Did Indian women suffer the most during the COVID-19 lockdown?
Nutritional security declined across the board during India’s lockdown, but numerous factors have led researchers to believe that women’s nutrition was disproportionally impacted.
Researchers say some societal factors play a role in the nutritional insecurity of Indian women
According to a new study from the Tata-Cornell Institute for Agriculture and Nutrition, India’s lockdown caused disruptions that negatively impacted women’s nutrition.
The study shows that women’s dietary diversity (the number of food groups consumed) declined during the lockdown compared to 2019. The drop was due to decreased consumption of foods like meats, eggs, vegetables and fruits, which are rich in micronutrients, and crucial to good health and development.
“Women’s diets were lacking in diverse foods even before the pandemic,” said Soumya Gupta, a research economist at TCI who coauthored the study along with Prabhu Pingali, TCI director; Mathew Abraham, assistant director; and consultant Payal Seth. “But COVID-19 has further exacerbated the situation.”
“Any policies addressing the impact of the pandemic on nutritional outcomes must do so through a gendered lens that reflects the specific, and often persistent, vulnerabilities faced by women,” explained Gupta.
The researchers say national lockdown implemented by the Indian Government in March 2020 led to disruptions in the agricultural supply chains, which subsequently led to price fluctuations.
TCI analysed food expenditure surveys, dietary diversity and other nutrition indicators at the national, state and district levels in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Odisha. It was found that food expenditures significantly declined during the lockdown, especially in less developed districts.
Nearly 90 percent of survey respondents reported having less food, while 95 percent said they consumed fewer food types. The largest drop in food expenditures was for micronutrient-rich fresh and dried fruits, as well as animal products such as meat, fish and eggs.
In June 2020, expenditures returned to those seen pre-lockdown at national and state levels, but remained low at the district level. Gupta and her co-authors said this suggests that underdeveloped regions were disproportionately affected by access and availability constraints.
Surveys also suggest a decrease in the quantity and quality of nutritious foods consumed by women during the pandemic. For instance, some women said that during the lockdown they halved the amount of dal, or red lentils, that they prepared, or they claimed to have prepared thinner dals.
“The decline in women’s diet diversity combined with a likely decrease in quantities consumed points to a greater risk for micronutrient malnutrition as compared to before the pandemic,” said Gupta.
“Due to the spillover effects of maternal malnutrition, that risk poses a threat not only to women’s productivity and well-being, but also that of their children.”
Nutrition security declined across the board during the lockdown, but researchers found reason to believe that women’s nutrition was disproportionately impacted, as the number of women consuming vitamin A-rich fruits and vegetables dropped 42 percent.
While the study does not allow for direct comparisons between women and their family members, a previous TCI study showed that Indian women eat less diverse diets than their households.
Various factors associated with gender differences in food allocation across the world could include income, bargaining power, social status, interpersonal relationships, tastes and preferences. Within households, uneven food allocation may be associated with the role of women – including women eating after all other family members have eaten.
“How food is distributed between members of the household depends in part on social norms, but also on how much food the household has to begin with,” said Gupta.
“That in turn depends on income, access to markets and prices. All of these were adversely impacted during the early stages of the lockdown.”
The closure of India’s aanganwadi centres during the lockdown also partly contributed to the unequal burden on women, the researchers said. The centres provide take-home rations and hot cooked meals to nursing and expecting mothers, so are an important source of nutrition for women and children. According to the study, 72 percent of eligible households lost access during the pandemic.
Despite this being a long-standing issue for India, the effects created by the pandemic have brought attention towards the lack of nutritious foods that are affordable for those living in India. “Broad reforms are needed to diversify the country’s food system and ensure that women and other marginalized groups have access to nutritious diets during the pandemic and beyond,” stressed Pingali.