In countries favoring male children, daughters may receive substantially less food or lower quality food than sons. This perpetuates cycles of inequity, as many young girls lack nutrients necessary to protect against disease and develop cognitively.
Women in developing countries face greater food insecurity than men. Without the power to allocate food and other resources, these women and their daughters consume far less than their male counterparts.
Unequal Growth: Food Security in India
India highlights the unequal burden of malnutrition. Though 30 percent of Indian children are born at a low birth rate, nearly 50 percent risk stunting when they are 3 years old. Culturally, families treat male children as more economically lucrative than females. As young boys receive meal preference, daughters face growing rates of malnutrition. In regions with historically higher rates of malnutrition, young girls live at risk of acute malnutrition to a fatal degree.
Twins Devki and Rahul, each 9 months old, differ dramatically in weight and development. At the nutrition Rehabilitation Center in Kolaras, Rahul weighed the ideal amount for his age. His sister Devki, however, weighed half of what should she should have. Diagnosed with severe malnutrition, she appeared to receive far less food and breast milk than her brother. Doctors predicted death within a week.
Breastfeeding and Complementary Feeding
A development organization, Family Health International (FHI) 360, addresses this gender inequality in nutrition. Partnering with governments and other nongovernmental organizations, FHI 360 promotes nutritional support for women.
Women in developing countries also must balance the demands of exclusive breastfeeding and providing for their families. Most cannot afford to lose a day of work, but without on-demand breastfeeding and proper complementary feeding, more than 1.4 million children die each year. Breastfeeding, as opposed to the use of manufactured milk, greatly reduces diarrhea and respiratory infections.
FHI 360 established Alive & Thrive to form partnerships with health care providers, the private sector and other nongovernmental organizations. These partnerships support and communicate exclusive breastfeeding and complementary, fortified food. In Bangladesh, this program successfully increased the rate of exclusive breastfeeding from 43 percent to 64 percent in 15 years.
Cycle of Inequity
Social constructed roles interact with biological factors, forcing women into a cycle of nutrient deficiencies. Menstruation and child birth result in a constant loss of iron. The precarious health status of women depends on nutrients necessary for protection. Malnutrition in women also continues across generations. Nutritional deficiencies before, during and after pregnancy directly affect the development of infants.
Early malnutrition hinders learning potential and productivity, further gender disparities. Malnutrition predisposes infants to noncommunicable diseases later in life. Young girls with diet deficiencies subsequently remain disadvantaged.
Bridging the Gender Gap Benefits All
Greater food security drives widespread reform, such as:
- Increased agricultural output
- Greater household food security
- Improved child physical and cognitive development
- Further investment in child education
- Increase in visits to health facilities
Reducing dietary deficiencies in women and their daughters benefits the household as a whole. These women contribute more to the production and preparation of food and to child care.
Past and Present Interventions
Helen Keller International and its 52 global partners promote “nutritional self-sufficiency” among thousands of Bangladesh women. The Homestead Food Production gardens assist women in growing more micro-nutrient rich food at home. This initiative elevates the status of women, allowing them to grow vegetables and rear poultry to meet their nutritional needs. Today, more than 4.5 million women in 900,000 households benefit from this program.
The fortification of food also serves as an affordable intervention. Biologically, women face a greater risk of iron deficiency; it persists as one of the most prevalent single-nutrient deficiencies worldwide. To combat this, nongovernmental organizations offer iron supplements to pregnant women. Iron supplementation also benefits girls in their reproductive age, serving as a preventative measure.
Economically, nutritional deficiencies in women and their daughters reflect a disregard for human capital. Cultural indifference to half the population drives losses in productivity, increases in healthcare costs, and overall inequity. These past and present interventions hold the promise of empowering women to reject cultural norms and equalize food security.
– Ellery Spahr