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Even Nutrition Suffers From Gender-Based Inequality

With one in every four women in India suffering from malnutrition it is time for urgent corrective action

Shaonli Chakraborty | Jan 26, 2021

Food is not an option. Eating nutritious meals is necessary to survive and thrive. Right to Food is an integral part of the Right to Life. With 1 in 4 women of reproductive age in India being undernourished, it is the glaring lack of gender equity that is often at the root of the denial to their right to food.

Extremely harmful gender-based social norms govern everyday life for women and girls - and it often comes down to women and girls “eating least, eating last and eating least nutritious food”. Undernourished mothers give birth to undernourished babies, leading to intergenerational cycles of undernourishment - majority of the undernourished in India are women and children.

Whether women can have nutritious meals or not, is an outcome of various factors - the social norms of the household, access to nutritious food, their affordability and earning; and agency. Women and girls in India continue to struggle on all these grounds.

In a factory in North India, a survey revealed that the reason behind 90% of the women being ill or irregular in attendance was that they were missing breakfast and therefore fatigued or contracting a host of illness, weakness and health disorders. They were missing breakfast as they were expected to complete all household chores and care for their family by themselves before leaving home. When the team began to talk about nutrition, many of the women broke down, saying that they had “no other option” - they believed that since they were born as women and played female roles in the household, they were solely responsible for the household chores and being the primary caregiver. For them, it was a role the society had dictated for them and they feared violence, abuse and even divorce and abandonment if they did not fulfil it. And it was impossible for them to manage it all, be at the factory shop floor on time if they stopped to eat. This is a common story.

Gendered norms around ownership of assets including land and resources dictate access to food. In most circumstances, women have no agency nor affordability of purchasing and eating nutritious food for themselves and are dependent on the food choices of other members of the household - mainly husbands and in-laws. In many communities, women and girls on their periods are still forbidden to access the kitchen and partake of certain meals.

As children, boys are given greater preference on food in terms of quantity as well as quality, often with entire food groups missing from the girl child’s plate. The myth around girls “needing” lesser food is still pervasive. Once the girl grows up to be a young woman, the practice of portion control kicks in to physically appear lean as well as to come across as low maintenance and therefore attractive in the arranged marriage market - where “she eats less” is often used as a bargaining chip, when girls are married off to be primary caregivers in their marital homes, dependant on their husband and in-laws for food, clothing and shelter.

This systemic nutritional violence entrenched leads to serious health issues - including anaemia, stunted growth, eye problems, diabetes and heart disease - which is often passed on from mother to girl child, and who if brought up in the same social norms of gender based discrimination and violence in access to food, remains caught in the cycle. On the other hand, food insecurity exacerbates gender based violence making women and girls vulnerable to abuse as they navigate a life of harrowing poverty and hunger.

Over 497 million females live in India. Treating the lack of proper nutrition for women and girls as an issue of gender based violence is crucial at this juncture to protect them and our future generations. We are faced with not “good to have” but “must have” action points. Here are few things, we need to immediately do:

1. Nutrition approaches and programs have to shift into an active lifecycle approach for women and girls. This means actively working towards gender equity across all settings, it includes bringing together family planning, gaps in pregnancy and delayed pregnancy for women to prevent maternal depletion. It includes working with entire families and mothers and daughters together for them to develop agency over their nutritional practices and improve access to nutrition.
2. Entire households and communities have to be encouraged, persevered and convinced to unlearn harmful gendered social norms and realize, uphold and practice the importance of nutritious meals for all human beings irrespective of their gender identity.
3. Affordability of nutritious meals for women and girls need to be tackled as a root cause. By improving the economic power of women and girls in families and communities, chances are that their affordability for full meals is improved.
4. Programs designed to address gender norms in nutritional access are critical and these have to be at every microcosm - workplaces, homes, communities, institutions - to reach every woman, every child.

India is home to all of us and this is an issue where each of us have to commit to realize and help ensure every woman and girl enjoys gender equity and has agency, access and affordability to proper nutritious meals, everyday of their lives for everyday well-being.


Even Nutrition Suffers From Gender-Based Inequality blurb With one in every four women in India suffering from malnutrition it is time for urgent corrective action

(The author is the Director, Wellbeing for Workforce & Gender, Catalyst Management Services and Swasti. She has been working over 2 decades on Gender Equity in South Asia, South-East Asia and Africa. Shaonli also leads the Value Delivery Team at the #COVIDActionCollab and provides technical assistance, capacity building and intervention support to help with the Covid-19 response in India)