Africa: The Gender Nutrition Gap – A Looming Crisis #WD2023

Kigali, Rwanda — In Africa, the fight against malnutrition and food insecurity has long been a pressing issue. But while significant progress has been made, a glaring disparity persists – the gender nutrition gap.

This gap refers to the unequal access to nutritious food, healthcare, and education between men and women, leading to adverse health outcomes for women and their communities. This gap has a number of negative consequences, including increased risk of disease, impaired cognitive development, and decreased productivity.

Food and nutrition insecurity is escalating across the world, and women are disproportionately affected. In Sub-Saharan Africa, women make up a large part of the agricultural labour force, but they are still more food insecure than men.

Zimbabwean Nutritionist Wants to Close Gender Nutrition Gap

Motivated by a nutrition hackathon during her undergraduate years, 26-year-old Zimbabwean nutritionist and youth nutrition advocate Pauline Mapfumo is now taking charge on nutrition solutions. Mapfumo is the co-founder of the digital start-up YOLO4Health.

“I entered a nutrition hackathon, which was hosted by Boost Fellowship in partnership with UNICEF. The event lasted for three days, and we were divided into teams. In my team, we came up with a solution for improving health. That’s how it all started.”

Mapfumo explained that the gender nutrition gap is a political failure to meet the nutrition and health needs of women and girls. This includes failing to ensure their access to nutritious diets, basic nutrition services, and nutrition care. The gap is particularly pronounced for pregnant and lactating women, adolescent girls, and those who are not expecting but are of childbearing age. She addressed some of the challenges women face in achieving proper nutrition. Mapfumo said that women often face intra-household domestic issues, unrecognised work, and lack of access to education. These challenges are particularly pronounced for adolescent girls. In addition, women in patriarchal societies often eat the least or worst types of food, which hinders their access to nutritious food and basic food security.

Mapfumo emphasised the need for knowledge and tools to inform women and girls about nutrition.

She said that “policy structures are needed to protect and value women and girls. Advocacy from people at all levels, including women and girls themselves, is also essential,” she added. “Male advocates can help to raise awareness of the challenges women face and advocate for change. Collaborative efforts from the private, public, and government sectors, as well as academia, are also needed. Research can help to inform policy and make it more effective. By working together, we can close the gender nutrition gap.”

Mapfumo plans to engage women and young girls in the agenda by spreading the campaign through social media platforms. This will allow her to reach people all over the world and encourage them to get involved. Once people are aware of the campaign, they can actively participate from wherever they are.

“And once they know about it, I think they can actively get involved from wherever they are, since it’s an adaptable action agenda. Even a young advocate can effect some form of change using this tool as a resource.”

Mapfumo shared an impact story from the agenda. She pointed to Malawi, where a law banning child marriage was finally passed after 20 years of work. Over 300 marriages were annulled as a result, because the law now requires that girls stay in school until they are 18. Mapfumo said that education empowers women to take care of themselves and that it is also cost-effective. When women can provide for themselves, they can afford to eat nutritious foods and make informed decisions about their health. This benefits not only the women themselves but also their future generations.

Gender nutrition gap – a key to ending malnutrition?

“I think the first step is to adopt the action agenda and conduct a situational analysis of the areas where you are working. Once you have this information, you can work with others to identify the specific actions that are needed to address the gender nutrition gap in your country. For example, if the root problem is a lack of access to water, you could work to create water channels that make it easier for communities to access safe drinking water. This approach is more effective than simply providing grain to all households, as this may not address the underlying issue.

Mapfumo added that the Zimbabwean government has implemented policies to support women, such as providing them with access to education and job opportunities. For example, there are now institutions that specifically cater to women’s education, and women are being trained in construction and other traditionally male-dominated fields. This is giving women the opportunity to become self-sufficient and provide for themselves and their families. Mapfumo said that this is a positive message, as it shows that women can do anything they set their minds to.

“I think the most important thing is to develop policies that support gender equality in nutrition. Once these policies are in place, they need to be enforced to ensure that they are effective. We also need to develop more specific action areas and assess how far we are going. This will help us to come up with new ideas to further develop the action agenda. Nutrition is a constantly changing field, so we need to be flexible and adaptable. We also need to keep talking about these issues, so that people don’t forget about them,” she said.

Mapfumo hopes that people will embrace the campaign and help to amplify it. By doing so, we can all work together to close the gender nutrition gap. She also hopes that we can collect success stories from different countries and people who have implemented action points from the agenda. These stories will help to inspire others and show how the agenda can be used to improve nutrition for women and girls.

Factors that contribute to the gender nutrition gap

There are so many factors that contribute, one is that women often have less control over resources, such as land and income. This makes it difficult for them to afford nutritious food or access healthcare. Another factor is that women often have more responsibilities for childcare and household chores. This leaves them with less time to focus on their own health and nutrition. On top of that, women are more likely to experience gender-based violence, which can also have a negative impact on their health and nutrition.

To add to this, malnutrition can be a death sentence for women. It weakens their bodies, makes them more susceptible to infections, and leaves them with fewer reserves to recover from illness. This can lead to maternal death, premature birth, and long-term health problems.

During times of hunger and famine, girls are at a higher risk of exploitation, female genital mutilation, child marriage, and dropping out of school.

The gender nutrition gap is a serious problem that has far-reaching consequences. It is important to address this gap in order to improve the health and well-being of women and girls and to achieve sustainable development goals. The World Bank warns that the gender gap in food security has increased eight-fold since 2018 and is projected to worsen. COVID-19 has further widened this gap, with rural women experiencing higher levels of food insecurity, reports the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations  FAO.

The challenges facing women are made even more difficult by climate change, economic instability, conflict, and the growing threat of gender-based violence.

The gender nutrition gap is a major obstacle to sustainable development, and it’s time to take action. By empowering women, challenging gender norms, and investing in agriculture, we can help to close the gender nutrition gap and improve the health and well-being of women and girls around the world.

What can be done to address the gender nutrition gap?

FAO’s report The Status of Women in Agrifood Systems shows that closing the gender gap in farm productivity and the wage gap in agricultural employment could add nearly U.S.$1 trillion to the global gross domestic product (GDP) and help reduce the number of food-insecure people by 45 million, at a time of growing global hunger.

Nigeria Takes the Lead in Closing the Gender Nutrition Gap

In a landmark move, Nigeria has emerged as the trailblazer in the global effort to address the pervasive gender nutrition gap. Nigeria is the first country to roll out an ambitious new initiative to close the gender nutrition gap.

The initiative aims to empower women and give them more economic opportunities. This is important because it can help to address gender inequality and ensure that women have better educational and economic outcomes. The gender gap in food security is a serious problem, and it is only going to get worse. A third of households in Nigeria cannot afford a nutritious diet, which means that women and their families are at risk of malnutrition. This initiative is a step in the right direction, and it is essential that we take action to address this issue.

The gender nutrition gap is a major public health issue in Nigeria. It has a significant impact on the health and well-being of women and girls, and it also has a negative impact on the health of families and communities. The country’s recent commitment to investing in gender-responsive nutrition programs is a major step forward in the fight against malnutrition, which disproportionately affects women and girls in Nigeria and around the world.

Leading the Charge

Vivianne Ihekweazu is one of the leaders of the initiative. Her work focuses on nutrition, maternal newborn and child health, routine immunisation, sexual and reproductive health & rights, and health security. As the Managing Director at Nigeria Health Watch, Ihekweazu’s extensive experience in nutrition, maternal and child health, and reproductive rights makes her a credible and influential voice in the field. She has been involved in initiatives to close the gender gap in education and reduce unmet needs for family planning in Nigeria. She has also advocated for addressing gaps in maternal health care in Nigeria.