By Martha Flynn, Advocacy and Communications Lead, Stronger Foundations for Nutrition
Last year, I made a bold step from almost a decade’s work in the gender equality space and took up the helm as the Advocacy & Communications Lead at Stronger Foundations for Nutrition: an ambitious coalition of private philanthropies working to end malnutrition.
Though I was by no means an expert, I did know that malnutrition was profoundly gendered: girls and women are 50% more likely to be undernourished than boys and men, in part because they often eat last and eat least when food is scarce. But the scale of the gender inequalities in malnutrition would soon shock me.
In late 2022 we discovered that rates of malnutrition among women were even more profound than had been imagined. Research by Lancet Global Health found that a staggering 2 in 3 women of reproductive age were lacking the essential vitamins and minerals they need to thrive – far higher than previously expected. And this week, ahead of International Women’s Day, UNICEF released new data showing that a staggering 1 billion adolescent girls and women worldwide suffer from undernutrition.
These rates might not have come as such a shock to my new colleagues in the nutrition community. They already knew that global hunger was increasing after years of decline and that the rising cost-of-living was eating away at many people’s ability to buy healthy and nutritious food. They also knew that food crises like the ones we find ourselves in today often hit women the hardest.
“This International Women’s Day must be the start of a shift in perspective: we must recognize that the fight to end malnutrition and the fight to achieve gender equality are intimately intertwined.”
Good nutrition provides the building blocks for every person’s chance in life: determining everything from our ability to ward off disease to our emotional and mental well-being. And globally, we’re building on unstable foundations. For example, almost a third of women worldwide suffer from anemia: a condition associated with low iron levels that zaps your energy, clouds concentration and weakens your immune system.
True equality cannot exist if so many women are lacking the basic nutrients they need to learn, to thrive, to discover what they’re truly capable of.
And this not only has dramatic implications for women individually. Women’s malnutrition is a vicious cycle that compounds inequalities from each generation to the next: many malnourished women go on to become malnourished mothers who give birth to malnourished children who may, eventually, become malnourished mothers themselves.
Challenging the underlying causes of inequalities in malnutrition will also force us to wake up to the discrimination and biases that are driving them: the reasons why resources are so often unequally shared, why so many women face barriers to the care they need and why they disproportionately feel pressure to prioritize their children’s needs over theirs. All questions that are key to the broader struggle to realize women’s rights.
So as we wake up today to calls to action to strengthen girls’ education, close the gender pay gap and boost women’s political representation, let us remember that nourishing equality must start with addressing malnutrition from the earliest points in girls’ and women’s lives. Because a better — and more equally — nourished world is a stronger one.