A recent UNICEF report states that malnutrition across the globe worsens due to conflict, poverty and climate fluctuations, with disproportionate effects on the world’s most vulnerable women and girls. The report highlights the heightened threat that women and girls of childbearing age — and their children — face as a result of gender inequality. As of March 2023, no region of the world is set to achieve the World Health Assembly and Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of halving anemia among women and girls and reducing low birthweight by 30% by 2030. On the contrary, acute malnourishment among pregnant and breastfeeding women rose by an estimated 25% between 2020 and 2022. Especially prevalent in the countries hit hardest by the global food crisis, including Afghanistan, Yemen and Ethiopia, this trend is expected to continue in 2023. UNICEF is calling for immediate action.
Barriers to Food Security
A 2023 report identified numerous barriers to improving nutrition among women and girls. These include:
- Social and gender inequities that limit women’s and girls’ access to nutritious diets
- A lack of nutrition and social protection programs that address the needs of women and girls
- Insufficient policy protection for undernourished women and girls
Globally, COVID-19 heightened such barriers. However, in Guatemala, the pandemic’s outbreak also revitalized political interest in reducing malnutrition, leading to a new wave of policymaking focused on using digital tools to improve the nutrition of women and children and strengthen the physical, social and economic health of communities at large. Ranking seventh in the world for chronic malnutrition, the country exemplifies how progress can begin with better policymaking and unlocking the full potential of digital technology.
A World Bank pilot initiative, Guatemala’s DIGITARO project offers an innovative solution to acute malnutrition. DIGITARO harnesses digital tools to advance women’s participation in agriculture and incorporate female farmers into Guatemala’s national School Feeding Program (SFP). The project seeks to resolve the lack of female agency within agriculture and the home while reducing the country’s malnutrition rates.
DIGITARO points to research revealing that women’s lacking economic agency and decision-making power in Guatemalan households directly impacts the produce bought for their homes. This has led to higher rates of malnutrition, especially among children. Recognizing this intersection between female agency and malnutrition is vital for improving food security across the country.
DIGITARO seeks to increase both female smallholder farmers’ market access and children’s and families’ access to healthy, responsibly produced food. Through digital tools, it improves women’s understanding of the SFP, connects female farmers to schools and supports them in supplying the SFP sustainably. The three main digital tools it engages are:
- An e-commerce platform that ensures secure, transparent and mutually-beneficial transactions between schools and producers.
- Training videos that inform women about good agricultural practices, SFP food quality standards and how to register with the SFP.
- A digital campaign aimed at increasing women’s awareness of the SFP and connecting schools to verified female producers.
Impacts on Female Empowerment
Pilot data indicate that DIGITARO raised women’s awareness that the SFP purchases food from local farmers by more than 60% and increased their understanding of how to register as an SFP provider almost twofold. The initiative also improved women’s selling decisions and business productivity. It sparked a 20% increase in female farmers’ overall sales of commonly-demanded SFP animal products.
Impacts on Malnutrition
Furthermore, DIGITARO has improved the effectiveness and reliability of the SFP for thousands of Guatemalan children. By identifying and remedying the issues undermining the program, the project provided them access to a more reliable supply of nutritious, high-quality foods and produce.
The e-commerce platform has now connected nearly 25,000 schools across the country with some 45,000 sellers. However, more must be done to encourage schools and female farmers to connect through such initiatives. Nonetheless, DIGITARO’s promising results demonstrate that, in combination with strategic policymaking, digital technology can help tackle the growing issue of malnutrition among women and children everywhere and pave the way for a brighter global future.
– Ariana Mortazavi