7 things to know…

7 things to know…

…about the relationship of gender equality and nutrition in Southern Africa

Hunger, malnutrition and poverty are not accidents — they are the result of injustice and inequality. From household to global levels, inequality between men and women, between the powerful and the marginalized, between those who can access resources and those who cannot, shapes access to food and the resources to grow and buy it. Inequality determines who eats first, who eats last, whose right to food is protected, and whose right to food is discriminated.

Gender inequality is a significant determinant of women’s nutritional status and one of the key barriers to women exercising their right to food. Globally, anemia in women is twice that of men and has remained stagnant for years. In developing countries, 20% of maternal deaths are attributable to anemia. Many of these deaths can be easily prevented with an adequate diet of nutritious foods.

Poor nutrition outcomes in women limit their ability to exercise rights in other areas, such as participation in civic life and access to economic opportunities. Societies with greater gender equality, on the other hand, have better nutrition and health outcomes, irrespective of the overall wealth of a given country.

Social norms and traditional practices can be protective, neutral or harmful to women’s nutritional status. In most situations, however, uneven food distribution favours men and their decision‐making is critical in determining what kind of food comes into the home and who in the family eats first.

Despite the fact that both men and women work in agriculture, males are traditionally viewed as food providers, and cooking remains solely the role of females. This “double burden” for women demands long days of productive labour (working in the fields) and reproductive labour (household chores and child rearing). Moreover, in most contexts, the chores carried out by women do not reduce while they are pregnant or lactating.

Thus, women face significant demands on their time that inhibit their ability to tend to their own health needs, to eat sufficiently, and to participate in training and decision-making opportunities at community level.

During 2013/2014, 1.5 million Malawians were food insecure and only 40% of Zambians had enough to eat. During 2016/2017, Ethiopia, Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia reported among the highest child mortality rates in the world, with child deaths attributed to malnutrition ranging from 58 per 1,000 live births in Malawi to 90 per 1,000 live births in Mozambique. Moreover, 68% of women (Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia) do not meet “minimum dietary diversity”, and female-headed households in these countries reportedly face “severe hunger” more often than male-headed households.

Because of gender inequality and social norms around what is traditionally considered “men’s work” and “women’s work”, female-headed households tend to be poorer, with fewer income generating opportunities and resources to improve the nutrition of the family. Importantly, recent studies of Ethiopia, Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia show that indirect measures of women’s empowerment, such as education, literacy level, and committee membership, are associated with improved nutrition and food security status of women and children.

Studies also show that women’s expression of pro-equality attitudes and exercise of decision-making power are positively associated with these same indicators.

Recognizing and addressing the specific nutritional challenges faced by women is paramount if we want healthy and thriving communities. The impacts of malnutrition on women’s health are well known: malnourished women are at greater risk of infection and disease, and they face more adverse consequences during pregnancy and childbirth.

The malnourishment of children is deeply connected to the nutritional status of their mothers. For a child, the foundation for a healthy and productive life is established in the 1,000 days between a mother’s pregnancy and her child’s second birthday. Proper nutrition during this critical window is necessary in order to give children the strongest start in life.

Chronically malnourished children suffer life-long consequences in cognitive ability, school performance and future earnings, limiting the development potential of nations. CARE knows that addressing malnutrition today could bring economic and social benefits 100 times greater than the cost of interventions.

Southern Africa has been hard-hit with shocks in recent years; for example, drought in Zambia, pest infestations in Kenya, Cyclone Idai in Mozambique. The science is clear: extreme climate events will continue to gain intensity and the ability of communities to adapt and respond to these changes is crucial.

The fact is that women and girls, men and boys have different vulnerabilities and are impacted differently by shocks and stresses. Moreover, because of discriminatory social norms, women and girls’ ability to adapt is often limited, and this undermines the entire society’s ability to cope with uncertainty. Thus, climate-smart agriculture (and other interventions) can only alleviate food insecurity if they account for these differing vulnerabilities and norms.

Addressing gender inequality is a necessary condition for building resilient communities, providing adequate and gender-sensitive health services, and maintaining strong food production systems.

Agricultural extension workers are overwhelmingly men and provide services designed by men to mostly male farmers — despite the fact that women comprise over 70% of farm labour in Sub‐Saharan Africa. Overall, men continue to be overrepresented in decision‐making positions within legal and cultural structures in Southern Africa. Consequently, the benefits of national programs and policies favour men.

Achieving lasting change means empowering women and girls to secure the tools, knowledge, services, and food they need to keep themselves, their babies, and their families healthy. When women farmers are given the same opportunities, the quality and the quantity of their crops increase and they are better able to manage their land. In turn, better yields increase income, giving women more resources, particularly the ability to make (better) nutrition choices for themselves and their household.

However, limited time, limited participation in decision-making, and poor nutritional outcomes in women limit their ability to exercise rights in other areas, such as participation in civic life and access to economic opportunities. Societies with greater gender equality, on the other hand, have better nutrition and health outcomes, irrespective of the overall wealth of a given country.

“We know that agricultural yields would rise by almost a third if women had the same access to resources as men. As a result, there would be up to 150 million fewer hungry people in the world. And we know that children have significantly better prospects for the future when their mothers are healthy, wealthy and educated. Especially during the first 1,000 days of a child’s life… If we are serious about putting an end to poverty and hunger once and for all, then we all need to step up our support for rural women. As an investment in families, in our communities, in our wider societies, and in our planet’s future.”~ Neven Mimica, European Union Commissioner for International Cooperation and Development

A human right’s approach to women’s right to food is the foundation of CARE’s gender transformative nutrition programming in Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia, known as the Southern African Nutrition Initiative (SANI). SANI works in extremely food insecure environments to lift  individuals and communities out of poverty, to help them be more resilient, and to thrive.  SANI’s holistic project focus includes:

  • Political, economic and social analysis and formative research that digs deeply into the context and community‐specific power relations, social norms and traditions which underlie gender inequalities.
  • Maternal, infant and young child feeding programs that involve women, men, boys, girls and traditional leaders, and tackle the key, harmful, gender norms affecting women’s nutrition.
  • Agricultural programs designed by and for women that promote women’s choice in what land to use, what food to grow and which are are supported by gender inclusive agricultural extension services.
  • Water points that are developed and managed by women.
  • Community dialogues that address gender unequal norms and behaviours.
  • Policy engagement at all levels, including promotion of women’s participation in design and delivery of nutrition programming through citizen accountability.

The promotion of shared decision-making and male engagement in nutrition are key components in the household level strategies, while the promotion of women’s participation in non-traditional roles as well as training of local health services providers is enhancing participation of women at the community level. Overall, SANI is expected to contribute to the improved health of approximately 230,000 individuals directly, and over 345,000 individuals indirectly. Learn more about SANI: www.feedherfuture.ca/sani


[I co-wrote this article on behalf of CARE Canada, where I work as Communications and Public Engagement Officer. In this role, I lead the “Feed Her Future” campaign (www.feedherfuture.ca) – a campaign to raise awareness about the importance of women’s access to nutrition by highlighting the work of the Southern African Nutrition Initiative (SANI).]