EL FASHER, Sudan — Collecting firewood for cooking puts women in Sudan's conflict-plagued and impoverished Darfur region at risk of rape.
But a simple stove that replaces traditional open fires has cut the time they spend on potentially dangerous missions looking for wood, while also helping the environment and boosting their finances, the United Nations World Food Programme says.
A two-year-old initiative by WFP and its local partners teaches women how to make the stoves.
"Our social life has improved a lot as a result of this project," Nadia Ibrahim, director of a training centre serving the hamlets of Shagra, told visiting European Union ambassadors on Thursday.
The initiative promotes community development in a region where villages were razed during the long conflict, and is one way of weaning people off direct food handouts because participants are given food in exchange for training and work, WFP officials said.
Fighting began in Sudan's far-west Darfur region almost a decade ago when ethnic African rebels rose against the Arab-dominated Khartoum regime. In response, the government unleashed state-backed Janjaweed Arab militia in a conflict that shocked the world and led to allegations of genocide.
Although violence is down from its peak, clashes between rebels and government troops, banditry such as carjackings, and inter-ethnic fighting continues.
Humanitarian sources have linked much of the unrest now to pro-government Arab groups, whom they blame for most of the rapes and other violence in camps for the estimated 1.7 million internally displaced people (IDPs) in Darfur.
The displacement, along with war-related environmental degradation, has forced women to travel further in search of a dwindling supply of firewood, WFP says.
"We're talking about walking from 10 to 15 kilometres (six to nine miles). We're talking about three to four days away from their children," Cesar Arroyo, head of WFP's office in the North Darfur state capital El Fasher, told the EU delegation in Shagra.
WFP says its project supports about 14,000 people in Shagra, which the ambassadors reached by driving in a convoy protected by two armoured vehicles and Rwandan peacekeepers from the African Union-United Nations Mission in Darfur (UNAMID).
The journey across stony roads southwest of El Fasher took more than 90 minutes, including a wait to pass a government checkpoint, and another delay when one vehicle became stuck in sand.
As Arroyo spoke under a broiling sun, a woman sat on the ground demonstrating how the stoves are made.
She quickly formed thick rolls of a clay-like mixture and layered them to form the round cooking pot. When hardened, it safely holds the fuel with the food simmering on top.
WFP says the stoves are more efficient than open fires, even more so when wood is replaced by briquettes of animal dung and straw which the women are also trained to make.
The number of trips needed to get firewood is cut in half, and trees in resource-poor Darfur are saved, WFP says.
Ibrahim said the women sell the stoves as well as use them.
"It is a source of income for us," she said in a confident voice, through a translator. "Our revenues are ever-increasing and we use that revenue to expand our activities," which include child care and nutritional instruction.
Across North Darfur, 200,000 women have been trained through 33 centres known as SAFE (Safe Access to Firewood and Alternate Energy), WFP says.
Beside the Shagra SAFE centre is a 10-acre (four hectare) forest which the community manages under the WFP project, to provide an immediate source of firewood and another source of income.
From seedlings they have raised neem trees, broad-leafed jatropha -- which produces an oil for biofuel -- and prickly acacia senegal whose gum is a key ingredient in soft drinks.
"We are selling it in the local market," said Amit Singh, of the WFP.
The EU, one of Sudan's major donors, says it is considering a shift towards development projects -- of which SAFE is an example -- and away from emergency handouts.
EU envoys told North Darfur government officials that development requires stability but they are concerned about a deterioration of security in parts of the state.
WFP plans to reach 3.3 million people in Darfur with food assistance this year, although one million of those are in some type of "food for recovery" programme like SAFE.
In North Darfur the agency last year began moving from food ration handouts to a voucher system which aims to strengthen the role of women, boost local economies, and reduce the amount of aid being sold by "entrenched interests".
Arroyo said the EU and its Humanitarian Aid Department have been major supporters of the voucher programme.
Vouchers have a set cash value which shoppers use to "buy" whatever they want directly from traders offering 14 essential goods including meat and vegetables.
"Prices" of the goods are monitored by WFP but based on regular market rates, a WFP official said at a voucher market in the Abu Shouk IDP camp near El Fasher.
Under coloured cloth canopies, children pushed wheelbarrows and noisy shoppers crowded the 10 voucher stalls to receive pungent ground nut oil, salt, grains and other supplies.
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