We cannot tackle hunger without transforming gender inequalities

Today, at least 795 million people are experiencing extreme, chronic malnourishment and that number jumps to two billion if micronutrient deficiency or ‘hidden hunger’ is factored in. Nearly 60 percent of the nearly one billion people who go hungry every day are women and girls. They are the poorest of the poor, and they are most vulnerable in the global food system. A new BRIDGE Cutting Edge Report on Gender and Food Security provides a critical lens on the shocking global gender disparities that characterise food and nutrition insecurity.

A look at the evidence makes it clear that gender inequalities are a key cause of this reality. For example, against a backdrop of rapid economic growth, women and girls in India remain among the most food insecure in the world mainly because of  entrenched gender biases that de-prioritise their needs and erode their rights. These deep gender inequalities in food security exist even though women constitute the majority of food producers in the world and are often managing their families’ nutritional needs. Poor women are often doing this despite gendered norms and constraints that restrict their access to productive resources, and global and national forces that push down the market value of their own produce while raising prices of food they need to purchase.

We know that women have little to no access to land and property rights. They often lack access to basic information and basic decision-making power. They can’t get credit, financing and technologies that would drastically improve their productivity, reduce their time and effort, and improve their access to markets.  They receive less training and education than men in agriculture.  In fact, two thirds of the illiterate rural poor are women, affecting their chances to improve their lives.

Women also receive less pay for what they do, compared to men, and work in more precarious conditions. And, though women are known custodians of local knowledge, including seeds and medicines, their knowledge is vastly ignored. These factors not only reduce women’s productivity; they also reduce their capacity, their self-esteem, and undermine their basic rights. Compounding this is the fact that so much of the unpaid work that they do such as collecting water, fuel and caring for their families, is totally ignored in formal data collection and in policies and programmes.

In addition, women’s own nutritional needs – and often those of their daughters – are often being neglected because they are considered of lower status and less of a priority than men and boys in many cultures. Women regularly eat after men and they receive less food than men and boys, particularly in time of crisis when food is scarce. As a result women and girls are more malnourished than men and boys.

When it comes to food stability, enough food to feed everyone, as reported by the UN Food Agencies, has not yet translated into everyone getting enough food to eat. Policies focused on food security need to recognise that food production, processing, distribution, consumption and utilisation are part of often inequitable value chains.

The global food economy, riddled with price volatility and scarcity of resources, has negatively affected the stability of food supply, and women have been left as the shock absorbers of food insecurity.  Climate change patterns and scarce resources continue this pattern with women and children struggling disproportionately than men to provide nutritious food for their families. Every day, women are putting themselves at risk of violence and sexual assault to find food in areas where food is scarce.

The report argues that a commitment to transforming gender inequalities is a non-negotiable condition for reducing hunger and malnutrition. As part of this process there is a vital need for comprehensive, gender-aware strategies that are grounded in an evidence-based understanding of the complex gendered causes and impacts of hunger and malnutrition, and are coherent across a range of policies and actions. This means both women and men need to work together to realise positive change.

The report notably highlights good work is already being done to strengthen rights-based approaches. For example, some governments, such as India and Brazil, have passed right to food legislation to support smallholder farmers and families living below the poverty line. In many African countries, civil society groups are working with their governments to promote awareness and action on women’s land rights. New practices on agro-ecology to promote women’s knowledge and training in sustainable agriculture are being piloted in Central America. New research on making women’s unpaid work is emerging. But far more investment is needed into further developing, adapting and scaling up these types of innovations, and gathering evidence that can ensure funds are targeted effectively in ways that promote the interlinked goals of gender equality and food and nutrition security.

In these way we can begin to make small steps towards realising a vision of gender-just food and nutrition security where the gender inequalities that perpetuate and exacerbate experiences of food insecurity are confronted and transformed; and that is grounded in the recognition that everyone has the right to decent, nutritious food produced in environmentally sustainable ways.

Alexandra Spieldoch is Executive Director, Compatible Technology International (CTI). Alyson Brody is Senior Gender Convenor at the Institute of Development Studies.

This blog post orginally appeared here on the Institute of Development Studies website on 29 June, 2015.