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Women’s Empowerment and Education Lead to Better Nutrition
International Women’s Day on March 8 kicked off a conversation about the progress being made in improving nutrition among vulnerable groups such as pregnant women and young children. For good reason, much of the U.S. development assistance for nutrition is focused on the 1,000-day “window of opportunity” from a woman’s pregnancy to her child’s second birthday. Improvements in nutrition during this period can benefit children for a lifetime.
But “breaking the cycle” of poverty, hunger, and malnutrition is difficult for structural, economic, political, and social reasons. Poorly nourished women are more likely to give birth to low birth weight babies who often do less well in school and suffer lifelong health problems. The cycle continues when this generation has its own babies, particularly among girls who give birth when they are still at too young an age. In many countries this cycle has continued for generations, especially among vulnerable groups such as ethnic minorities and those who live in remote, hard to reach areas. During my visit last year to Bangladesh, I saw some of these problems but I also noticed signs that the situation is improving. Two factors that are helping are better educational opportunities for girls and women, and a trend toward smaller families. Fewer children generally means more food and better nutrition – it’s more likely that there will be enough food left over for a youngest daughter, even in cultures where men, boys, and older girls eat first.
In South Asia, many women and girls are chronically ill due to a lack of proper nutrition. There are several contributing factors: poverty; lack of proper health care; malnutrition early in life, which leaves its survivors more susceptible to disease; lack of nutritional knowledge; and patriarchal family structures that may relegate girls and women to eating only whatever is left over or primarily less nutritious foods. Ambassador David Lane, U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Agencies for Food and Agriculture, recently mentioned the “3 A’s” that affect both the quantity and quality of food consumption. These are availability of a nutritious and diverse supply of food, access to it (it’s better not to be that youngest daughter), and absorption of vitamins and minerals. He called for a multisectoral strategy to find solutions in these three areas.
The impact of all the various factors that make young women likely to be malnourished and chronically ill come to a head during pregnancy -- one of the most vulnerable times in a person’s life. About 60 percent of South Asian women in their childbearing years are underweight due partly to a lack of proper nutrition during their own childhoods. Also, eight out of 10 South Asian women are anemic (lack iron) during pregnancy, and many suffer from chronic energy deficit (lack of sufficient calories).
A lack of adequate nutritional knowledge is a big contributor to malnutrition, carrying with it the risk of improper cooking methods, poor hygiene, and too little variety in the diet. Also a major contributor is a lack of resources to prepare food using safe water and to purchase and consume a variety of fruits, vegetables, and protein-rich foods. Development assistance programs that recognize the important role of nutrition in various sectors, such as agriculture, health, and gender, offer countries an opportunity to educate families so that the cycle of malnutrition can be broken rather than repeated.
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