Day 9: Nutrition Policies that Work for Women

Almost everywhere and across all age-groups, female nutrition indicators are worse than those of their male counterparts. Gender differences in access to food obviously reflect socio-cultural reali-ties, but are often reinforced by public policies that are either gender-blind or downright discrimina-tory.

By Jayati Ghosh, feminist, economist and professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University

Almost everywhere and across all age-groups, female nutrition indicators are worse than those of their male counterparts. In the developing world this is much more evident, particularly in much of South Asia and parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, where malnutrition (especially under nutrition) has grown worse in the recent past.

 "Across much of the world, women are now the main producers of food."

Sadly, this has ceased to surprise us, so used have we become to gender inequities in different spheres. But surprise us it should, because across much of the world, women are now the main producers of food: as members of farming households, engaged in recognized or unrecognized work, in cultivation and as agricultural labourers. Despite this, structural features of food cultivation and distribution – aggravated by the shift to more corporate activity – continue to generate gender imbalances that may have become more severe.

Consider the case of India, which has the worst nutrition indicators among all the larger countries in the world, and certainly the largest number of hungry people. Gender differences in food access obviously reflect socio-cultural realities. In many parts of the country women and girls within households received less food and worse quality food not just because of overt discrimination but also because of self-deprivation in conditions of household scarcity. But these social factors are unfortunately reinforced by public policies that are either gender-blind or downright discriminatory in how they treat women in the food system overall.

To start with, despite the importance of women in food cultivation, women are scarcely recognized as farmers. Because they rarely have land titles in their own names, they are denied access to institutional credit, to public agricultural extension services and inputs, and even to marketing channels. This increases their costs substantially and obliges many of them to stick to increasingly insecure subsistence farming. Policies directed towards farmers have to move away from identification based on land titles, towards recognizing all those who are involved in cultivation.

In any case farmers – including women cultivators – are being squeezed by the rising cost of inputs, reduction of subsidies that add to costs, and reduced public investment in rural areas, even as they are being asked to compete with subsidized imports. The same forces affect the demand for agricultural labour, an area where women are also heavily involved. Further, the livelihood crisis of the farming community has disproportionate adverse effects on women and girls, given the existing gender inequalities in society. Policies towards agriculture should be specifically oriented towards small holders, and cover the entire range of issues including irrigation and access to water; agricultural research and extension; access to affordable institutional credit; access to relevant and sustainable inputs; and access to stable markets for selling the output. In each of these, special care has to be taken to reach women farmers, who tend to be excluded from benefits because of economic and cultural constraints.

"Policies directed towards farmers have to recognize all those who are involved in cultivation."

The recent increase in food prices, which reflects broader global forces as well as India’s own failure in proper food management, has had a massive effect on access to food for the majority of Indian households, and a disproportionate effect on females within households. One obvious way to address this would be to expand, enlarge and increase the efficiency and transparency of the public distribution system for food that provides grain and other basic food items at subsidised prices. There is already strong evidence that some states that have done this – such as Tamil Nadu, Kerala and recently Chhattisgarh – have been able to offset at least some of the adverse impact of rising food prices and ensure better nutrition for women.

But India’s national policy has been quite the opposite, seeking to limit and reduce the spread and coverage of the public distribution system in the name of reducing food subsidies. There is even talk of replacing the direct provision of food with cash transfers directly to households in order to reduce public costs and “leakage”. This strategy is correctly opposed by most poor women, who realize that cash can be spent in all sorts of ways, not necessarily on food, and that internal power equations within families means that women’s and girls’ nutrition is likely to suffer as a consequence. Instead, the distribution network has to be made more efficient and accountable, via a combination of technology and social mobilization to ensure better delivery.

"Gender imbalances in nutrition can be alleviated or addressed by public policy."

Some public programmes have the potential to deal with at least some gender imbalances, but they need to be implemented in different ways. For example, the school meals programme has been a success not just in raising school attendance but in providing some nutrition to school-going children – but it is underfunded. And now there are attempts to substitute healthy cooked meals in schools with fortified “biscuits” that will increase corporate profits rather than provide employment to local women.

Another very large programme for mothers and infant children – the Integrated Child Development Scheme – seeks to provide some nutrition and related health services to pregnant and lactating mothers and infants up to the age of three years. But like so many Indian government schemes of the past decade, it seeks to provide such services on the cheap, relying on the underpaid labour of women who do not even get the minimum wage in return for performing a huge number and variety of tasks.

The moral of this Indian story is that gender imbalances in nutrition, even though they are driven by systemic inequities in the gender construction of society, can be alleviated or addressed by public policy. But for that, public policy itself must be made more gender sensitive, rather than relying on and accentuating existing forms of gender discrimination. A gender sensitive system would offer:

  • more recognition of women farmers and more facilities for women farmers, along with policies to make smallholder farming profitable, including access to institutional credit (rather than simply microcredit), access to technology and inputs, and access to more stable markets;
  • more efficient and accountable public distribution systems and other measures that make affordable food accessible to all, including women and girls, which in turn requires different forms of state intervention in essential food markets; 
  • more spending and increases in coverage and quality of public services in nutrition, health and sanitation that provide well paid and decent work for women as well as men, and that avoid trying to base public service delivery on the underpaid labour of women; and
  • controls on corporate power in food systems to maintain and increase the earnings of farmers and to prevent consumption patterns from being altered in unhealthy ways.

Over the past two decades, agriculture (and particularly small holder agriculture) has been hugely neglected in public policy discourse the world over. And food distribution has been handed over to market forces that are reinforcing and accentuating discrimination and malnutrition. The women’s movement should urgently take up this agenda – not only to improve the lot of women but to build more equitable, viable and sustainable economies and societies in general.

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