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How investing in nutrition can tackle gender inequalities

Image UNICEF Noorani

Good nutrition is a cornerstone for human development and well-being. Above all, adequate nutrition is a human right. Every human has the right to adequate, sufficient, and healthy food.

We all know, however, that having the right does not necessarily grant access. In the case of nutrition, gender inequality and biology combine, leading to malnutrition affecting women disproportionately. You could say even, malnutrition is sexist.

Let’s look at the facts:

  • More than 1 billion women and girls suffer from malnutrition
  • Women and girls are more susceptible to malnutrition and suffer disproportionately from it, making up 60% of the those around the globe with chronic malnutrition
  • Nearly 1 in 3 women of reproductive age (15-49 years old) suffer from iron deficiency anaemia
  • There is a growing gender gap in food insecurity: 31.9% of women in the world are moderately or severely food insecure, compared to 27.6% of men
  • Women and girls are more vulnerable to malnutrition; whilst they need about 25% less energy per day than men (in terms of calories), they require the same amount of nutrients – which means they need to eat more nutrient rich foods than men to fulfil their nutritional needs
In the case of nutrition, gender inequality and biology combine, leading to malnutrition affecting women disproportionately.

It’s clear gender and nutrition are interconnected. Women and girls are more vulnerable to nutritional challenges – loss of iron during menstruation and childbearing can lead to micronutrient deficiencies, and pregnancy and breastfeeding additional nutritional demands.

Compromising on the nutrition and health of women and girls affects their ability to reach their potential (physically, cognitively and economically – it has a huge effect on education which in turn affects livelihoods), but it also directly impacts the health and life chances of their children (and their subsequent children after that) when they become mothers themselves, and even before conception actually occurs. Supporting and improving the nutritional status of adolescent girls, has significant impacts not just for their growth and achievement as young women, but also the wellbeing of any children they might choose to have in the future. Without strong maternal nutrition, malnutrition is passed down from mother to child, with lifelong consequences for the survival, growth and development of children. The vicious circle of poverty and malnutrition is clear to see.

Biology is one side of the equation – gender inequality is the other. Discriminatory social and cultural norms have led to women and girls eating last and less within many households. Women often face barriers when it comes to accessing health services too.

That’s why many of our programmes are centered around the needs of women and girls, to achieve maximum impact on nutritional outcomes – for entire households, communities and future generations. Our programmes both tackle the impact of gender inequality on the health and nutrition of women and girls, whilst also supporting and improving their nutritional needs to support women’s achievement and empowerment and proactively address gender inequalities in the future.

Here are some of the ways we’re focusing on tackling gender inequalities across our 22 programmes:

  • Scaling-up integrated delivery of cost-effective and high-impact nutritional interventions that address specific gaps for women and girls – such as multiple micronutrient supplementation (MMS) for pregnant women and iron and folic acid (IFA) for adolescent girls, to tackle hidden hunger (iron-deficiency anaemia).
  • Strengthening healthcare systems to deliver an integrated package of health and nutrition interventions, including quality antenatal care services for pregnant and
  • Providing unconditional cash transfers for pregnant and breastfeeding women, and mothers of children under 5 years, to increase their financial and food security, as well as allow for more diverse diets. These investments also often support women’s economic empowerment, as cash can be spent on improving livelihoods.
  • Supporting Social and Behavioural Change Communication at scale by empowering women and adolescent girls, as well as men and other family members, to prevent, manage, and provide information about, various forms of malnutrition, whilst also offering a supportive environment to promote optimal health and nutrition behaviours and tackle gender inequalities.
  • Supporting women’s economic empowerment, for example through investment in women-led livelihood and agricultural activities and cooperatives, as well as improving women’s literacy and numeracy.
  • Gender-responsive data collection: integrating gender into M&E systems to ensure better tracking of nutritional outcomes for women and girls, and subsequently better action and targeting of necessary interventions.

So far, we’re proud to share that together with our partners, we have:

  • Reached over 30 million women and 22 million adolescent girls with better access to health and nutrition.
  • Helped to avert 521,000 cases of anaemia amongst women

The gender dialogue often focuses on “breaking the glass ceiling”. Equally important, however, is that everyone, particularly women and girls, is free of the “sticky floor” that prevents them from reaching the glass ceiling in the first place. Malnutrition is a big part of the “sticky floor” – and that’s why we address both.

For more information, or partnership enquiries on how nutrition can help to support gender ESG objectives, please contact Chris Grayson –

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