Population groups vulnerable to malnutrition are central to strategies aiming to improving their nutrition status. Women and girls are more likely to live in poor households and bear a disproportionate share of the burden of under- and over-nutrition, at least among adults. When malnutrition occurs during pregnancy and breastfeeding, it has adverse consequences for not only the women but also for their children, perpetuating an inter-generational cycle of malnutrition.
In addition, gender inequality is a root cause of malnutrition for all, always important and sometimes overshadowing all other causes. In both South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, women’s status has a large and significant positive impact on children’s nutritional status. Gender roles and relationships determine the distribution of resources and responsibilities between men and women, and thus both reflect and determine power rela¬tions between them—this is true within households, communities, workplaces, and markets. Within each of these spheres, women may lack the decision-making power and access to resources to make optimal nutrition choices for themselves and their families. A recent trial in Burkina Faso has provided direct evidence that improving women’s empowerment (in the context of a nutrition-sensitive agriculture programme) can reduce rates of wasting in young children.
Chandini’s story. Chandini is a seventeen-year old girl who lives in a small village in Rajasthan, India. She has been married for two years and has a baby girl of eighteen months. She is now pregnant for the second time. Like many other women in Rajasthan, Chandini is thin and suffers from anaemia. Even though she is six months pregnant, she has been working in the fields helping to harvest the family’s small plot of wheat and has to prepare the meals for the whole family. She is always the last one to eat, after her husband, mother-in-law, and child. She is also avoiding eating fat (‘ghee’) and chickpea flour because her family believe that these are risky for pregnant women. She is hungry before she goes to bed but does not like to complain. Chandini’s young husband Abhijeet wants to do the right thing by his wife and young family but is unsure of the best way to contribute—last month he used a little extra cash to buy her a traditional adornment for her face. All the family unwittingly contribute to the perpetuation of malnutrition in Rajasthan.
Moreover, women are present at every stage of the food system, but differ from men in roles, resources, and rights. They often lack equal access to the inputs, services, and information needed to optimise their contribution. Markets tend to exacerbate existing power inequalities, rather than lessen them. Given the major role that women play in food production, processing, and sale, not to mention their almost complete dominance of food preparation, this underinvestment equates to considerable lost potential. Greater equity can thus help to increase the food system’s ability to efficiently deliver safe and nutritious food for all.
Cathy’s story. Cathy is a young entrepreneur from Tanzania. Ten years ago, she started selling a tasty snack made from dried vegetables in the Central Business District of Dar es Salaam. Her product was attractive to office workers in the area, who also appreciated her customer orientation and attention to hygiene. For the last three years, she has been trying to grow her business by packaging her product and transporting it to other outlets for sale. But she needs credit and technical assistance to expand her operations. When she visits banks to enquire about her eligibility to receive credit, she feels that she is not taken seriously by the male staff. While other business people in the area get invited to trainings and join associations, it seems to Cathy that she has been mostly ignored.
At the macro level, where women do not have equal access to resources or equal opportunities to take part in decision-making, there are direct economic as well as social costs. Gender equity is thus a means to economic growth, which is itself a powerful force to help end undernutrition. For all of these reasons, gender is a “centrality issue” for malnutrition, and to ensure impact, gender must be taken into account throughout all programming for nutrition.
From: GAIN’s Programmatic Gender Strategy, July 2019.