Malnutrition is one of the leading causes of morbidity and mortality among children. Since women are often the primary caregivers, their empowerment can influence nutritional status of their children. According to experts, the most important factor in preventing malnutrition is putting women’s empowerment and gender equity at the focal point of strategy. Women are pivotal to addressing hunger, malnutrition and poverty especially in developing countries. Breaking this cycle of malnutrition is a multifaceted problem with women at the centre - and one that demands devotion and efforts in terms of investment.
Literally half of the seven billion people on the planet are female. According to UN Women and World Bank report 2017, households with children are among the poorest and that more women than men live in poverty. Divorce, separation and widowhood also affect women more negatively than men. The vast majority (80%) of agricultural workers in the world are female. Several studies conducted on Asian countries revealed that the status of women relative to men is lowest in Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh. In these countries, traditionally, women eat last, after all the male members and children have been fed and when a crisis hits, women are generally the first to sacrifice their food consumption, in order to protect the food consumption of their families.
When it comes to women empowerment and its impact on malnutrition, several studies endorse that equality in women’s status relative to men’s, has a positive influence on child growth and nutritional status. Such studies indicate that when women’s incomes rise they tend to invest more in the nutrition, education, and health of their family, causing a ripple effect that can benefit entire communities - Higher female earnings and bargaining power turn into greater investment in children’s education, health and nutrition, which leads to economic growth in the long terms. The role of women in reducing the prevalence of malnutrition is highlighted in the opinions expressed by experts across the globe. For instance, Olivier de Schutter (UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food from May 2008 until May 2014) in his presentation to the United Nations in March 2013 argued that ‘sharing power with women is a shortcut to reducing hunger and malnutrition, and is the single most effective step to realising the right to food.’
One such case of measuring women empowerment as an intervention of tackling malnutrition is ‘SHOUHARDO (Strengthening Household Ability to Respond to Development Opportunities) project.’ This project was planned to reduce child malnutrition in an area of Northern Bangladesh that is home to more than 2 million of the country’s poorest people. This programme, designed and carried out by CARE with funding from USAID, was launched in 2004 with the hope of reducing malnutrition and by the end of 2009 the stunting in this part of Bangladesh was reduced by nearly a third. It was not done by handing out food or helping farmers to increase agricultural production (although those things were done as well) but the main focus was empowering women.
For example, SHOUHARDO offered women to build self-help groups to address the unique challenges they faced in their communities, such as early marriage, violence, and sexual harassment, all of which restrict women’s freedom and decision making. The women who joined these groups found the courage to move through the community more freely. They were helped to start up businesses. They bought and sold goods at the markets without fear of intimidation, to contribute to their family’s income. They sought doctor’s help more frequently when they were pregnant and they had increased say in their children’s future. Their families started eating healthier diets, learned about nutrition, and improved their overall well-being. They were encouraged to participate in decisions about their children’s education, and contribute in reshaping community institutions such as schools and village councils. In this way SHOUHARDO programme successfully reduced the incidence of stunting and demonstrated an operational model that could deliver services to more than 400,000 households in 18 of the poorest areas in Bangladesh.
Women are on the front line of nutrition as care givers in the family - producing, storing, cleaning, cooking food for consumption - and ensuring that food, when available, reaches children first. Women have a vital role in ensuring the health of children. But the fact is that women’s involvement in decision making processes and in the leadership (especially of rural institutions) remains low - which has led to women’s rights and priorities to be largely ignored by mainstream strategies and institutions on agriculture, food security and nutrition. Unfortunately, women in developing countries like Pakistan are suppressed and considered inferior in many regards. Conventional system hardly allows them to flourish, fight and stand for their rights. Women empowerment calls for certain changes in this orthodox system. Several studies have shown the important linkages between women’s empowerment dimensions and nutritional outcomes. Women can directly affect their children’s nutrition through child care practices, as well as indirectly through their own nutritional status. Improvements in various empowerment indicators have been associated with improvements in maternal and child nutrition, and on the other hand, women’s disempowerment has shown to be associated with poorer child and maternal health and nutrition outcomes.
Building the human capital of women and girls is important in correcting nutritional status of the nation and globe. General education and practical skills will broaden the range of choices women can make and give them more influence within their households and communities. Building women’s human capital makes them more productive workers, better mothers and stronger citizens. In the perspective of child health outcomes, given that women are typically the primary caretakers of children, redirecting of decision-making roles in favour of women has the potential to improve child health outcomes.