Women Empowerment in Addressing Food Security and Nutrition
Empowering women is inextricably linked to the strengthening of food systems to fight hunger and malnutrition as women play important roles as producers of food, managers of natural resources, income earners, and caretakers of household food and nutrition security. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development clearly recognizes the fundamental importance of achieving gender equality and enhancing women’s empowerment by reflecting and mainstreaming gender across all 17 SDGs. Without gender equality and women’s economic, social, and political empowerment, food security, nutrition, and sustainable agriculture will hardly be achieved. The sustainable development goals (SDGs) are meant to guide the actions, program, and policy development of national governments, international agencies, civil society, and other institutions over 15 years (2016–2030).
Equity to food access and security is of chief concern to an increasing number and groups of people, organizations, and governments all over the world. The discussion and analysis of healthy and food access would be incomplete and limited without a focus on and discussion of food equity. Food and agriculture is featured as an integral element in the sustainable development goals, as articulated in the 2030 Agenda and significantly reflected in SDG 2: “End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture.” Never before had food production been enough to feed all humanity like today, but fair access and distribution of the food products all over the planet and the control of production factors remain the major challenges to achieving food security and well-being. Food security for a household means “access by all members at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life. Food security includes at a minimum” (USDA 2008). Therefore, strengthening of food systems to conquer hunger and fight malnutrition, as well as improve lives and livelihoods of rural populations, is inextricably linked to the promotion of gender equality and women’s empowerment and can be addressed through an integrated and context-specific solution. Empowering women and closing gender gaps in education, agriculture, health, production, labor markets, employment, and other areas lead to increase in economic growth, agricultural productivity, improved nutrition, education of children, more resilient communities, and a general reduction in poverty general well-being. Consequently, any letdown in addressing gender-related discrimination, equities, and inequalities will deter the achievement of the SDGs. Sustainable development cannot be attained when and if both palpable and impalpable obstacles that hold back 50% of the population remain unaddressed (UNDP 2016); SDGs can thus be achieved in attaining empowerment. Empowerment is “the expansion of people’s ability to make strategic life choices within their households and their communities, particularly in contexts where this ability has been limited” (Kabeer 2011).
Investing in food security (availability, access, and utilization) becomes imperative because it better delivers on well-being (FAO et al. 2009). The creeping hidden hunger that is threatening global well-being could alienate all efforts under the 17 SDGs if concrete measures are not taken in the area of food security, nutrition, and concrete coping strategies to climate changes (Liu et al 2015). The availability of food in sufficient quantities in recent years has skewed the reality of food and nutrition security because of the difficulty of access to food and equitable sharing of food between and among different regions of the world. Over the past two decades, the world has recorded some progress in human development by a reduction in extreme poverty, improvement in access to primary education and health outcomes, and promoting gender equality and the empowerment of women and vulnerable persons. Nevertheless, these efforts could be wiped out if not supported by a holistic vision that connects food productivity, nutrition, health, well-being, and sustainable management of natural resources. This entry focuses on agricultural food systems to show how women empowerment and equity in the farming systems can contribute to enhancing the well-being, food security, and health of the poorest and most vulnerable persons who experience great difficulty feeding and living in environments characterized by uncertainty (overexploitation and unequal sharing of natural resources) and insecurity. This entry is based on existing literature on sustainable development goals and gender relations in agriculture, food systems, and general human development.
Food Insecurity in Africa: Some Trends
Sub-Saharan African food security depends on an array of factors: utilization of improved technologies and farm machinery, climate information, political landscapes, social stability, and exploration and use of natural resources. While food security is improving overall, the situation of food insecurity in sub-Saharan Africa has become worrying between 2016 and 2017. It is in this subregion where the prevalence rate of undernourishment increased from 20.8% in 2015 to 22.7% in 2016, while the number of undernourished people increased from 200 to 224 million. The sub-Saharan African region accounts for about 25% of the 815 million undernourished people in the world in 2016 (FAO et al. 2017a). During the same period, the proportion of people living in severe food insecurity because of lack or limited access to food is higher in Southern, Eastern, and Western Africa. This requires urgent action as malnutrition issues have reached alarming proportions within 2 years (FAO and IFPRI 2017).
A lot of thoughts have been given to defining and expanding the meaning of poverty. One such approach was the emphasis on “human poverty” – which refers to the denial of opportunities and choices for living a most basic or “tolerable” life (UNDP 1997). This line of thought recognizes not just the symptoms of poverty but also the causes. The World Bank in its 2001 World Development Report outlined an approach to poverty and poverty reduction by proposing three ways of tackling poverty. The first is by promoting opportunity, which includes opening up access to tangible opportunities like credit, jobs, electricity, markets, and health services. The second is through facilitating empowerment (strengthening and ensuring full participation and inclusion of poor and marginalized people in political process and decision-making) and lastly is the removal of social and institutional barriers due to differences in gender, social status, and ethnicity or race and enhancing security (UNDP 1997). Furthermore, IFPRI 2014 nutrition report advocates a number of measures to overcome these challenges: implementing effective action across food, health, social welfare, education, water, sanitation, and women sectors and areas and across an array of actors (IFPRI 2014). However, approaches in attaining food security and hunger may not reach the expected outcomes if gender relations, specific and targeted needs, and aspirations of men, women, and youths are not taken into account. This simply implies equitable sharing of opportunities and resources between men, women, and young people in all human living settings. Improving well-being and ending poverty in 2030 would mean taking into account the needs and aspirations of women whose participation in agricultural labor force is estimated at 43% globally and more than 50% in sub-Saharan Africa (SOFA Team and Doss 2011; Van den Bold et al. 2018; Quisumbing et al. 1995). Ashby et al. stressed the importance of investing in women as drivers of agricultural growth and productivity, noting that in developing countries women continue to be and play a critical role in agricultural production and economic development as they constitute a majority of the labor force and producers of most subsistence food that is consumed locally (Ashby et al. 2008).
Food and Nutrition Insecurity and Gender Relations
Food security and nutrition are crosscutting themes that intersect with a broad range of the SDGs; addressing these complex challenges requires an integrated and context-specific solution. Promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment is one of the inextricable links to strengthening food systems, fighting hunger and malnutrition, and improving the lives and livelihoods of rural populations. At least 7 out of 11 SDGs focus on food production and security; nutritional needs of adolescent girls and pregnant and lactating women are linked to women empowerment. These include SDG2 (hunger, food security, improved nutrition, and sustainable agriculture); SDG3 (ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages); SDG5 (gender equality and empowerment of all women and girls); SDG6 (availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all); SDG12 (sustainable consumption and production patterns); SDG13 (climate change and its impacts); and SDG14 (conservation and sustainable use of oceans, seas, and marine resources for sustainable development).
In recent years, enormous gains are recorded in the areas of sanitation; education; drinking water; access to health care such as eradication of tuberculosis, meningitis, and measles; and accessibility to health facilities for most populations around the world. However, food security and nutrition issues lag behind and remain a major constraint in many parts of the world, especially in sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia. This may continue to be a barrier to achieving SDGs by 2030; the reason may not be due to the unavailability of foods, but because of limited and inequitable access to and utilization of foods (FAO 2016). For instance, in 2014, with the exception of two countries, none of the other countries were on track to meet the SDG nutritional targets because of various forms of malnutrition in two to three billion people indicated by stunting, anemia or overweight in adults, or micronutrient deficiencies (IFPRI 2014; Tappenden et al. 2013; te Lintelo 2014). Similarly, estimates of undernourishment based on food supply are decreasing, and 805 million people were still below the minimum calorie threshold in 2012–2014 (IFPRI 2014).
A vast body of evidence revealed the important role women play in agriculture, natural resource management, food security, and nutrition at the household and community levels (Brody et al. 2014; World Bank et al. 2009; FAO et al. 2014; BRIDGE 2014). Improving food security and the promotion of income-generating activities in developing countries through agricultural innovation contribute to narrowing gender disparities and respond to malnutrition and rural poverty. However, even if production of food products increases by 1.7% per year up to 2030, and if this production is not accessible (geographically, socially, and economically to consumers) and used by the entire population of the world, humanity will still be faced with food and nutrition insecurity. Thus there is a need to move beyond productivity requirements in order to solve nutrition and food security problems in developing countries. This is depicted in the “paradox of Sikasso” wherein a majority of households “plant to sell,” making feeding less of a priority (Cooper and West 2017). Researchers revealed that of all the regions in Mali, Sikasso Region is considered a more productive and innovative in agricultural region due to its high cash earnings from the introduction of cotton cultivation for four decades, high production of cereals and other cash crops, as well as increase in the selling capacities of households. However, food insecurity and malnutrition increased among women and infants and poverty is alarming. The poverty rate in the region of Sikasso was 85% in 1994, 82% in 2001, and 81% in 2006 (Delarue et al. 2009; De Bruijn et al. 2005; Eozenou et al. 2013). Access and availability of food are thus an economic imperative. Without adequate access to food source and availability of food to women who provide care and prepare food for the family, increased income or cash source remain indeed only but a paradox.
The practice of sharing and serving meals in households that experience food shortage frequently is influenced often by the local sociocultural norms and belief system. The findings of a research study dubbed “GENNOVATE: Enabling gender equality in agricultural and environmental innovation” conducted by the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT)s Gender Scientists in West and Central Africa in 2015 revealed the gendered practice in dietary habits. It showed that sharing of meals is reinforced by the cultural norm that dictates how meals are served for men separate from women and children. Men are often served not only the best foods but are served first before children and women (Petesch et al. 2018). This practice contributes to high rate of malnutrition among women and children who instead of enjoying the best meals are served last with whatever is left. Children are supposed to be provided with carefully selected nutrients-rich food for their nourishment but are given less preference at the expense of prioritizing food choices of the head of household. A good example of these meal-sharing practices is illustrated by the case study in Hausa society, where the best and more pieces of meat are given to the head of household, while other household members eat none or the remaining. In terms of diversity, the availability and provision of grains in the household are not sufficient conditions for food security and nutrition. In addition to grains, condiments are part of food cooking. Gender-based inequality along the food production chain “from farm to plate” impedes the attainment of food and nutritional security and requires enhancing women’s roles as agricultural producers as well as the primary caretakers of their families (World Bank et al. 2009). In rural Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger, men are responsible for supplying women with grains for cooking daily meals. Wives are responsible for getting condiments and supplement of foods for their children and infants. When the rations of provided grains are not sufficient, women have to manage to get the surplus from their own granaries or their own plot harvest condiments (red chili, tomatoes, sorrel, onion, groundnut, cowpea, etc.). Though women are recognized as meal providers with the primary decision on meal choices, many barriers such as land insecurity, limited access to and control over household lands, lack of production resources, and rigid norms impede women’s agricultural innovation capacities and production. While women’s role and contribution in food production is recognized, little or nothing is done in SSA to transform this potential into key drivers of agricultural growth and economic development (Ashby et al. 2008). This requires a transformative approach to farm household in terms of gender relations.
Food Availability Versus Food Access and Utilization
Food systems are experiencing rapid and intense transformations, having to feed a growing global population in a context of persisting economic, environmental, and social challenges. Agricultural production and rural livelihoods are being increasingly jeopardized by the impact of conflict, climate change, and continuing depletion of natural resources, labor shortage, and migration. Demands for cereals are recently growing and cereal prices are rising. The global demand for feed was 1.6 billion tons in 2015–2017. This demand is expected to increase at an annual growth rate of around 1.7% to 1.9 billion tons by 2027 (FAO and OECD 2018). World prices for wheat, grains, and oilseeds nearly doubled between 2005 and 2007 crop years. The escalation in agricultural commodity prices played a decisive role in increasing the cost of food products while rightly reinforcing the acuity of the problems posed by food security and hunger, particularly in developing countries (FAO and OECD 2018). The causes of increase in food prices are also related to long drought periods and the unpredictability of the onset and offset of rain in major cereal regions, low stocks of cereals and oilseeds, use of agricultural raw materials for biofuel production and the rapid rise in oil prices, etc. With regard to food production, rural women and men face serious challenges in their efforts to achieve food security and nutrition, as they have to cope with climatic instability. During episodes of famine and insecurity, women and children are hard hit by the consequences of hunger, food insecurity, and malnutrition and impact of climate change (Yila and Resurreccion 2013).
These factors contribute to the concerns of unequal access to and availability of food products and affect the way the population utilize food products. Rising food prices due to market fluctuations and climate variability has negative impact on food and nutritional security of smallholder farmers and the poorest people in sub-Saharan Africa compared to other regions of the world. However, World Bank and FAO (2009) reports suggest that food resources are becoming sufficient due to increase in investments and implementation of diverse agricultural policies, but poor economic accessibility (lack of transportation and communications and market fluctuations) influences malnutrition and food security and not the availability of food. This reveals that access and utilization of food by all are as important as availability and adequate supply of food (World Bank et al. 2009).
Nutrition and Anemia Among Adolescent Girls and Pregnant and Lactating Women
As the world looks to accelerating and sustaining recent gains in development and to proliferate these gains, people and regions that have been left behind should be taken into account, and unequivocal consideration to nutrition is needed. People deprived of good nutrition cannot have a well-functioning mind and body, which undermines the basics of social, economic, and cultural life. Currently, 155 million children under 5 are stunted, and 52 million children are wasted the world over. Each year, over three million children still die of malnutrition, while more than two billion people globally suffer from some form of micronutrient deficiency (vitamin A, zinc, iron, and other key vitamins and minerals) (IFPRI 2017). Malnutrition arises both from a lack and shortage of food as well as other interrelated practices like poor hygiene, education, health, care, access to resources, etc. In order to address the scourge of malnutrition, nutrition must be recognized as “both an input to, and an outcome of, the SDGs” (Webb 2014).
Wide differences in the prevalence of undernourishment exist between regions, and subregions of Africa are considered the most affected by the phenomenon of malnutrition. At the regional level, 224.3 million people are reported as undernourished in 2016 including 41.6 million in Western Africa and 40.4 million in Central Africa (FAO 2017). Among all social groups, it is widely recognized that the nutritional needs of breastfeeding women and women of childbearing age are higher and should be given special attention to safeguard their health and that of the children they provide care to (Ticomb et al. 2018; Caswell et al. 2018; Karfakis et al. 2015; Stevens et al. 2013). Notwithstanding, women constitute the main food producers in sub-Saharan Africa; that is why Verhart et al. (2016) argue, “addressing unequal gender power relation is part of the solution to achieving improved nutrition and agricultural outcomes.” In other words, understanding gender roles and priorities in food systems can contribute to alleviating malnutrition. There is a dual relationship between mother’s malnutrition and infant malnutrition because, in order for children to have a satisfactory nutritional status, mothers who are responsible for children’s nutrition need to be well nourished and to have the means to do so. This is why it is important to focus more research and interventions on the child and mother with regard to nutrition and adoption of fortified crop varieties by women and to transform gender roles in food production in Africa where malnutrition and undernourishment issues remain crucial (Verhart et al. 2016; Ghattas 2014; WHO 2014).
Key Indicator of the Prevalence of Malnutrition
Anemia is one of the most devastating health issues among pregnant women, breastfeeding women, and children under 5 years. The main causes of anemia in women of childbearing age are varied: diet low in micronutrients (iron, folate, riboflavin, vitamins A and B12), acute or chronic infections (malaria, tuberculosis, HIV, etc.), other chronic diseases and cancer, or hereditary genetic disorders. Anemia is, therefore, a key indicator of poor nutrition and poor health in children and women who remain the two most vulnerable groups. According to the most recent estimates available, 33% of all women of childbearing age worldwide were affected with anemia in 2016 (FAO et al. 2017b). Anemia prevalence is highest in Africa and Asia, with rates above 35% (FAO et al. 2017b). For these reasons, anemia is considered as both women and child disease and malnutrition indicator. It is still in sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia that malnutrition is considered a public health issue that threatens the well-being of the most vulnerable. Stunting in children under 5 years old is a key indicator of chronic malnutrition that reflects the effects of long-term deprivation and disease and the perpetual burden of undernutrition (Victoria et al. 2008; Bhutta et al. 2008; Morris et al. 2006). Victoria et al. (2008) associated maternal and child undernutrition with human capital and risk of adult diseases in low-income and middle-income countries.
To address undernutrition, IFPRI (2013) proposes Agriculture for Nutrition and Health (A4NH) framework that describes how research within the CGIAR Research Program (CRP) contributes to the strategic goals of improving women and children health and nutritional status. IFPRI’s discussion document built widely around “breeding crops with enhanced levels of micronutrients defines bio-fortification as a process used to breed staple food crops that are richer in micronutrients such as vitamin A, iron, and zinc and can, therefore, improve nutrition when consumed” (IFPRI 2013). Bio-fortification strategy is seen as one of the promising solutions to malnutrition. Inclusion of gender needs and preference in breeding program in delivering bio-fortified crop varieties facilitates addressing malnutrition causes (Cakmak and Kutman 2017).
In the past two decades, ICRISAT developed bio-fortified sorghum, millet, and groundnut cultivars in West and Central Africa to address child and women nutritional issues (Ajeigbe et al. 2013). In addition to the breeding aspect that addresses the incorporation of micronutrients in staple crop varieties such as maize, millet, groundnut, cowpea, and sorghum, there is a need to manage crucial food safety risks facing poor consumers. The most serious food safety problem in staple crops (maize, groundnuts, and sorghum) is aflatoxin contamination (IFPRI 2013). Aflatoxin contamination is both a nutrition and health and market issue that can affect negatively poor smallholder farmers from sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia and in particular women and children. One thing is to deliver the best varieties to fight malnutrition and increase agricultural yield; the other is to ensure consumers and producers are sensitized and trained in the management of diseases that attack food crops. Ensuring crop bio-fortification and addressing aflatoxin contamination require creating the enabling environments (political and institutional processes) and to “build and sustain momentum for the effective implementation of actions that reduce under-nutrition” (Andersson et al. 2007; Hortz and McClafferty 2007; Pfeiffer and McClafferty 2007; Gillespie et al. 2013; Verhart et al. 2016; Spring 2014; Herforth and Harris 2014).
Women Empowerment Toward Equitable Prosperity, a Healthy Planet, and Human Well-Being
Recognizing and addressing the identified gender issues and aspirations of vulnerable groups, in addition to political will and effective partnerships at all levels, are imperative to delivering sustainable development and well-being to everyone. Political measures that address unequal access to land, access to and affordability of modern farming tools and techniques, availability and affordability of inputs and seeds, soil health and livestock-related interventions, as well as market access should have positive impacts on gender equity, food insecurity, women empowerment, and the prevalence of undernourishment in the subregion (Bauchspies 2009).
Going beyond the issue of food availability involves linking the political and economic parameters as a prerequisite to feed the entire population (Bridge 2014). The level of productivity depends on natural resource availability and the flexibility of institutions. For instance, food production is dependent on the availability of natural resources, national and international policy, and the institutional environments (customary rules, legal framework, religious rules, regulation on wage labor, etc.) that govern those resources (World Bank et al. 2009). Strong correlations exist between food and nutrition insecurity and gender inequality. For instance, even though India has climbed the economic growth ladder, thousands of girls and women still suffer from food and nutrition insecurity due to social inequality and marginalization experienced by women and girls compared with boys and men (Bridge 2014). The fights against malnutrition and inequality of various forms have impacts not only the vulnerable population but the economy as well. The eradication of poverty and the transformation of economies in this vein go hand in hand with food security. The fundamental goal of a well-being economy is to achieve sustainable welfare for all humans and nature with dignity and fairness. “A wellbeing economy recognizes that the economy is embedded in society and nature; it must be understood and managed as an integrated, interdependent system” (Costanza et al. 2018; IFPRI 2014; Hoddinott et al. 2013). The outcome of interrelated factors comprising human physical and mental health, respectable social relationships, gender equity and fairness, and a healthy ecosystem can only be achieved through an all-inclusive approach to prosperity. Economic governance system directed at promoting well-being would require that impacts of economic activity both negative and positive be accounted for.
Rural women work long hours to fulfill a triple work burden in the productive, reproductive, and community or social spheres, which, in contrast to men, are generally unrecognized and unpaid. The burden of triple work affects not only women’s health but also the general well-being of the household and nation. Blackden and Wodon (2005) noted in the World Bank working paper “that time poverty is a critical gender dimension of poverty in sub-Saharan Africa.” For national governments, regional and subregional bodies, global partnerships, public and private sector, and all key stakeholders to witness the achievement of the sustainable development goals, gender equality, women empowerment, food and nutrition security, and general eradication of hunger need to be integrated and commonly approached taking into account the chronic time poverty of women. Taken together, combating the challenges of food insecurity, nutrition, health, education, and general well-being may not have the desired impacts and results if they are not analyzed from a gender and equity perspective that takes into account the differentiated and specific needs of men, women, young people, and children. Embracing holistic and gender-responsive approaches makes it possible to recognize inequalities in the areas of access to natural resources, credit, wage labor, civic and political participation, and access to basic social services (education, water and sanitation, health) and then consequently act on them.
Conclusion and Recommendations
Change statutory laws to strengthen women’s entitlements and increase the enforceability of their claims over natural and physical assets. Gender disparities in natural and physical capital persist partly because the legal framework supports property rights systems that are biased against women. By ensuring that women have the same access to productive resources as men, women could increase yields on their farms, and this could reduce the number of hungry people worldwide by 150 million fewer hungry people. In addition, promoting equal access by women to land ownership and other resources, such as capital, technical assistance, technology, equipment, tools, markets, and time, is needed for effective participation. Women produce up to 80% of the world’s food but own less than 2% of the world’s titled land (World Bank 2008). This disparity leaves women incredibly vulnerable; in the African context, the loss of a husband, father, or brother often also signals a loss of land and, with it, a main source of food security, income, bargaining power, and status within the household and community. Women and girls’ property rights should be strengthened in both law and practice. Where such legislative measures are not in place, customary rules and practices often have restrictive consequences for women limiting their access to key resources such as land and credit and affecting household food security and nutrition. Not only are women and girls affected directly, but members of their households and communities are also affected inter- and intragenerationally. Social and cultural institutions also need to change in order to create an environment where equity is the norm and women can realize their full potential.
Increase women’s ability to actively participate in the development process by changing perceptions and increasing awareness of both men and women themselves. Women need to be empowered to make their own choices and to respond to increasing opportunities. Investing in women’s human capital through education, training, and removing barriers to the productive use of women’s time and energy are key to sustainable and gender-sensitive food policy. Empowering women through education is a key component of building women’s resilience and leadership capacity. Governments must focus on educating girls and women, including the provision of educational incentives, such as school feeding programs and cash transfers for educating girls. With the right education and training, women can better contribute to environmental, agricultural, and health and nutrition decision-making. Thus providing women with the opportunity to education helps to enhance their ability to make informed and influence decision-making.
Design and implement creative programs enabling women to use and benefit from their own resources and capabilities through women’s access to social protection and safety nets. Such programs could include group support functions and services that provide women opportunities to build social capital or substitute for their lack of physical and financial assets. Social safety nets protect lives, livelihoods, and human capital during crises and help the most vulnerable recover from shocks. They are often essential to preventing the deterioration of food and nutrition security and health among the most vulnerable and reduce the risk of more people falling into the poverty trap. Social protection policies and programs can also catalyze women’s empowerment. Labor-based safety nets – known as food- and cash-for-work programs – engage women in building assets that enhance the well-being and the resilience of their communities, such as schools or sanitary facilities, as well as natural resources and productive infrastructure. Safety nets can also be used to help women create assets that they use within their traditional sectors of activity, such as cooking stoves and vegetable gardens, or to allow women to spend time learning new skills like nutritional education or small business management.
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