By Asma Lateef, Director, Bread for the World Institute
About 60 percent of the world’s 805 million chronically malnourished people are women and girls, according to the United Nations World Food Program. Women’s dual roles as agricultural producers and family caregivers make them essential leaders in efforts to end hunger and malnutrition. Together, these realities explain why further progress against global hunger depends on further progress against gender discrimination.
For too long women’s empowerment was not seen to be integral to global development. More recently, the pervasive harm that gender inequality does to entire societies has begun to be recognized for what it is. The waste of human potential is reflected in economic costs—as much as 30 percent of a nation's GDP, according to Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund.
Contrary to what we might expect, a higher household income does not necessarily lead to better nutrition for children in the family. The allocation of resources and decision-making authority within the household helps explain why, since numerous studies show that women are more likely than men to invest their earnings in children’s health and education. Also, researchers who calculated the importance of various factors in explaining improvements in child nutrition between 1970 and 1995 found that improvements in women’s education and relative status accounted for more than half the progress.
Similarly, good nutrition, especially for infants and young children, was recognized only fairly recently as an absolute necessity for development. Previously, at a time when many developing countries were making great progress against famine and extreme poverty, the focus was on food rather than nutrition. There is now growing understanding of the devastating impact of malnutrition, which is an underlying cause of 45 percent of preventable deaths among young children and causes lasting cognitive and physical damage in survivors. There is also deeper understanding about its impact on people at other points in the life cycle—for example, the realization that antiretroviral medications to treat HIV simply do not work as well for malnourished people. The national economic costs of malnutrition (because of lost productivity and higher healthcare costs, for example) were neither calculated nor considered.
Indeed, the world has some catching up to do in both areas. Momentum to make both gender equity and nutrition top priorities has been building over the past few years. The science needed to end malnutrition is available. Global and national leaders, particularly the 54 countries (and counting) in the Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) Movement, are equipping nutrition workers to expand cost-effective, straightforward nutrition actions to benefit more children and developing policies and programs that will improve nutrition outcomes through sectors such as agriculture, health, and WASH (water, sanitation, and hygiene). Success will depend on addressing gender inequality and empowering women.
The recipe for women’s empowerment and gender equity is perhaps more complicated because it must overcome pervasive, seemingly intractable social norms. But we know many of the essentials—for example, equality under the law, access to education, a much fairer division of household chores. These offer more than enough scope for sustained global attention, effort, and investment.
Bread for the World Institute’s 2015 Hunger Report, When Women Flourish ... We Can End Hunger, identifies three themes that point toward solutions: more bargaining power, equitable sharing of unpaid work such as household chores, and greater representation in government and civil society. Progress in redressing the power differential between men and women has made it possible for women to take many steps forward; further progress is essential. Improving women’s ability to engage in economic activity means access to markets and credit, equal opportunity in both the formal and informal work sectors, and an end to gender-based violence—which limits women and girls in countless ways. Burdensome unpaid labor can often be eased by technology, public services, resource conservation, or other strategies, but this does not change the fact that “women’s work” must be redefined and their workloads lightened so they too can pursue education and livelihood goals, nurture their children, and contribute to community and national life. Finally, equality for women requires that a fair share of their society’s leadership reflects and represents their experiences and perspectives.
In 2015, the world is negotiating and adopting Sustainable Development Goals to succeed the Millennium Development Goals. This is a powerful opportunity to incorporate goals and indicators that will rally the global community to make rapid progress on women’s empowerment and nutrition—two intertwined prerequisites to end hunger and extreme poverty by 2030.
The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.
The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.
Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
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