More food, less violence?

Nora Lindstrom, Lilongwe Community Manager
Lilongwe, 1 August 2014

The first few months of every year are known as the hunger months in Malawi. They occur when the next crop of maize — the country's staple — is not yet ready for consumption while reserves from the previous harvest have run out. In July 2013 the World Food Programme estimated that more than 1.4 million people in Malawi's rural areas — or around 10 percent of the country's population — were at risk of hunger over 2013-2014.

What about residents in the urban areas? Generally, city dwellers are considered better off than their rural counterparts, and Lilongwe does not feature on food insecurity forecasts produced by the government. That doesn't mean that residents in the capital don't go hungry, however: given the high cost of living in Lilongwe, the number of poor (25 percent) and ultra-poor (9 percent) in the capital is likely to be under-estimated.

In a December 2013 post on the blog Participation, Power and Social Change, IDS Research Fellow Naomi Hossain talks about how the "direct nature of the causal link between" violence against women and girls and food insecurity crystallised for her while travelling in Malawi. The message was clear and consistent: "cases of violence against women and girls tend to increase sharply with hunger." Older studies have also noted a link between crime and the hunger months: a 2004 study entitled Crimes of Need by the Institute for Security Studies Africa shows how crop thefts appear to be highest just prior to harvest (and therefore at the peak of the hunger months).

Data to confirm an increase in crime, gender-based or otherwise, during the hunger months is hard to come by. Off the record, however, relevant authorities acknowledge there is a correlation. Many women in Lilongwe's poor areas also agree the link is real. At a recent meeting organised by the Lilongwe Urban Poor People's Network (LUPPEN), one woman commented on how she was more afraid to walk outside, especially in the dark, during the rainy season. "The maize grows high and the people face hunger so there is more crime," she said.

The interesting suggestion here is that improvements in urban (and rural) food security could help to strengthen overall security. By comparison, initiatives such as installing street lights come across as band-aids on a deeper problem, although there of course is no one solution. An option LUPPEN is keen to explore is urban agriculture. "We have a lot of empty land in Lilongwe, and many of the urban poor in the city grow maize there," says H.W. Mamba, Coordinator for LUPPEN. "But unfortunately, most of the plots lie unused in-between crops." Inspired by the principles of permaculture as practiced at the Lilongwe-based Kusamala Institute for Agriculture and Ecology, Mamba says LUPPEN hopes to promote year-round household access to food in the city's poorer areas.

Clearly, this will not solve all urban security problems. As Jonathan Crush and Bruce Fayne argue in Africa's Urban Revolution, "the extent of urban agriculture and its contribution to household food security are insubstantial in many poor areas of [Southern African Development Community] cities." There will also be those who engage in domestic violence and other types of crime whether or not there is food on the table. But it's fundamental to acknowledge the role food insecurity can play in spurring crime and violent behaviour, and therefore how, by addressing food security, we can also address the general security situation in cities.

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