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Beyond Food

Naina Qayyum

By Naina Qayyum

Are Food Systems Failing Women?

Humans rely on food systems for survival. We devised this global system to ensure that enough food is produced for everyone. Despite producing enough food, we continue to fall short of meeting the nutritional needs of vulnerable populations, including women.

Women hold half the sky and more than half of the food systems. Food systems cannot be equitable unless they consider women's nutritional needs and work towards fulfilling them.

Challenges women face in food systems

Women’s vulnerabilities are a result of societal norms. Women who are uneducated and unable to work due to domestic responsibilities are reliant on others for necessities such as food. Women who are socially and economically disadvantaged do not have much freedom to choose their dietary preferences. They frequently have to eat less or eat last to ensure that the rest of the family is well-fed.

 

This vulnerability is exacerbated when a woman is pregnant, ill, or in a conflict or war situation. Women’s nutritional needs nearly double during pregnancy, yet many are expected to continue with their normal house chores during this time, while neglecting their own health. Similarly, in the other humanitarian crises, mothers tend to go hungry and feed their children whatever little amount of food they can get their hands on.

 

Women are more than just consumers in food systems. They are also important food producers, processers, business owners, retailers, and workers. According to the FAOwomen produce between 60% and 80% of food in developing countries. Women’s participation in food systems, on the other hand, is undervalued and underpaid.

Illustration showing different stages of a woman's life with food in the center
Nutritious food is requirement for women at all stages of her life. Source: WHO

 It was previously stated that women who do not earn cannot choose what they eat; however, even women who do earn are frequently low-wage employees who cannot afford a healthy diet with their incomes and other competing family priorities. In situations where women are not permitted to leave their homes, they are unable to go to the market to purchase nutritious foods, such as dairy, fruits, and vegetables. Women in rural areas have limited to no access to land, agricultural inputs, and credit in comparison to men, and thus are unable to make decisions about what to produce on the land.

Women’s Common Nutritional Issues

Women’s nutritional requirements can vary depending on their age and health status. Women face a variety of nutritional issues, including:

 

  • Anaemia: A condition caused by low haemoglobin levels in the blood, or a decrease in the number or quality of red blood cells, which can impair blood’s oxygen-carrying capacity. According to the most recent WHO data from 2019, 30% of women aged 15 to 49 were anaemic. For pregnant women, the figure was even higher, at 36%. Iron-deficiency anaemia is a common type of anaemia that can be treated by eating iron-rich foods.

 

  • Other micronutrient deficiencies: Women also experience other nutritional deficiencies, such as iodine, Vitamin A, Vitamin B, Vitamin D, Calcium, and Zinc, especially during pregnancy. All of these nutrients are essential for good health; however, many women face health consequences due to insufficient intake of these nutrients.

 

  • Diet-related diseases: According to the latest available data, 40% of women globally are overweight, 19% have raised blood pressure, and 9% have diabetes. Many women with care responsibilities for their household and children often neglect their own health and well-being over long periods of time, thus falling prey to such chronic non-communicable diseases.
Graphs illustrating the actual vs target numbers for diet related diseases such as blood pressure diabetes amongst women
The world is off-course on women's diet related targets. Source: Global Nutrition Report 2021

Way Forward

From a systems perspective, women must be given the same agency as men in their participation in food systems, particularly in food production and market access. If food is a basic human right, then no society should impose gender-based restrictions on its members’ access to food.

 

Market access approaches: It is critical to empower women by providing them with information about their own dietary needs and health. Girls in schools, religious centres, and community centres can be educated on a healthy diet and the importance of getting enough nutrients.

 

Food production approaches: Because supplements can be costly, not everyone can afford them. Our food systems must be designed in such a way that the population can meet their nutritional needs directly through food.

 

Policy approaches: Women-centred approaches must be incorporated into policymakers’ methods for developing food and health policies. They must determine whether food taxes and subsidies will help or hurt the economy, and women’s access to nutritious food.

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