Gender and Nutrition: A Happy Marriage

By Francesca Aloisio
A young mother in Mafupa Village (Malawi). She can use the chicken’s eggs to improve the family diet and then sell any extra for income. ©IFAD/Marco Salustro 2016

Gender equality and food and nutrition security are key issues for the new Agenda 2030 and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Although the link between gender equality and food and nutrition security is well known – and celebrated in slogans such as ‘Women feed the world’ − the complex interconnections between gender and nutrition are unfortunately often overlooked or ignored.

For this reason, IFAD has launched a series of trainings for project staff and consultants involved in IFAD-supported projects in the field. The collaboration between the Gender and Nutrition teams in organizing this workshop shows IFAD's commitment to increasing the level of knowledge required by people directly involved in the development projects.

On 21 November 2016 IFAD hosted the pilot training on “How to integrate gender and nutrition-sensitive approaches into IFAD's operations”. The training was the first of its kind in IFAD.

In his opening remarks, Perin Saint Ange, Associate Vice-President, Programme Management Department (IFAD), highlighted the positive fact that gender equality and women’s empowerment has now been widely recognized as a development priority. However, he cautioned that the challenge is so huge that progress often brings in another layer of challenges and creates another layer of complexity. Improved livelihoods and opportunities can lead to negative outcomes that are unforeseen. In relation to nutrition, for example, he warned that malnutrition can also turn into obesity, stressing national budgets and requiring a complete new set of interventions.

Juliane Friedrich, Senior Technical Specialist in Nutrition (IFAD) pointed out that a focus on nutrition is crucial for the holistic success of a project and indeed for sustainable rural transformation. In many countries, incomes may be rising and food security may have improved, but the nutritional status of families participating in development projects − in particular nutritionally vulnerable groups like mothers and children − remains unchanged.

Indeed, it is a misconception that increasing food production on a family farm is enough to guarantee access by all family members to adequate, nutritious food. Often the production is sold for cash income, with none of the nutritious food kept for the family table. Teaching people about the need for a diversified diet, especially for mothers and young children, is essential to making a difference to levels of malnutrition.

The training aimed to raise awareness about the importance of including nutrition in project design and implementation, and to give some practical guidance on how to do this.

Investing in young women and mothers is vital to break the intergenerational vicious circle of malnutrition and poverty. If mothers are under age at first pregnancy and undernourished, they give birth to underweight children. If they go on to have pregnancies at frequent intervals, this further depletes their physical resources, imposes a heavy burden of additional labour and care, and deprives the children of adequate nutritious food, even during breast-feeding. Globally, every third mother is underage and this is a key factor in the intergenerational cycle of malnutrition. Improving nutrition for adolescent girls is therefore a key entrypoint in the fight against chronic undernutrition.

Participants learned that stunting – which is an indicator of chronic undernutrition − is not reversible after the age of 23 months. And, although stunting has decreased globally, some countries have made no progress – e.g. Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Burundi, India and Yemen.

However, what are the challenges that project staff and consultants are facing in the field? Participants at the training referred to the lack of nutrition indicators at project level, institutional challenges, little awareness about nutrition and gender at local level and most of all a lack of tools and documentation of evidence on the matter.

One of the very few books tackling nutrition and gender is "Gender, nutrition, and the human right to adequate food: toward an inclusive framework". Co-author Dr Stefanie Lemke from Coventry University (UK) presented the book during the training. In the comprehensive publication, Lemke proposes a rights-based approach instead of a needs-based approach to promote a more precise diagnosis of the root causes of inequities.

The training was the first in a series. In 2017, IFAD will continue with further trainings to raise awareness about the complexity of food and nutrition security, and to share knowledge and experiences.