Liberation and Nutrition

March 8, 2014

Written by John Coonrod, PhD, Executive Vice President, The Hunger Project

Happy International Women’s Day! All of us committed to good nutrition during the 1,000-day window have more evidence than ever before that our highest priority must be the empowerment of women. The silent but devastating impact of malnutrition during the 1,000-day window is fundamentally a consequence of the subjugation, marginalization and disempowerment of women and girls.

For example, the 2013 Lancet series on Maternal and Child Nutrition reveals that the impact of maternal malnutrition on child nutrition is far more significant than previously reported.

And why are mothers so malnourished? The biggest reason is that so many were born into societies that prefer to have sons. Girls are often breastfed less than boys – in the hopes that the mother may more quickly become pregnant, this time with a son. She is taught to eat last and least – saving the best food for the men and boys. She is married and begins having children while she herself is still a child.

All the causative factors in malnutrition are strongly shaped by gender discrimination. Girls are less likely to be educated. Parents are less likely to spend money on a daughter’s health care. In terms of food farming – largely done by women – FAO and IFPRI have recently published dramatic and solid evidence on women’s unequal access to assets. Transforming that factor alone could end hunger for 150 million people.

The Hunger Project’s field studies in India show how landless families have become so dependent on hiring out their daughter-in-law for agricultural labor that she is sent back to the fields as quickly as possible after child birth – making exclusive breastfeeding impossible.

Clean water and safe sanitation is one of the highest-leverage nutrition-sensitive interventions, as water-borne diseases take such a toll on nutrition. Spending hours each day hauling water is “women’s work.” Building latrines is usually a low priority for men, but vital for the human dignity and safety of women, who often risk rape simply to relieve themselves.

Some have argued that linking nutrition so strongly to women’s rights risks an “instrumentalist” view – seeing women’s rights not in terms of human justice, but simply in terms of women’s role as mothers. I think this view reflects an overly romantic notion of human liberation. The entrenched powers of patriarchy are never going to “bestow” gender equality because of a deep concern about nutrition. History teaches us that the leadership for human liberation always emerges from the oppressed themselves. As Paolo Friere wrote in Pedagogy of the Oppressed:

This, then, is the great humanistic and historical task of the oppressed: to liberate themselves and their oppressors as well.

The oppressors, who oppress, exploit and rape by virtue of their power, cannot find in this power the strength to liberate either the oppressed or themselves.

Only power that springs from the weakness of the oppressed will be sufficiently strong to free both.

This profound truth has been vividly expressed over the past 18 months in India, as only an unyielding mass movement led by the women of India was sufficient to get political action to curb rape. And make no mistake – discrimination against girls and women in any form is enforced by violence and the ever-present threat of violence.

It is bold, courageous women who have been leading the movement for gender equality for 160 years – a movement that humanizes us all. We males need to follow and support women’s leadership, particularly in transforming the male culture that tolerates gender-based violence.

One promise all of us in the development world need to make is to stop being satisfied with incremental progress on gender in our programs. We currently are happy when a food security initiative improves its reach to women farmers from 20% to 25%. Pretty good? No – just less bad. One of the founding mothers of gender in development – Ester Boserup – wrote otherwise as far back as 1974. She pointed out that interventions that fail to deliver the majority of impact to women are actually making matters worse, because they are widening the gender gap. Fifty-one percent needs to be our minimum standard.

The liberation of hundreds of millions of women and girls across the developing world is happening now. It is the moral issue of our age, and one of the greatest advances in human justice in history. Its legacy will be a better nourished, healthier, more vibrant and just future for everyone.