International women’s day – break the bias around malnutrition

Following International Women’s Day, GAIN asks why so many women around the world are malnourished and explores what can be done to turn the tide.


In many developing countries, women often eat last and least. Despite largely being employed to work in the fields, plant,  tend and harvest the crops, as well as cook the meals, they tend to earn less and eat less than their male counterparts. Furthermore, the valuable available nutrition in such areas is often negatively impacted by sociopolitical factors such as conflict, famine and hunger. So, what can we do to change this trajectory? Buvaneswari Balasubramanian explores the options…

Key stakeholders, especially governments, must make greater efforts towards a gender-inclusive approach that empowers female leadership and generates a gender-inclusive food system transformation. 

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Old habits die hard but good leaders can deliver change

To bring about change, we must continue to deeply question some prevailing beliefs. For example, women and girls being perceived and treated as second-class citizens simply because boys represent the continuation of the bloodline; boys being seen as the future decision makers and natural leaders while women and girls have lesser social status despite having a higher workload across all facets. Left unchallenged, unchecked, and untreated, it won’t just be women and girls paying the price, but society as a whole. 

When social structures further exacerbate gender-based discrimination, political commitment becomes an essential tool in overcoming fundamental barriers for women and girls. Many member states have made commitments towards achieving the  , including ending hunger and achieving gender equality and empowering women and girls. While countries recognise and continue to strive for gender equity, we need to move faster and insist on greater accountability for such commitments. The human rights message is clearly resonating.

Dispensable: women, girls and malnutrition

When it comes to diet, data tells us what far too many of us still don’t understand or acknowledge: malnutrition is widespread and affects everyone in the community, but especially women and girls. 

According to a recent Lancet report, underweight, overweight and obesity affect 10 percent and 40 percent of women respectively, while micronutrient deficiencies, such as anaemia, affect 500 million women globally. In Pakistan, more than 50 percent of adolescent girls suffer from critical deficiencies of iron, while 59 percent of girls 15-19 years in India are anaemic. 

The impact of such pervasive and structural inequality extends far beyond the individual. Although women and girls make up almost half the world’s population, they are over-represented among the poor and destitute. Malnourished mothers are more likely to give birth to frail and often cognitively impaired infants, who are less likely to survive and thrive. 

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Last and least

Quite apart from their role as mothers and caregivers, however, women and girls are also workers, and in many developing countries undertake most of the manual labour, alongside household chores and tending the needs of children and elderly relatives. In order to be productive, basic logic dictates that one needs to eat, but once again cultural norms determine who gets fed what.

Compared to women, men are traditionally employed in business, mining and other sectors where they are more likely to benefit from workplace nutrition programmes. Women often don’t have that luxury. Girls are also more likely to be pulled out of school, thus losing the opportunity to learn and missing out on feeding programmes that can make the difference between health and ill-heath. 

Access to business capital

It is evident that the gender pay gap remains widespread. Even when women produce food or are directly involved in farming, their labour is poorly remunerated and often unpaid. More than half the world’s countries prohibit women from owning and inheriting land. This is a shocking statistic. 

Women also have less access to business capital. Being a male dominated space, banking is often not inclusive, making access to credit cumbersome as it often requires a male co-signatory. Entrepreneurial spaces are often indifferent to female entrepreneurs with its own norms, traditions and belief systems that will inevitably make it much harder for women to operate. 

Needless to say, COVID-19, conflicts, and impact of climate change are only exacerbating and deepening the consequences of mass inequity. As with all natural disasters, the pandemic means that the poorest and most marginalised pay the highest price – and this is most often women and girls. ‘The time it will take to close the gender gap grew by 36 years in just 12 months’, according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2021.
A stark reminder that we cannot allow COVID-19, conflicts, or impact of climate change to set the gender parity and hard-fought wins back decades. 

Healthy mothers, healthy babies

It is well known that children born in rural areas or urban slums; children born to mothers with lower levels of education; and children born to families with lower incomes are more likely to fare worse than others. 

Yet cost-effective mitigating solutions exist. For instance, evidence points to the effectiveness of food fortification for improving micronutrient stores in the body. This is worth replicating. Evidence-based approaches work.

Furthermore, research shows that nourished mothers lead to a nourished household. This benefit extends to the men and boys in the family and the next generation too. It is a win-win situation. Nevertheless, despite years of research and the application of basic common sense position, women and girls are still the least likely to have a healthy diet. 


Stepping up

However, all is not bleak. Policies and programmes are becoming more and more gender inclusive. There are inspiring female leaders who continue to be torchbearers for other women and men too. Philanthropists and development organisations are recognising the need to be gender intentional, be it working in livelihood, poverty, environment, or health and nutrition. We are also increasingly witnessing men becoming allies to the cause. However, for the world to be gender just, all must take concerted action to lobby our governments, the private sector, and all stakeholders to challenge stances that normalise gender inequity. Social, political, or environmental factors can no longer be used as an excuse. It is not okay to feed one gender while allowing the other starve. 

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Today, we at the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) are working closely with governments, donors and other stakeholders to address global food inequities. Part of our work is to support female-led food businesses, female workers and leaders overcome the constraints they face in achieving full economic participation, and to work with food systems to better meet the needs of all people regardless of race, religion, socioeconomic status, or gender. We see that encouraging women to lead in business provides more opportunity to drive social change and maximise their potential contributions to the economy and to society.  

In the past, we have worked with female youth leaders to deliberate and strategise bolder actions and solutions to transform food systems in ways that become inclusive and accessible for all. We are hugely inspired by the work of young women leaders in Act4Food Act4Change from across the world such as Dipty Chowdhury from BangladeshMaureen Muketha in KenyaSophie Healy-Thow in IrelandPriya Prakash in India, to name a few. Their work has been truly inspirational, further reinforcing our commitment to be gender intentional and inclusive as we strive towards equity in access to nutrition.

About the author

Bhuvaneswari-BalasubramanianBhuvaneswari Balasubramanian is a Senior Technical Specialist with the Knowledge Leadership team and the India Program Lead at GAIN India. She provides KL support to Largescale Food Fortification and Workforce Nutrition programmes in India.


Sadia Kaenzig is Head of Communications at Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN)

Sadia assumed her current function with GAIN in May 2020 where she oversees communications with a sharp focus on relationship building. She is an expert in public and crisis communications, media relations, advocacy, and digital marketing to position and advance organisational priorities.