In the past two decades, Vietnam has made incredible progress. Not long ago, it was considered a developing country; however, since the introduction of the Doi Moi reforms of 1986, Vietnamese per capita income has increased from $100 to $1,130 (USD) in 2010. The population rate of poverty decreased from 58 percent in 1993 to a much smaller 14.5 percent as of 2008, a figure that continues to diminish yearly. Vietnam‘s economy has progressed impressively. With the embrace of free market reforms and an influx of foreign development and investment, its private sector has enjoyed immense job growth. The nation swiftly achieved half of its 10 United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and will likely reach an additional two MDGs within the next year. It is clear to the international arena that Vietnam is well on its way to both modernization and economic prowess. According to UNICEF, Vietnam’s MDG of focus was one aiming to eliminate food poverty. Efforts to achieve this goal meant food poverty rate decreased by over 66 percent — going from 25 percent in 1993 to just 6.9 percent as of 2008. To put this statistic in a perspective, about 15 percent of the U.S. population exhibited food poverty in 2012. Despite these encouraging improvements, malnutrition in Vietnam remains a serious concern. The country’s large child population — numbering approximately 26 million — still suffers disproportionately from malnutrition. Currently, one-third of all children in Vietnam under 5 years of age experience stunted growth resulting from chronic malnutrition. Additionally, 20 percent of this young population is regarded as malnourished and under healthy weight baselines. As the country continues swiftly on its progressive trajectory, steps must be taken to combat these statistics and lower the high incidence of child malnutrition. As the nation’s economy is heavily based in agriculture, it exports huge amounts of produce. Some argue that portions of this surplus could be easily directed toward child malnutrition, resulting in a significantly healthier and happier population. As the Doi Moi continue into the next few years, hopefully this MDG will be reached. – Arielle Swett Sources: Feeding America, World Bank, UNICEF 1, UNICEF 2 Photo: UNICEF

Food Security
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 

Sources: International Food Policy Research Institute, UNICEF
Photo: BBC