When I was preparing to write this blog, I searched "women and nutrition" on the internet. I got more than 300,000 results - most of them talking about women wellness, fitness, and very few articles about pregnancy and nutrition. There was less about women and their active role in feeding the world.
Unlike my search results, I want to paint a broader picture about the key role women play in their family and community and I want to argue that the key to change the nutrition of the world is empowering women.
A mother starts feeding a baby before it joins the world, in the womb. After birth women become the sole source of food for the first six months, which is a very significant time for all children. Women are undoubtedly the prime source of food for infants and children and this implies their unbeatable role in creating a healthy future generation. The nutrition of a pregnant and lactating mother will not only affect the current nutrition status of the baby but also it yields a profound impact on the mental and intellectual capacity development of the next generation.
This is an obvious fact and I started with this because this pattern frames the ongoing role of women in feeding their family and the society.
Women - in addition to their biological role - produce, process, purchase and cook food for their family and relatives in many households.
In Ethiopia, women take an active role in the farm and are responsible to feed the male farmer (their husband) and the whole family. The man gets to sell the grain and the women will take the small money given to her and purchases the food item for the family... the mother decides what the family eats with the meager resource she has.
The mother also cooks the food and even decides portions and which part of the food is to be eaten by which part of the family member. For instance, in the case of Ethiopia, there are certain parts of chicken bones reserved only for the male head of the family.
So producing, shopping for food items, cooking, presenting...
Women have a lion share in all the above.
With all this reality on the surface, I struggle with the thought of this significant part of society being illiterate (I mean a person that has no knowledge about balanced diet), economically dependent, disempowered, discriminated, abused part of the society. Women, the main source of nutrition in the world, are underpaid, overburdened, and deprived from every aspect of life, socially, economically and politically.
Socially, I know in most countries in Ethiopia women eat last - first the husband, then the children, then her. Generally, there is a higher risk of food deprivation among women.
Women have inferior social status to men, occupying the lowest paid and most insecure positions requiring the least skill. Women are given less educational opportunities than men in the same society, reflected in lower literacy rates for adult female populations compared to male. But still they are feeding the world.
So my question is how can we discuss nutrition and feeding the world without addressing this basic issue at hand? One of the main agenda for transforming the world nutrition is to treat this part of the society with respect, dignity and equality. Empowering women and making them resourceful, knowledgeable and have the choice about what they want to feed their family will transform the world. No doubt.
But I have been asked if empowering women by providing better access to resources works.
Yes, it does.
I have had the opportunity to eyewitness the result of women empowerment on their family and society in my work in Women's Health Association of Ethiopia. Working with 750 grassroots women in 14 groups in Ethiopia, WHAE starts its work by training women on health, nutrition and hygiene. We believe that knowledge is one of the pathways to a healthy life and healthy nutrition and hygiene. We then devise a way for the women to access resource so that they can have the money and network to implement their knowledge by investing in businesses and providing business education to assist the knowledge with tangible resource and income.
In five years, more than 350 women are now running their own business (half of them involved in food production and processing). The result of this work is all the children going to school, children and family being well-nourished, and neighbors empowered to join more women groups to do exactly the same to their children. The women invested back to their family's food, education, and hygiene. This was consistent among all women who got access to information and resource. In my experience, whenever I ask women what their dream is or why they are running their business they always say, "I am doing this for my children... for their education and nutrition."
I have witnessed women's access to productive resources affecting food availability at the household level and have seen their empowerment transforming the family and then the society.
We at WHAE believe that knowledge plus access to resource leads to empowerment of women which will directly feed the family and reduce child and maternal death and malnutrition of the family. And I have witnessed it first hand with all our members sending their children to school and no child being malnourished in their family after five years of work.
Now working with more than 750 women, I learn that women indeed are the key to feeding the nation and creating access to resource and knowledge will transform the way the world eats.
Women's economic importance in terms of their contribution to global food production has been officially recognized since 1974. Women are responsible for a large proportion of the world's food production, are central in determining levels of living − and nutrition − for the child, the adult, the household, and the community.
Changing the status of women in societies will directly improve the nutrition status of the whole family. According to WHO, giving women farmers more resources could bring the number of hungry people in the world down by 100-150 million people.
So why the little attention to women empowerment when we talk about nutrition? What are we waiting for? Let us empower women and feed the world.