Site hosted by Build your free website today!

Gender Dimensions of Hunger


The Global Persecution of Women

The article that follows is a policy brief of The Hunger Project, copyright 2004, used with permission and downloaded from, 12 February 2007.

JUNE 2004

Gender dimensions of hunger

“Gender equality is more than a goal in itself. It is a precondition for meeting the challenge of reducing poverty, promoting sustainable development and building good governance.”
-- Kofi Annan, UN Secretary-General


Addressing gender* issues is an essential strategy to meeting each Millennium Development Goal. This is particularly true with the goal of reducing hunger by 50%.

As we will show in this chapter, there are five critical gender aspects to the issue of hunger:

  1. Women and girls are disproportionately affected by hunger.
  2. The nutrition of women and girls is the strongest determinant of the nutrition of the whole society.
  3. Women are the key food producers, yet are bypassed in agricultural programs.
  4. When women earn more money, they devote more of that money to family nutrition than do men.
  5. Women – the members of society with the most experience, knowledge and commitment to ending hunger – are excluded from decision-making in those issues. When they gain voice, they shift the development agenda towards meeting basic needs.

Gender inequality is not merely a “factor” in hunger – it is the primary root cause of most of the chronic hunger in the world.

Although women’s key role in ending hunger has long been recognized, policies and programs designed to end hunger have not only failed to address gender inequality, they continue to allocate resources disproportionately to men – thus reinforcing the very factors that cause hunger in the first place.

Strategies to end hunger must ensure that women and girls have at least equal access to resources as men and boys. The highest priority must be to empower women and invest in girls. Convincing societies and their governments to embrace such a reallocation of resources within hunger-fighting programs will require a large-scale, intensive and sustained campaign of awareness generation and capacity building.

1. Women and girls are the most affected by hunger

“Let us begin with an unequivocal assertion: proper nutrition and health are fundamental human rights.”
-- Gro Harlem Brundtland, Director-General, World Health Organization

The majority of the world’s hungry people are women and girls. The gap between women and men caught in the cycle of hunger has widened in the past decade.

Gender differences in the nutrition of women and men is not primarily a function of poverty or food supply, but of deeply entrenched gender discrimination.

As a 2001 IFPRI report states, “Insufficient attention has been given to the extent, causes, and consequences of women’s undernutrition. Even among pregnant women, it remains largely uncounted and unreported. Few nationally representative studies have been done. In the mid-1990s, the World Bank estimated that 450 million adult women in developing countries were stunted due to undernutrition during childhood. It has been conservatively estimated that about 250 million women are at risk of iodine deficiency disorders, and almost two million were blind due to vitamin A deficiency. Around half of all adult women in developing countries (745 million) are anemic. Deficiencies of iodine and iron are known to affect females throughout infancy and childhood disproportionately, as well as before and during pregnancy.”

Women and girls are trapped in a cycle of malnutrition, particularly in South Asia. By tradition, women eat last and least. They eat only the food that is left over after the males have eaten. Often men and boys consume twice as many calories – even though women and girls do much of the heavy work. Girls in India are two-to-four times more likely to suffer from acute malnutrition than boys.

This cycle can and must be broken. IFPRI and others recommend a “life cycle” approach that provides nutrition interventions at every stage in the cycle. While this might seem impractical from a top-down approach, it is not only practical but natural in a people-centered framework once local communities fully understand the nature of the problem and what can be done to correct it. Life cycle approaches to nutrition include ensuring that people understand the impact of malnutrition of girls in vitreo, during breastfeeding, weaning, pre-school, school, adolescence and pregnancy. Such education must include information on the nutritional impact of early marriage and early pregnancy.

2. Women’s nutrition and the nutrition of society

“There is now overwhelming evidence that women’s empowerment through schooling, employment opportunities, etc., has the most far-reaching effects on the lives of all – men, women and children.”
-- Amartya Sen

Given that women are blessed with the ability to give life, women play a key role in the nutrition of the family. Experts have long known that the health and nutrition of the mother is the key determinant in the nutrition of her child. Recent medical evidence now shows that the nutrition of the child is determined by the nutrition of the mother – not only when she is pregnant and nursing, but throughout her entire life, back to when she herself was in the womb.

It has been clear for some time that maternal deprivation and subsequent fetal deprivation cause children to be highly susceptible to infectious diseases like tuberculosis and malaria.

New research shows that maternal deprivation also makes the body susceptible to diseases we associate with affluence – hypertension, cardiovascular diseases, type 2 diabetes, among others. In the next 20 years, India will have the largest number of diabetics, and coronary heart disease will become the leading cause of mortality.

This new research underscores that what begins as the neglect and discrimination of women ends in causing adversity for the health and survival of all.

The link between malnutrition and gender discrimination becomes clear when considering the incidence of low birth weight and rates of childhood malnutrition in South Asia.

One-third of all babies in Bangladesh and 1/4 of the babies in India are born underweight and malnourished. This compares to 12 percent in sub-Saharan Africa. Child malnutrition rates in South Asia are similarly twice as high as those in sub-Saharan Africa.

Why are the rates of malnutrition higher in South Asia than in Africa, given that Africa’s other indices of development are so much worse? A 1996 study published by UNICEF considered a range of possible factors and concluded, “The exceptionally high rates of malnutrition in South Asia are rooted deep in the soil of inequality between men and women.”

The link between malnutrition and gender discrimination is also evident when analyzing progress. A recent analysis of development by the World Bank indicates that countries with smaller gaps between women and men in areas such as education, employment and property rights have lower child malnutrition and mortality.

3. Women as food producers

“A green revolution in Africa will happen only if it is also a gender revolution.”
-- Kofi Annan

Just as policy makers must learn to think “women” when they think “hungry people” – they must think “women” when they think food producers in the developing world.

And, to date, this has not been so. Women have been largely bypassed by development assistance and programs focused on agriculture.

Rural women are responsible for half of the world’s food production and produce 60 to 80 percent of the food in most developing countries.

In sub-Saharan Africa, women food farmers produce 80 percent of Africa’s food and do the vast majority of the work to process, transport, store and market Africa’s food. They also provide 90 percent of the water, wood and fuel. Food processing alone creates a heavy work load for women. In parts of Africa, women spend four hours a day grinding grain.

They do all this, despite the fact that women own 1 percent of the land, receive less than 7 percent of farm extension services, and receive less than 10 percent of the credit given to small-scale farmers.

The World Bank has shown that in sub-Saharan Africa, if women farmers were given the same support as that given to men, their yields could increase by more than 20%.

Today, the greatest threat to food production in the developing world is the rapid spread of HIV/AIDS. Families affected by HIV/AIDS see their food production cut by 40%.

There is a direct correlation between women’s low social status and HIV transmission. Men have multiple partners and unsafe sex, and women, because of their low status, are kept uninformed about prevention and powerless to protect themselves. Twice as many young women as men are becoming infected. Action to alter the traditional gender roles that are fueling the pandemic is essential to achieving the sustainable end of hunger.

4. Women as income earners

A central message is clear: ignoring gender disparities comes at great cost
– to people’s well-being and to countries’ abilities to grow sustainably,
to govern effectively and thus to reduce poverty.
-- James D. Wolfensohn, President, the World Bank

Women are increasingly becoming the chief family income earner for meeting basic needs of the family. As men abandon the rural area in search of work, there is a growing incidence of women headed households, now averaging 30% across Africa.

Gender discrimination against women in the cash economy, including lack of access to education, training and credit, have an increasingly negative impact on family nutrition.

The microcredit movement that has been so useful to women involved in commerce in many parts of the world has largely ignored agricultural producers because of the long turn-around times of agricultural loans. Given that agriculture is the primary livelihood opportunity for hungry women, steps must be taken to economically empower women farmers. Such steps include:

5. Women in decision making

“The most striking single social, political and economic transformation of the past century has been the emergence of women as leaders in nearly every country and in every walk of life.”
-- Mark Malloch Brown, Administrator, UNDP

In countries with the persistence of hunger, women bear full responsibility for the key issues in ending hunger: family health, nutrition, sanitation, education and increasingly – family income. Yet women are systematically denied the information, education and freedom of action they need to fulfill these responsibilities.

Studies show that when women have more voice in decision making in the home, their families are healthier, better nourished and better educated. In Brazil, as well as other countries, research shows that income in the hands of mothers has four times the impact on child nutrition as the same income in the hands of fathers.

When women gain voice in decision making in their villages, they alter the development agenda to address issues critical to meeting basic needs. They also take action against dowry, domestic violence, child marriage and child labor.

Women in positions of leadership become role models, mentors and educators for other women, helping women to know their rights. As they gain respect from both women and men, they become a catalyst to alter age-old gender discrimination.

Ignoring gender: the deadly cost of inaction

“To achieve some of the non-gender-specific MDGs, policies would have to be tailored – in a non-neutral way – to disproportionately benefit girls and women, since it can be argued that they are presently disproportionately disadvantaged in terms of poverty rates, poor environmental conditions and the direct and indirect burdens arising from the HIV/AIDS epidemic.”
-- Peter S. Heller, Deputy Director, Fiscal Affairs, International Monetary Fund

For more than 30 years, policy makers have been informed that inattention to gender inequality in programs to combat hunger and poverty in the developing world is actually making the problem worse.

In 1970, a study by Ester Boserup based on data from Africa, Asia and Latin America “showed that the lack of understanding and consequent neglect of women’s role by economists and development planner had itself led to the marginalization and pauperization of women and their family. She contended that biases, prejudices and misunderstandings related in women’s labor force participation had eroded the household economic base, thus contributing to an overall increase in poverty.”

In 1983, Robert Chambers pointed out that “There has been a massive shift of rhetoric and a notably less massive shift of real priorities towards rural women and their needs.”

From the first International Women’s Year in 1975 through the Beijing+5 meetings in 2000, the international community has recognized the vital importance of giving highest priority to overcoming gender inequality – not only for women, but for improving the well-being of all.

Yet the statement by Chambers is still true today. None of the action agendas for combating hunger and poverty recommend serious action to address the gender dimensions of hunger – not the Monterrey Consensus on Financing for Development, nor NEPAD for Africa.

To mount an effective strategy to end hunger we must mount an effective strategy to address the gender dimensions of hunger. Such a strategy must include:

One model for such a policy can be found in the UN World Food Programme. WFP’s gender policy includes dozens of concrete steps to close the gender gap in both its structure and its programs, including:

In short, until all programs related to ending hunger are able to effectively direct the majority of their resources and programs to women, these programs will actually widen the gender gap, and will thus cause more hunger than they solve.

* Appendix: Definitions

Gender refers to those characteristics of women and men that are socially constructed – the different roles that society assigns women and men.

Gender analysis identifies, analyses, and informs action to address inequalities that arise from the different roles of women and men, or the unequal power relations between them, and the consequences of the inequalities in their lives, their health and well-being.

The United Nations Millennium Declaration commits the world community “to promote gender equality and the empowerment of women as effective ways to combat poverty, hunger and disease and to stimulate development that is truly sustainable.”

Gender equality reflects the equality of men and women under the law, an equal sharing of power, equality of opportunities, including equality in access to human assets (health, education, etc) and other productive assets (land, information, financial resources, etc), equal rewards for work of equal value, and equality of voice, including political representation.

The empowerment of women is the process by which women gain power and control over decisions and resources that determine the quality of their lives. It recognizes women not as victims or beneficiaries, but as key actors for development.

In 1997, the United Nations committed to gender mainstreaming as the means it will use to achieve gender equality. Gender mainstreaming involves ensuring that attention to gender equality and the different roles and needs of women and men is central to the design and implementation of all development interventions. All UN agencies related to ending hunger (FAO, WFP, WHO, UNDP, UNICEF) have established gender mainstreaming policies.


The Global Persecution of Women