance that we are providing? Examples could include skills training for displaced women, for example tailoring, or helping local farmers sell fresh foods at the shops. By doing that, we would help ensure that the response to the emergency meets immediate needs, and also gives women chances to improve their lives.

See here for more on WFP’s work in the Congo.



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