It is a well-established fact that education, literacy and other indicators of women’s empowerment are strongly related to the improved nutrition status of their children.
According to national surveys, child under-nutrition is and associated with illiterate mothers. Surveys also maintain that women who had completed only primary level schooling had 20 percent less under-nutrition among their children as compared to those who had never been to school. So it is quite significant to address the issue of malnutrition with a high focus on women of all ages, as inadequate nutrition wreaks havoc on not only on women’s own health but also on the health of their children – the next generation.
Another reason to prioritise women is that economic consequences emerging from the current rate of prevalence of under-nutrition, as documented in the 2011 National Nutrition Survey of Pakistan, reaches $7.6 billion annually, three percent of GDP. And more than three quarters of this financial burden emerges from nutrition deficits faced by women and children in the 1,000 days from the conception of a child till they reach 24 months of age.
Moreover, anaemia among adults, especially women involved in agriculture, industry and other manual labour, is estimated to cause lower economic output by $657 million per year. Considering the significance and the consequences of women malnutrition on the growth of a country and its incapability to produce a healthy generation, Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) include the target of reducing the rate of anaemia in women of reproductive age and adolescent girls by 50 percent till 2030.
Pakistan shows a grave picture of women’s nutrition status. Half of its adult women are anaemic and calcium deficient, nearly two-thirds are deficient in vitamin D, and 41 and 42 percent are zinc and vitamin A deficient respectively. Although good nutrition is vital for both genders at all ages, the biological process of adolescent girls and women of reproductive age makes them more vulnerable as compared to their male counterparts. In order to address this situation, there is a dire need to understand in-depth the underlying causes, linked directly or indirectly with malnutrition of females.
Age at marriage, maternal height, level of education attained and attitudes towards domestic violence are all strongly linked with malnutrition. Moreover, the ability of women to access and control resources and their decision-making autonomy plays a vital role in their own well-being, followed by the nutrition and health status of their children.
In order to combat this alarming issue, women must be made an integral part of the processes of decision-making at household level and policy-making. Providing them education is the foremost intervention. Keeping girls in school for longer helps young women to become more informed and empowered mothers. Hence, incentives should be introduced, including creating an enabling environment for girls to acquire formal education. Skill-development and micro credit programmes, focusing on women empowerment, should be initiated to make women an active part of decision-making at their family as well as community levels.
Active participation of women in small farming enterprises, including poultry and kitchen gardening, can definitely bring financial stability in their lives and enable them to spend more on their children’s health and education. Above all, feasibility to provide subsidised nutritious food to underprivileged and poor women, adolescent girls and children should be prioritised. At the policy level, all strategies should be based on the principles of gender sensitivity, equality and women empowerment. Gender sensitive nutrition actions should be made an integral part of annual planning and budget development across all relevant sectors.
There is a need to for a holistic approach, potential actions and involvement of multiple sectors to provide women all the opportunities which can transform their socio-economic status, and in turn facilitate and empower them to invest in their own and their children’s health and nutrition status.
Creating awareness and highlighting the strong link between women empowerment and health and nutrition status is imperative at all levels. Even male members of society should be conscious about the nutritional needs of their family members, especially women of reproductive age and adolescent girls, so that nutrition at the household level becomes a joint responsibility and can produce a healthy population at the national level.
The writer is a public health consultant.