In a world where 690 million people are hungry, 60% of them are women. Gender disparity is omnipresent, even in the case of hunger and undernutrition. Deep-seated intra-household gaps lead to inequitable access to food and nutrition. Commonly, in Indian households, women are the first to bear the brunt of hunger even though they work harder to secure food for their households. The unspoken laws of a traditional household save the lion’s share of the food for men, followed by children. Women are often expected to feed themselves with what is left.
As women are typically at a higher risk of food insecurity and hunger, they are more likely to develop deficiencies caused by undernourishment. The most prevalent for women in India is iron deficiency. Today, one in two women is anaemic. This kind of micronutrient deficiency gives rise to hidden hunger. It does not always lead to a physical sensation of hunger, but it hits hard on one’s well-being. Causes include poor diets, disease, or increased micronutrient needs not met during pregnancy and lactation.
Further, these malnourished mothers go on to give birth to undernourished children. This has a severe impact on the life of a child who gets stuck in this loop of intergenerational hunger and leads a life deprived of bare minimum necessities.
As the first step, we need to address the shackles of social norms and deep-rooted orthodox practices. Young girls and women need a platform for equal opportunities that can get them out of the cycle of poverty, hunger, and malnutrition.
In societies that are ingrained with gender norms, working with the community of women can help build social capital and create awareness. Real solutions to undernutrition will emerge when women are connected and given the chance to lead the dialogue not just in their households but also in their communities. These empowered women can help make more women aware of their rights, build trust in the community, provide a podium for joint action, and promote the active role of women as community leaders. This is especially relevant to health and nutrition outcomes, as women often decide the course of nutritional behaviour including, but not limited to, dietary diversity, infant and young child feeding (IYCF) practices, sanitation and hygiene, and access to and utilisation of health services.
The government is recognising the effect of gender inequality on access to food and nutrition and is constantly striving to empower the women of India. The POSHAN Abhiyaan, launched by the Hon’ble Prime Minister in March 2018, is intended to improve nutritional outcomes for children, pregnant women and lactating mothers.
Additionally, the Targeted Public Distribution System (TPDS) 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.
While the government bodies are running programs to accelerate the fight against hunger by alleviating gender inequalities, we are committed to forging effective partnerships with them and co-creating interventions and innovations.
We are also focusing on a community-inclusive approach to improve livelihood for women and girls. Under the Daily Feeding Program, Feeding India partners with skill development centres to serve daily nutritious meals to women. Food acts as an incentive for many women who come to these centres and upskill themselves. This approach not only helps create awareness about nutrition and dietary diversity but also helps in building a community of self-sufficient women.
Women hold the power to end hunger and malnutrition in the country if given the right tools to do so. And it is our collective responsibility to enable them to be the catalyst of change.