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Women's History Month: Where We're Coming From

Global women's movement photo

Carrying firewood in Bangladesh. To help end gender discrimination, unpaid chores must be more equitably shared. Photo by Todd Post/Bread for the World.

Welcome back to Bread for the World Institute's March series celebrating Women's History Month by illustrating the many ways women's empowerment and gender equity are intertwined with our mission: ending hunger, malnutrition, and food insecurity. (For more on what we mean by "women's empowerment," see yesterday's series opener).

Our 2015 Hunger Report, When Women Flourish ... We Can End Hunger, identifies three components of efforts to achieve gender equity and the progress against hunger that comes with it: more bargaining power, more equitable sharing of unpaid work such as household chores, and greater representation in government and civil society.

Progress in redressing the power differential between men and women has made it possible for women to take many steps forward. Ending gender discrimination is a necessity if women are to gain enough bargaining power to live their lives as equal and equally valued members of their society. In 1979, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). As of 2014, all but seven countries have ratified the convention: the United States, Sudan, South Sudan, Somalia, Iran, Palau, and Tonga.

Women perform many more hours of unpaid labor than men -- often burdensome tasks such as fetching water from faraway wells and pounding grains so that they can be cooked. At the same time, most must also grow food or participate in the informal or formal paid economy.

A third area of "women's work" is, of course, to ensure humanity's future by bearing children. It was this area -- workplace rights for pregnant and nursing women -- that saw the first international effort to recognize and try to ease the difficult balancing act between work and family responsibilities required of most women. In 1919, the International Labor Organization adopted the Maternity Protection Convention, under which new mothers are entitled to 12 weeks of paid leave and, once they return to work, two breaks each day to nurse their babies. The most recent update, adopted in 2000, provides for 14 weeks of paid leave. There are just four countries that require no paid maternity leave at all: the United States, Papua New Guinea, Lesotho, and Swaziland.

Finally, equality for women requires that a fair share of their society’s leadership reflects and represents their experiences and perspectives. One of the most basic indicators of the ability to help lead is whether a person has the right to vote. In 1893, New Zealand became the first country to make women's suffrage the law of the land. By 1994, women had the right to vote in 96 percent of the world's countries. When women in Saudi Arabia are allowed to vote for the first time later this year, there will be only one remaining jurisdiction in the world where men can vote but women cannot -- Vatican City.

For more on the history of the global women's movement, see the timeline in the introduction, "Women's Empowerment: A Moral Imperative," of our 2015 Hunger Report.

 Michele Learner

 

What do we mean by "women's empowerment"?

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Editor’s note: This post kicks off our celebration of Women’s History Month (March). Throughout our 2015 Hunger Report, When Women Flourish … We Can End Hunger, as well as in much of the Institute’s other analytical work, we emphasize the necessity of women’s empowerment and gender equity – not only as a matter of individual rights, but also as an absolute necessity for further progress against hunger and malnutrition. The link between gender discrimination and hunger has proven persistent both in the United States and globally. This month we present stories, graphics, and analysis to help show the way forward on both fronts – gender equity on one hand, and ending hunger, malnutrition, and food insecurity on the other.

Consider two children from poor households living in an Indian city. They are both 7 years old. They live in the same neighborhood and are both excelling in mathematics at the same primary school, showing every sign of a bright future. But one of these children is more likely than the other to still be in poverty as an adult, simply because she is a girl.

People are born into or fall into poverty for many reasons. But the reason a bright young girl is more likely to remain there than a bright young boy has everything to do with empowerment. Empowerment is what is needed when members of a society lack bargaining powerthe ability to negotiate favorable economic outcomes for themselves. When women and girls lack bargaining power, they are denied the opportunity to develop and use their gifts so they can support themselves and their families.

Some of the most common ways of increasing one’s bargaining power include getting more education, participating fully in the economy (which requires, for example, access to financial services such as a bank account or credit), and benefiting from basic social services such as health care. The availability of such “bargaining power builders” varies widely from country to country, but disempowerment means that women and girls almost always have less access to them than men and boys. In fact, our schoolchildren example may be overly optimistic, because it ignores the likely possibility that, even at age 7, the schoolgirl has already encountered home- or community-level barriers to her health, nutrition, and/or education.

It’s worth noting that neither women nor men living in poverty have much economic bargaining power, especially in developing countries where the vast majority of the population does low-paying, low-productivity work. But even within the constraints of poverty, working conditions for men and women are far from equal: women suffer many more forms of discrimination, which worsen the effects of poverty on their lives.

Empowering women is not only the right thing to do—it is an economic no-brainer. Excluding women from an economy is forgoing the efforts and talents of half the workforce. Studies consistently show that increasing women’s and girls’ bargaining power is one of the most effective ways to lift families out of poverty and boost economic growth, because women are more likely than men to invest their earnings back into the well-being of their families.

Discrimination that establishes and reinforces women’s lower status in society starts within the family and extends through social norms and national laws. Women all over the world have struggled for many years to empower themselves by creating change in all of these areas, sometimes aided by their governments and/or male allies – and there have been many improvements. Check back on Institute Notes later this week for a look at what has been achieved so far and what remains to be done.

Derek Schwabe

One in Three Women Still Endures Gender Based Violence

One in three women around the world has experienced violence at the hands of an intimate partner

The World Health Organization recently updated its international estimates on violence against women, once again confirming the appalling truth: one in three women (35 percent) experiences violence.  Thirty percent of women worldwide experience violence at the hands of an intimate partner. The 2015 Hunger Report, When Women Flourish…We Can End Hunger, explains how violence against women perpetuates hunger:

Gender-based violence is one of the clearest manifestations of women’s disempowerment, and it is directly associated with hunger. When a farmer is beaten so badly that she ends up physically disabled or with a severe mental illness, the household has lost farming skills that are crucial to ensuring its food security.

Gender-based violence occurs throughout a woman’s lifetime, though it’s more likely to take certain forms at certain ages. Women aged 15-44 are more at risk from rape and domestic violence than from cancer, motor accidents, war, or malaria.  Armed conflict, as we would expect, puts women at greater risk of gender-based violence. In the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo, 29 of every 1,000 women were raped in 2006 and 2007 alone.

Social norms that treat gender-based violence as normal may well be the greatest barrier to progress toward ending it. The fact that violence against women is socially acceptable is one of the main reasons that survivors do not seek help and support. They are afraid to, knowing that they can expect little or no support from families, friends, or even authorities whose responsibility it is to protect them if they report cases of rape or domestic violence. As in many other contexts, victims are frequently blamed for provoking the violence.

Police officers who investigate a woman’s charge of abuse belong to their own societies, after all, and they reflect their communities’ beliefs. Thus, in a survey of male police officers in India, all of those interviewed admitted that they believe a husband has a right to rape his wife.

Changing centuries-old social norms takes time, and must be locally driven if it’s going to work. But U.S. development assistance can play a catalyzing role by building the capacity of local people to speak up and step out. The Hunger Report offers some sound examples of instances when this has worked. One is the story of Changu Siwawa of Botswana, who participated in the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders—a U.S. led initiative that brought together 500 exceptional young African leaders to share solutions to the continent’s most pressing social ills.  You can read Changu’s full story here on the 2015 Hunger Report website. 

Derek Schwabe

Celebrating the Tenure of USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah

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Dr. Rajiv Shah welcomes guests to the launch of Bread for the World Institute's 2011 Hunger Report in November, 2010. (Laura Elizabeth Pohl/Bread for the World)


Dr. Rajiv Shah will be departing USAID (the U.S. Agency for International Development) this week. His appointment as USAID Administrator came in the wake of Haiti’s devastating earthquake in early 2010, just as famine was hitting South Sudan and at a time of continued powerful aftershocks from the global food price crisis. USAID sets and implements the U.S. government’s development and emergency food aid policies, and its employees staff U.S. Missions in countries around the world where hunger and poverty are endemic. In addition to managing a series of crises, Dr. Shah also set out to revitalize an agency that had long been criticized for being overly bureaucratic and dependent on large U.S. implementing partner organizations to carry out many of its programs.

We will remember Dr. Shah’s time at USAID for his passionate commitment to and impatience in the fight to end hunger and malnutrition. In five years, remarkable progress has been made against food insecurity and malnutrition, and U.S. leadership has played an important role. In 2010, Dr. Shah created the Bureau for Food Security at USAID to implement Feed the Future, the U.S. global food security initiative. Under his leadership, USAID also developed the first-ever Multisectoral Global Nutrition Strategy, which will improve coordination across the agency’s bureaus and programs and, most importantly, the effectiveness of U.S. investments in nutrition. 

In addition, President Obama and Administrator Shah have been relentless advocates at the global level for greater and smarter investments in agriculture, food security, and nutrition. They secured new commitments of resources from other countries, multilateral institutions, and the private sector. Dr. Shah served on the Lead Group of the Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) movement, helping to provide strategic direction as SUN was getting off the ground. At the country level, USAID has been a key SUN partner. Today, SUN, whose members at last count are 54 countries with high rates of childhood stunting, has begun to change national policies and commit funding to fight malnutrition.

We also remember Dr. Shah’s time at USAID for increasing attention to strengthening local capacity and institutions, including recognizing the key role of local civil society. David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World, is a member of USAID’s Advisory Committee on Voluntary Foreign Aid, designed to give policy guidance directly to the Administrator, and was honored to participate in an ACVFA working group that developed a paper on local capacity development. Beckmann later co-chaired the ACVFA task force on strengthening Feed the Future’s collaborations with civil society. Reflecting on Shah’s tenure, Beckmann said, “I thank God for Raj Shah’s outstanding leadership. USAID’s increased effectiveness is making a difference in the lives of millions of people, and it has set the stage for bipartisan collaboration in the U.S. Congress on international development issues. ”

We were honored by Dr. Shah’s presence at important moments for Bread for the World. At Bread’s 2011 Hunger Report launch, Dr. Shah called the report, Our Common Interest: Ending Hunger and Malnutrition,
“the best statement [he’s] read about the importance of Feed the Future to U.S. efforts to combat global hunger and malnutrition.”  He announced the establishment of the Bureau of Food Security at the launch. Dr. Shah was also the keynote speaker at Bread’s 2012 Gala to End Hunger.

He addressed Bread for the World members, representatives of international civil society, and global nutrition stakeholders at the 2013 Sustaining Political Commitments to Scaling Up Nutrition event in Washington, DC. It was here that he announced USAID’s plan for a Global Nutrition Strategy.

Dr. Shah’s individual accomplishments, and USAID’s accomplishments during his tenure, are too numerous to list. Under his leadership the agency prospered. Bread for the World developed closer working relationships with key management and program staff. He has set the bar very high for his successor and has put in place strategies and programs that assure continued U.S. government leadership in the global fight to end hunger and extreme poverty. We at Bread for the World wish Dr. Shah continued success in all his endeavors and look forward to working with the next USAID Administrator.

Scott Bleggi

The President's Budget a Mixed Bag on Food Security and Nutrition

President Obama released his final budget on Monday, February 2, 2015. As was reported by Bread for the World in a press release, the budget invests in people as a key to sustained economic recovery. It includes increased funding for maternal, newborn and child health, and it prioritizes early childhood care and education.

The budget can be lauded for these important domestic funding initiatives, but it is more of a mixed bag in addressing international food and nutrition security. It requests a $14 million reduction from Fiscal year 2015 enacted funding levels in nutrition spending, which is allocated to USAID’s Global Health Bureau.  This is disappointing given worldwide recognition of nutrition’s role across development sectors, and global momentum to improve nutrition policies and programs, especially those focused in the 1,000 days ‘window of opportunity’ from a women’s pregnancy to her child’s second birthday.  Investments here are among the smartest that can be made, with long-term health, social and economic benefits accruing to both individuals and countries themselves.

The International Affairs (150) account in the budget, which funds overseas operations, counterterrorism efforts, humanitarian relief and development assistance is again less than 1% of the total.  At $54.8 billion it does enjoy a small (2.4%) increase over the previous year’s funding but is still many billions below what was spent as recently as the year 2010.

As was reported by the World Food Program, “…humanitarian aid programs were among those that got hit the hardest by budget cuts. Overall humanitarian accounts went down by 13%. International Disaster Assistance was cut by $154 million. Food Aid was cut by $66 million.”  All this during times of historic demand for global assistance. To say that USAID and its implementing partners are stretched thin is an understatement. In fact, according to the Famine Early Warning System web site, there are eight “areas of concern” – Central African Republic, Central America and the Caribbean, Mauritania, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, South Sudan and Yemen – that are being watched closely.  Any of these countries or regions can easily slip into food insecurity, requiring additional funding.  Save the Children reported it was “concerned with the funding levels for humanitarian assistance”.

The President’s budget builds on the Administration’s efforts to increase access to early childhood care and education for U.S. children from birth to age five. But at the same time it proposes cuts in disaster assistance, food aid and nutrition, cuts which paradoxically, could have a devastating effect on children from birth to age five overseas in countries where help is most needed.

The President’s budget has been presented to Congress, which will likely now develop a budget of its own.  If the final budget is approved with additional cuts to the 150 Account and any new global humanitarian conflicts arise, a very tight funding scenario could turn disastrous.

The advocacy community will surely be focused with Congress on restoring funding to this critical account.  And surely Congress can find ways to not have the most vulnerable population overseas – women and children - bear a disproportionate amount of cuts in a budget of $4,000,000,000,000.

Scott Bleggi

Three Charts, Three Reasons Empowered Women and Progress on Malnutrition Go Hand in Hand

Improvements in the status of women drove about half of the dramatic reduction in child malnutrition that the developing world has achieved in recent decades. This and many more pieces of evidence brought together in the 2015 Hunger Report affirm that ending discrimination against women and girls–besides being the right thing to do–is crucial to ending hunger. Here are three compelling charts that show how this plays out across an array of important empowerment measures:

As More Girls Complete Secondary School, Stunting Rates Fall

As More Girls are Married before Age 18, Stunting Rates Rise

As Maternal Deaths Increase, Stunting Rates Rise

 

The three charts above compare rates of child stunting (a key measure of chronic malnutrition) in low- and middle-income countries against three sample empowerment indicators: rates of secondary school completion for females; rates of death from complications of pregnancy or childbirth; and rates of child marriage. Each dot represents one country. 

Measuring gender discrimination is complicated because it is pervasive. It cuts across all aspects of human life. This is why the United Nations named a minimum list of 52 gender indicators that are essential to gauging progress. (Yes – these 52 items are the minimum list). The indicators encompass five areas: health, education, human rights, public life, and economic participation.

We can see that stunting rates are lower in countries where women are more empowered – i.e., where they do better on these indicators. This is an issue that merits a more robust research agenda because it shows us an important way forward on hunger.

A note on stunting: stunting means that a child has suffered chronic malnutrition before her/his second birthday. We can “tell by looking” because stunted children are far too short for their age, but the most significant effects can’t be seen: damage to health and cognitive development. Stunting undermines how well a child does in school and even her lifetime earnings. At the national level, stunting can cost several percentage points in GDP growth. Globally, one in four children is stunted.

Visit an interactive tool on the 2015 Hunger Report website to compare global stunting rates with any of 15 important women’s empowerment indicators, view trends by region, and see where individual countries fall. Read this to learn the story of how the tool was created.   

This post is part of Institute Notes’ ongoing series on data to end hunger.

Derek Schwabe

A Global Nutrition Report: Passing Grades, But More Effort Needed

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These children will reach higher and go farther with proper nutrition. (Photo credit: accesstonutrition.org)

What is the extent of malnutrition and how effective are the measures being taken to fight it around the world? What’s being done by governments through policy mechanisms, development assistance, and donors with their program partners? Is civil society sufficiently prepared to be active partners and eventually take over efforts in their own countries? What measures of program and policy effectiveness have been developed?

The Global Nutrition Report (GNR) seeks answers to all these questions. First launched in London last month, its launch in Washington, DC, takes place today with events at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), which co-authored the report, and later at USAID, where Administrator Rajiv Shah will speak to his agency’s and U.S. government efforts to reduce malnutrition through its programs and policies. The GNR is a “call to action” to place malnutrition – both undernutrition and obesity – higher on the development agenda.

IRPRI notes in the GNR that "165 million children under the age of five are estimated to be stunted (i.e. low height for age). Two billion people are estimated to be deficient in one or more micronutrients. Nearly 1.5 billion people are estimated to be overweight and over 500 million to be obese. These conditions all have severe consequences for survival, for morbidity, and for the ability of individuals, the economy and society to thrive.... and yet, resources to specific nutrition programs amount to a small fraction of one per cent of domestic or aid budgets."

The GNR includes a “dashboard” of more than 80 indicators of nutrition outcomes, program coverage, funding, and political commitments for all 193 United Nations member countries, “…which they can use to hold policymakers to their commitments and urge them to make new ones.” The report was first announced at the Nutrition for Growth Summit in 2013, and its release was a main topic of discussion at the Second International Conference on Nutrition (ICN2) held in Rome last month.

The report was delivered by an Independent Expert Group and guided at a strategic level by a Stakeholder Group whose members also reviewed the report. IFPRI oversaw the production and dissemination of the report, with the support of the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) in London. The Lancet medical journal provided an external review of the report, which is funded by the U.K. Department for International Development (DFID), the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Government of Canada, the Children's Investment Fund Foundation, the European Commission, Irish Aid, 1,000 Days, and the CGIAR Research Program on Agriculture for Nutrition & Health.

Recommendations in the report for governments, donors, NGOs, and nutrition community stakeholders include:

  • Building and sustaining global alliances to generate substantial improvements in nutritional status at the national level;
  • Larger investments in human infrastructure;
  • Scaling up nutrition interventions by scaling up local partner capacities; and
  • Expanding investments in “nutrition-sensitive” actions in agriculture, social protection, water, sanitation and hygiene, education, and women’s empowerment programs.

The GNR emphasizes that key challenges remain -- especially in the area of accountability, which must be strengthened in all areas. The report notes pointedly that relying on coordinated actions across development sectors, none of which have nutrition as the primary goal, allows policymakers to avoid responsibility.

Three suggestions were made for improving accountability and leadership. First, in the new set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for 2030 that is currently being developed through a global process, the nutrition stakeholder community needs to ensure that more ambitious SDG targets are set, including a target for nutrition, and that additional nutrition indicators are included. Second, national legislation and policies must insist on accountability among nutrition stakeholders, including self-evaluation and monitoring processes for member countries of the Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) movement.

And finally, there is an urgent need to fill the huge gaps that remain in collecting nutrition data. As an example of this, the report says that only 60 percent of the 193 member states of the UN have sufficient data to assess whether or not they are on course to meet global targets.

Without better data and stronger accountability, we stand to lose much of the global momentum on fighting malnutrition that has been built in just a few years’ time. The next GNR could contain more failures than passing grades. But if we sustain the political will that has been created, build local capacities, and scale up successful nutrition interventions, a goal once thought to be merely aspirational gets ever closer: ending hunger and malnutrition in our lifetimes. Scott Bleggi

World AIDS Day Sequel: Gender-Based Violence

Photo for HIV and gender-based violence

 HIV/AIDS is one of the many consequences of gender-based violence. Photo: USAID Thailand.

Earlier this week, on December 1, the world marked yet another World AIDS Day. Since HIV was first identified in 1981, efforts to combat, contain, and cure HIV/AIDS have mobilized the global community as few other issues have. For many years, HIV was unstoppable; in some countries, such as Botswana, up to 40 percent of the adult population was HIV-positive at one point.

Thankfully, there have been signs of hope in the intervening years -- most notably, the development of antiretroviral (ARV) medicines, which can allow people with HIV to live a near-normal life, and the scaling up of ARV treatment efforts to include millions of people in poor countries. As we saw in Rebecca Vander Meulen's guest post for World AIDS Day, people like Esperanza in Mozambique, once on the very brink of death, are working, parenting, and living their lives today thanks to ARVs.

With all that has been done, there are still blind spots in the global struggle to prevent and treat HIV. Since these are areas that are not always recognized, they have not been fully examined and effective responses developed and prioritized. Case in point: one of the most significant forces that make people vulnerable to HIV -- gender-based violence.

Bread for the World Institute has focused on gender-based violence -- most often directed against women and girls, sometimes against transgender people and gender nonconforming men -- as a shockingly common human rights violation and as a barrier to reducing and ending hunger and extreme poverty.   

The implications of gender-based violence  and discriminatory policies for the HIV/AIDS pandemic are also far-reaching. Just two examples: In most countries, marital rape is not a crime, and many women have become HIV-positive through forced sex. And the fear of rape and HIV infection by men not known to the victim can stifle women's efforts to travel in order to work and participate in community life.

Although the connections are widely recognized among people working in communities and among scientists, research and policy responses have lagged behind. One of the first efforts to remedy this situation was a conference organized by UNESCO in the summer of 2013, held in Tanzania and focusing on five countries of Africa's Great Lakes region. Among the recommendations were mainstreaming a focus on gender-based violence into all HIV intervention programs, including policies, plans, programming, monitoring, and evaluation; and allocating government resources for issues specific to gender-based violence.

PEPFAR, the U.S. government global HIV/AIDS initiative that has significantly expanded access to ARV medications, prevention efforts, and care for patients and orphans, has begun working to incorporate responses to gender-based violence into its programs.

Efforts to contain the HIV/AIDS pandemic and reach the hoped-for "AIDS-free generation" envisioned by policymakers, much like efforts to end hunger and extreme poverty, will be frustrated until policy responses to gender-based violence are developed and scaled up -- and, ultimately, until people are far less frequently made targets of violence based on their gender or gender identity.

  Michele Learner

Second International Conference on Nutrition: Moving the Discussion Forward

In the 20 years since the first  International Conference on Nutrition (ICN), global awareness of the critical role of nutrition in human development has grown to record levels. Today, the dual problems of malnutrition -- undernutrition and obesity – are the focus of efforts by both governments and private companies. Undernutrition rates have dropped in the intervening years, but obesity has grown to the point where it now kills more than three times as many people as undernutrition. 

The first ICN was seen as an opportunity to bring leading nutrition scientists together with governments to address a growing problem. ICN2, being held this week in Rome, goes further by finalizing the wording of a Declaration on Nutrition, as well as details of its implementation, and seeking the signatures of the governments in attendance.

The proposed declaration is a pivotal document that, after reaffirming commitments made at the 1994 ICN and at World Food Summits, sets out specific plans of action and international targets that will lead to the eradication of all forms of malnutrition. Action items include reshaping food systems through public policy; improving nutrition by strengthening institutional capacity and encouraging collaboration among all stakeholders; promoting initiatives for healthy diets before pregnancy, through the 1,000 days period of early childhood, and in schools; and ensuring that a framework with actions and objectives is integrated into the 2030 global development agenda that will be finalized in the coming year.

Advocates are concerned about the very small role of nutrition thus far in this Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) process: there are more than a dozen goals and nearly 200 targets, but nutrition is mentioned only once. The declaration also asks the United Nations General Assembly for its endorsement and declares a “Decade of Action on Nutrition.”

Proposing such aspirational goals for ICN2 has led to wide-ranging discussions. Some have criticized the declaration’s lack of accountability and spending targets. Others have criticized its lack of emphasis on nutrition-sensitive issues such as water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH), and a lack of recognition that nutrition directly impacts health interventions.  Another point raised is that in order to make advances in nutrition, there must be economic solutions as well. Critics have also pointed out that in some countries, “donor interest in nutrition is waning.” It is in fact true that scaling up successful nutrition outcomes in a district, region, or country requires multiple-year planning and adequate funding.

One bright spot of ICN2 was Pope Francis adding his voice to the fight against hunger and malnutrition.  

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Pope Francis addresses political leaders at ICN2 Photo credit: FAO

In his apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (Joy of the Gospel), Francis said, “We are scandalized” by not having enough food for everyone and the resulting hunger. In his remarks at ICN2 on November 20, Francis said that food, nutrition, and the environment must be viewed as global public issues at a time when nations are more tightly linked with each other than ever before. He admonished global leaders to make sure their pledges to assure food security for all citizens are put into concrete practice, saying that the right to a healthy diet is about dignity, not charitable handouts.

The U.S. government’s commitment to improved nutrition increased when it began to fund the Global Health Initiative (GHI), which is now complemented by nutrition components of the Feed the Future initiative. Recognizing nutrition as a concern that crosses traditional development sectors, USAID adopted and has begun to implement a Multi-Sectoral Nutrition Strategy. Other government agencies and offices have begun working on a Global Nutrition Coordination Plan that will encourage collaboration and hopefully add value to the efforts of individual programs to improve nutrition. Finally, the House of Representatives has introduced H.R. 5656, the Global Food Security Act, which has a primary objective of reinforcing programs that “accelerat[e] inclusive agricultural-led economic growth that reduces global poverty, hunger and malnutrition, particularly among women and children….”

The objectives of ICN2, the policy goals of U.S. government nutrition strategies, and passage of H.R. 5656 are all reachable if we are, in the words of Roger Thurow, “outraged and inspired” to take action on global hunger, poverty, and malnutrition.

Scott Bleggi

The “Third Way” of Women’s Empowerment

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Policy discussions of U.S. development assistance that promote women’s empowerment tend to head in two directions: improving women’s ability to participate in the economy and increasing girls’ enrollment in school.

There’s no question that policymakers should indeed be talking about these dimensions of empowerment. But I wish they’d also talk about what I’ll describe as a “third way”: increasing the share of women leaders in government. Here we scarcely hear a word.

The eight Millennium Development Goals include a goal to promote gender equality and empower women. One of the targets is to increase the percentage of women in national parliaments to 33 percent. Globally, women currently hold about 25 percent of seats in national parliaments. Given that women are half the population, I think it’s fair to say that they are still grossly underrepresented in government leadership. In addition to the obvious injustice here, there are implications for efforts to end hunger and poverty. Experience worldwide shows that when women gain a larger share of political power, governments enact more policies that reduce gender inequalities and promote women’s empowerment.

Earlier this year I was in Rwanda, the only country in the world where women hold a majority of the seats in the national parliament. Sixty-three percent of Rwandan parliamentarians are women. One way countries have increased the share of women in parliament is by reserving a fixed percentage of seats for women. These countries include Rwanda, which reserves 30 percent of seats for women. But in the last three election cycles, women’s share of parliamentary seats has increased from 49 percent to 56 percent to 63 percent. Clearly, it’s more than the reservation policy that has brought a majority female parliament to Rwanda.

I went to Rwanda because I wanted to see the effects on policy development of having a majority of women in parliament, and I guess I wanted also to test my own assumptions about women’s leadership. I tend to think that the fastest way to reduce gender inequality and promote women’s empowerment is to elect more women to office. I’m all for improving women’s ability to participate in the economy and increasing enrollment rates of girls in school, but those are part of the longer-term strategy. A reservation policy allows a society to put gender equity on the fast track by giving a jolt to the status quo.

Having a female parliamentary majority has made Rwanda a more equitable society. For example, all proposed legislation is reviewed to determine whether it perpetuates or reduces gender bias. No piece of legislation that moves through parliament escapes this scrutiny. That’s the kind of jolt I’m talking about.

In the 2015 Bread for the World Institute Hunger Report, When Women Flourish…We Can End Hunger, we recommend that all U.S. development assistance include similar gender analysis – aimed at ensuring that policies and programs do not perpetuate gender inequalities or discriminate against women and girls. In practice, this would mean, for instance, that agricultural development assistance must serve female and male farmers equitably.

A major change like this might even produce a great enough seismic effect to affect how the U.S. government conducts domestic policy. Here in the United States, women hold less than 20 percent of seats in Congress. In the 1970s, when Congress was debating the Equal Rights Amendment, policymakers considered congressional reservations as a way of giving women more political voice. This was not the sole reason the ERA failed to gain ratification, but an association with the ERA may be one reason we scarcely ever hear members of Congress -- including women -- talk about political reservations as a strategy to increase the share of women in Congress.

It is difficult to imagine what the impact on legislation of a female majority in Congress would be. Perhaps there would be no difference at all, although I doubt it. There is too much room for improvement. Just one example: the United States remains the only developed country in the world that does not offer paid maternity leave. I suspect that would change if there were a majority of women in Congress. Todd Post

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