Men Can Address Malnutrition by Facilitating Women’s Empowerment
— Jennifer Rigg (@jennrigg)
It is well known throughout the field of development that women are the gatekeepers to good nutrition, but shouldn’t we also consider men’s role in household nutrition? Women’s empowerment is key to stopping malnutrition, but we are reminded that empowering women and, in tandem, ending malnutrition require contributions from both genders. This question came to light in a recent Ag Sector Council Webinar on the Multi-Sectoral Nutrition Strategy. In the webinar, Michael Manske of USAID’s Office of Health Infectious Disease and Nutrition explained that behavior change promotion is necessary to engage men in addressing chronic malnutrition. The Strategy includes plans to further contextualize the systematic causes of women’s disempowerment so that we can begin the process of instilling behaviors among both genders that can end chronic malnutrition.
As summarized by the Hunger Project, there are three reasons why women are uniquely positioned to address malnutrition: they are mothers, they are caregivers, and they are agricultural producers. Children’s nutrition is inextricably linked to their mothers’ overall wellbeing before and during pregnancy, as well as through the first critical 1000 days of a child’s life. Yet, women and girls comprise an estimated 60 percent of the world’s chronically hungry people. Poor nutrition during pre-conception, pregnancy, and lactation is a direct cause of stunted growth and development. At an #Askag Twitter Chat related to the Ag Sector Council webinar, both managed by the Feed the Future Knowledge-Driven Agricultural Development project, the University Research Co., LLC (URC) tweeted: “…there's no recovering from the damage of stunting. That's human potential lost. #Nutrition is life before birth.” In sum, the field is more widely recognizing that behavior change promotion is at the root of reconciling the fact that women and girls’ wellbeing are crucial to ending chronic malnutrition, but their health and education are often compromised due to gender discrimination.
Men and women can both have a role in improving household nutrition. As it stands, however, women are often the primary caregivers. Furthermore, various studies by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations show that women also play a significant role in food crop production in developing countries, but they often lack access to the resources they need to farm more productively. Fathers, husbands, and other males with decision-making power have a role in increasing women’s access to education, improved health services, as well as the resources for more productive farming. For example, a recent report from the Financial Integration, Economic Leveraging, Broad-Based Dissemination and Support (FIELD-Support) project showed that gendered patterns in managing household income, limited access to value chain relationships, and slow adoption of new business practices stymie women’s ability to participate in competitive agricultural value chains. The report examines four factors that influence behavior change: the desire to change, the know-how, the conducive climate for change, and the rewards.
The need to end chronic malnutrition is just one of the many incentives for men to facilitate the empowerment of women. Men must take joint responsibility with women in addressing chronic malnutrition. As stated by the Commission on the Status of Women, the intergovernmental body primarily responsible for the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women, “men can and do make contributions to gender equality in their many capacities and in all spheres of society.” USAID’s Multi-Sectoral Nutrition Strategy recognizes that the disempowerment of women is one of the underlying systematic causes of malnutrition and it seeks “to determine the factors, including social and cultural norms and gender inequalities that influence food production, resource allocation, consumption, and caregiving practices of households.” Once those factors are determined in the context of a community, we can begin the process of behavior change and initiate the process of tackling the systematic causes of chronic malnutrition.