They may be divorced, widowed or abandoned, but in southern Africa’s food crisis more and more women on whom households depend are running out of time: surviving today, unsure about tomorrow.

Besides their own hunger, and often perilous states of health, these women despair for their children: weak from lack of food, increasingly susceptible to disease, and deprived of education because child labour may be key to their survival or their penniless mothers are unable to raise the school fees.

In Lesotho’s impoverished mountains, 45-year-old widow Mathabo Mariti has eight mouths to feed. It would be daunting anywhere but this is a country where almost 40 per cent of the population is now short of food and in need of emergency assistance. Most people depend in some way on farming and in 2012, after two consecutive years of abysmal harvests brought on by drought and worsened by late rains, flooding, and early frost, the Lesotho government declared a food crisis.

Mathabo is among the 56 per cent who live below Lesotho’s poverty line, and a steady rise in food prices only compounds her problems. On top of that, she is infected with HIV, as are two of her children.

Like so many women who head southern African households, Mathabo has long since parted with her assets, having sold her possessions and livestock to cope. She has nothing left to fall back on and her case illustrates why female-headed households are among the poorest.

She lives in the Kena area, hard hit by drought since 2009 and in one of five districts targeted by an International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies appeal in support of Lesotho Red Cross Society operations.

She shares her one-room home with six of her seven children. The youngest – with whom she was pregnant when widowed – is six. She also cares for a toddler grandchild whom a dependent and destitute daughter cannot support.

Things were different before her husband got sick. He worked in the gold and platinum mines of neighbouring South Africa, bringing home money to the village. Men had done that for generations and in the 1990s their earnings provided Lesotho with over 60 per cent of its gross domestic product.

No longer. Less labour was required as new mining methods were introduced and migrant miners’ numbers have plummeted. The economy has suffered in the process and the loss of those earnings – often ploughed into agricultural inputs – has also affected food security. The biggest legacy today is the HIV that husbands like Mathabo’s brought back with them. At 23.5 per cent, Lesotho has the world’s third highest HIV prevalence rate.

“It was hard to survive after he died,” Mathabo remembers. “I sold the cattle first, then everything else.”

She still has some land where she tries to grow maize, and a garden for which Red Cross funding has provided seeds and tools. She grows spinach, beetroot and carrot to supplement their diet and hopes that one day she’ll have some surplus for sale.

Her eldest child works in the capital, and sends home 300 maloti (35 USD) every month, all of which goes to buying maize meal. She cries when she thinks of the prices. A year ago, 50 kilos would have cost her 200 maloti. Today it costs 270.

How do they cope? They simply eat less. But going hungry is even more dire for those infected with HIV who need to be well nourished. Taking antiretroviral drugs on an empty stomach can have very unpleasant side effects. Mathabo frets over her infected children who are just six and seven.

She agonizes, too, about their education. Fees put highschool beyond most people’s reach and the nearest one to Mathabo’s village costs around 3,000 maloti (350 USD) a year.

The British Red Cross Society pays for one of her children to attend highschool. A second has now finished lower school and, his mother fears, it may be the end of his education, as well as his options for a brighter future.

While the poor are hard pressed to place one meal a day on the family table, school fees only dash dreams and hinder development. They root the hungry and underprivileged deeper in the mire.

But Mathabo is not giving up, on herself or her community. Right now she is working with the Red Cross on an HIV/AIDS intervention. As what is called an ambassador of hope, she calls on rural homes to talk of life with HIV and encourages others to test for the virus. Infection, she tells them, is not the end of the road but you need to know your status.

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