Opinion: Why Women Eat Last And Least? | Women’s Day 2021
New Delhi: The International Women’s Day 2021 comes on the back of one of the worst health and humanitarian crisis that humanity has seen in close to a century. The pandemic unleashed disruption in social and economic lives, especially for the marginalised and at-risk groups. Of the 690 million people who are food insecure in the world right now, 60 per cent are women and girls. According to the World Food Programme, because of the pandemic, hunger levels are expected to double — and the heaviest burden will fall on women and girls. In countries facing conflict, famine and hunger, women often eat last and least. It is important to focus on the disproportionate impact that rising hunger levels are expected to have on women. But what is equally important is to highlight that women are also the solution, and giving them access to food, tools and resources can make all the difference.
In India, deep-rooted social biases act against women even before they’re born, reducing their numbers at birth and their chances of survival through their lives, depriving them also of adequate food and nutrition to enable a healthy life. The gender gap is evident in lower literacy and work participation rates of women, early age of marriage and childbearing and poorer health status. It is not surprising that as per the latest National Family Health Survey (NFHS-4, 2015-16), 53 per cent of Indian women aged 15-49 years are anaemic, as compared to 23 per cent of men in the same age group. With its mandate to address the challenges of food security and nutrition to achieve SDG 2, the UN World Food Programme (WFP) has chosen the theme “Women are Hungrier” to reflect upon and address the gender biases in food consumption that deprive women to a greater extent of adequate food and nutrition in many contexts.
Gender Norms Influencing Household Food Distribution In India
Food reaching households does not necessarily imply an equal share for all members, especially when the food is not necessarily enough to meet everyone’s needs. Every day, households suffering from poverty must make difficult decisions about how limited food should be shared among their members. Prevailing discriminatory social norms lead to unequal distribution of food, often depriving needier groups like adolescent girls and pregnant and lactating women of a share commensurate with their requirement, thereby leading to undernutrition and related morbidity and mortality. These decisions are governed by traditional social norms that often favour some members over the others. Invariably, women and girls are the ones who lose out.
WFP conducted a study in 2019-20 to understand the social norms that influence food distribution and consumption within poor households in towns and villages in the state of Uttar Pradesh. The study clearly showed that within households, gender played a very important role in determining the share of food. Close to one-fifth of the women surveyed said that they had to eat less food in the last 30 days, while a fourth had to reduce their portion size as food fell short and they could not afford to buy more food.
These unequal norms of food distribution within households are gradually losing influence with growing urbanization, education and employment of women. Yet, they underlie persistent neglect by women of their own nutrition by prioritizing their family’s needs over their own.
COVID-19 Has Exacerbated Gender Inequality In India
In the past one year, however, the COVID-19 pandemic has once again exacerbated unequal access to food by women and men. Women have been more adversely affected with greater likelihood of loss of livelihood and reduced income, greater incidence of domestic violence and reduced access to reproductive health needs. Reduced availability of food for the family members also meant that more women were sacrificing their food in order to ensure enough for their family. In a recent assessment by WFP of the food security of vulnerable groups in Odisha in the context of COVID-19, it was found that women headed households had lower dietary diversity and food frequency, lesser food stocks and depended to a larger extent on Government schemes for food. When faced with food shortage they had to change consumption to less preferred foods as a preventative measure.
India’s Safety Nets Target Women In Different Ways
Recognizing the effect of gender inequality and discrimination against women on their access to food and nutrition, the Government of India has constantly endeavoured to protect and empower them. The Poshan Abhiyaan, launched in March 2018, envisioning a malnutrition free India by 2022, India has made a concerted push to break the shackles of hunger and malnutrition, with women and girls in the focus. Strengthened by an added fiscal push in 2021 through Poshan 2.0, the Poshan Abhiyaan has brought together twelve ministries for convergent strategies to address food and nutrition needs of women, particularly pregnant and lactating women, adolescent girls and children.
The Targeted Public Distribution System (TPDS), which addresses women’s empowerment by regarding the eldest woman above 18 years of age in the household as the head of the household, and thereby holder of the ration card. Women are also being given preference in allotting Fair Price Shop permits. The scheme for women’s self-help groups (SHGs) focuses on women’s empowerment through livelihoods based on access to microfinance and skills for economic independence. Following COVID-19 pandemic, focus on women was visible in the Government’s initiatives of extra funds for women’s SHGs and direct benefit transfers to women in their Jan Dhan accounts.
WFP’s Focus On Gender And Women Empowerment
WFP aligns well with India in this strategic focus on addressing gender inequality along with enhancing food and nutrition for sustainable progress on SDG 2. WFP supports the Government of India through technical assistance to the government’s food safety nets. To ensure that WFP reaches all women, men, girls and boys equally, WFP programmes are based on sound gender analysis, and designed to meet the different needs of women, men, girls and boys through gender-transformative approaches that not only impact food insecurity and malnutrition but also address gender inequality and women’s empowerment.
Recommendations On Addressing Persistent Gender Inequality, Particularly In Food And Nutrition
Some important interventions to strengthen the focus on gender equality can be identified. There is a need for community education and social behaviour change communication to give equal priority to women’s nutrition. Additionally, women-focussed nutrition programmes could be prioritized in high poverty populations. But in the longer term these notions need to be addressed by reinforcing positive practices in the community, such as encouraging family members to eat together, sharing equal food servings and taking care that no one goes hungry because of extreme household work pressure. It is important also to educate the community to dispel harmful myths on nutrition of young children, adolescent girls and pregnant and lactating women. Men’s involvement is particularly crucial as the key enabler to meeting women’s nutrition needs.
(Dr. Aradhana Srivastava is the Gender and Inclusion Lead at the UN World Food Programme. She has a doctoral degree in Regional Development from the Jawaharlal Nehru University, and more than 18 years of experience in social science research and programme implementation with a multi-disciplinary approach, specializing in food security, gender and vulnerability analysis.)
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