*Article and images archived from Food and Agriculture of the United Nations on March 18, 2016
- Good nutrition requires enough food, proper health and adequate care. Since women play a key role in all three areas, nutrition projects work extensively with women.
- Women may play an essential role, but ensuring good nutrition is the joint responsibility of all family members, including men.
- Everyone needs to be adequately nourished to live healthy and productive lives. Nutritional demands vary depending on age, sex, health status and activity level.
- Pregnancy and breastfeeding make additional nutritional demands on women, so during these times they need extra nutrients to keep themselves and their babies healthy.
- Since poverty is a main cause of undernutrition, it is crucial that poor women have access to the means to earn a living.
Around 800 million people are undernourished around the world. Malnourishment hinders people’s levels of activity, stunts their growth and leaves them vulnerable to disease. To address this profound problem, 176 countries at the World Food Summit in 1996 pledged to implement policies to eradicate poverty and improve people’s access to sufficient, nutritionally adequate and safe food. Undernourishment places a more profound burden on women because of their unique nutritional requirements. Due to their monthly loss of iron, for example, women need more of this mineral than men. During pregnancy and breastfeeding, women need significantly higher levels of protein and calories. Throughout their lives, women require about twice as much calcium as men. Nutrient requirements also strongly depend on activity levels. In most areas of sub-Saharan Africa, women have heavier workloads than men, yet eat fewer calories because of cultural practices that favour men.
Women: The key actors for better nutrition
Achieving food security—in which people have access to safe and nutritious food in adequate quantities to meet their dietary needs and lead an active life—does not in itself confer adequate nutrition. A person’s nutritional status results from a combination of food, health and care. Women play a leading role in these three areas. They are also responsible for a substantial portion of global food production.
Women play a critical role in achieving household food security. It is usually the women who grow most of the food the family eats. They also choose which foods to purchase and find ways to feed the family when supplies run low, for instance, during the dry season. In many cities they supplement the family diet with fruits and vegetables grown in small gardens. Women process and store food, ensuring safe and sustained consumption. Women also prepare and distribute the food the family eats, collect firewood and carry water.
Women also play an important role in generating income through the sale of the foods they produce. In many countries women dominate the ‘street food’ sector, an important source of income for many households as well as a source of low-cost, nutritious meals for the poor.
Health determines the capacity of individuals to make efficient use of the nutrients and energy they consume. The sick may not be able to eat, digest or absorb the food and nutrients they require, regardless of how much food they have.
Women safeguard the health of family members, especially the more vulnerable ones: infants and children, the sick, the handicapped and the elderly. Women are usually responsible for keeping family members clean, taking them to health centres and administering medicine. They wash clothes, clean the house and generally ensure household hygiene. Women also play a key role in teaching children about proper food and health habits.
Given the many tasks they oversee, women are often overworked and unable to cope effectively with the many activities expected of them. This in itself can put their health at risk. To reduce women’s burden, tasks must be distributed more equally among household members. Though it is sometimes difficult to counteract traditional beliefs about gender roles, men who are included in nutrition training programmes generally take a more active role in household tasks. Some new technologies can attract increased male participation. For example, a number of men have taken over the drying of cassava using a high-capacity outdoor oven, a task generally carried out by women over small fires within the home. Community-based childcare can allow women to work more efficiently and also ensure better health care and nutrition for their children.
Women’s nutritional needs
Women need to be well nourished to carry out their household responsibilities, give birth and nurture healthy babies. Women of reproductive age (15 to 45 years old) have unique nutrition requirements. A pregnant or lactating woman needs more energy (from carbohydrates and fats, including essential fatty acids), protein, vitamins and minerals (especially iron, iodine, calcium, folic acid and vitamins A, C and K). Iron deficiency, which increases the risk of death during childbirth, afflicts 43 percent of women in developing countries.
Frequent pregnancies and heavy workloads combined with poor diets and frequent infections can severely weaken a woman’s health, a concept referred to as maternal depletion. In South and Southeast Asia, 45 to 60 percent of reproductive-age women are underweight and up to 80 percent of pregnant women are iron deficient. Unfortunately, malnutrition is perpetuated from one generation to the next. Poorly nourished mothers give birth to babies who start off on the wrong foot, weighing too little and lacking sufficient nutrients, and who are at a much higher risk of becoming poorly nourished mothers themselves.
Breastfeeding is essential for infants, providing them with a source of balanced nutrition and precious antibodies against disease. An estimated 1.5 million babies could be saved each year if every infant were breastfed exclusively for the first four to six months of life. To do so, women must be adequately fed themselves and be taught about breastfeeding’s health benefits.
Allocating food in the household
Cultural practices have a major impact on nutrition. In many societies, men have traditionally been given priority in food allocation because of their ostensibly heavier workloads. But lifestyles have changed. In many cases today it is the women and children whose diets are insufficient to support their activity levels. Food allocation must take into account physical workload and the specific nutritional needs of each family member: children, whose needs vary at different stages of development; women, whose needs depend on age and childbearing; men, who often travel far from the home to earn a wage; the elderly; the infirm.
How to teach about good nutrition
FAO promotes an approach to nutrition education based on the economic and cultural context of the specific area. For instance, it is better to improve cultivation of indigenous crops than to introduce exotic vegetables that require high inputs of fertilizer and pesticides. Community members should participate in developing solutions and putting them into action. Often the starting point for resolving nutrition deficiencies is not a scientific understanding but a cultural one. For instance, in some African communities, malnutrition is seen as an indication of conflict in the family, such as adultery. No amount of nutrition education will resolve the problem unless the solution takes into account local beliefs about its cause.
Nutrition education around the globe
In Burundi, the prolonged civil conflict has led to severe malnutrition. FAO gives mothers of children attending supplementary feeding centres seeds, tools and training to help them produce nutritious food for their families and free them from dependence on aid. Cooking demonstrations teach them about choosing the right foods to achieve a balanced diet. In Mauritania, FAO is helping the Ministry of Women’s Affairs teach about nutrition in two of the country’s poorest regions. Staff are first trained to detect who is malnourished and why, since without that basic information nutrition interventions risk failure. An effort is also made to include all players in the training, from rural field workers to Ministry staff members.
In Zambia, a number of labour-saving technologies have been introduced to reduce women’s workloads. Cassava is a nutritionally rich and easy to grow vegetable, but requires a long processing period. Fast-growing, disease-resistant varieties have been introduced as well as more efficient and safer drying methods. Efforts to include men as well as women in community-based health and nutrition training programmes have encouraged men to take a more active role in childcare and food preparation.
In Panama, model gardens established at primary schools have become the stage for lessons about fruit and vegetable cultivation while at the same time supplementing students’ diets. Chickens and goats are also raised in the gardens, and training provides teachers, community residents and extension workers with information about nutrition, livestock raising and forestry.
FAO assists women’s groups in Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, India, to start home gardens raising more orange, yellow and green leafy vegetables, which are high in the A vitamin beta-carotene. Deficiency in this nutrient, which can cause blindness and weaken the immune system, is particularly high in these areas. And since beta-carotene is not absorbed easily by individuals with a diet low in fat and nutrients, the programme also works to improve diet overall including introducing fat-rich palm oil and soybeans.
In Bangkok, Thailand, the local police and health departments teamed up with FAO to develop a code of practice for improving the quality and safety of food sold by street vendors, 60 percent of whom are women. Vendors who comply with the code receive a green star they can display on their stand.
FAO is supporting the development of dietary guidelines for countries in Central and Eastern Europe. By helping the public gain a better understanding of the nutritional value of different foods, it will make it easier for them to achieve a balanced diet.
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