By Dr Cesar Chelala
A new report from the Bread for the World Institute entitled “When Women Flourish…We Can End Hunger” states that women and girls are disproportionately affected by hunger and poverty because of discrimination practices against them. The report calls on the US government to prioritise gender analysis in all US global health and development programmes to expose and address the inequalities that women and girls face.
There are several ways in which discrimination against women is carried out. Discrimination is behind women farmers working with fewer productive resources than their male counterparts. It also explains why women in all sectors of the economy earn less than men, and why girls are taken out of school to work or to marry.
Discrimination against women is a major cause of persistent hunger. In developing countries, most women work in subsistence farming; despite that, however, women farmers work with much fewer resources than men. According to World Bank statistics, if female farmers had the same access to productive resources as male farmers, agricultural output could increase by 2.5% to 4%.
Policies and programmes that empower women increase not only their earning potential, they also directly contribute to ending hunger. Providing women more resources could bring the number of hungry people in the world down by 100-150 million people, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO.)
Although women feed and nourish their children, they receive little support in caring for them and for their households, a situation more prevalent in developing countries. Although most national constitutions prohibit discrimination against women, there is still a wide gap between what governments say they do to eliminate gender inequities, and what they actually do in practice.
These inequities are perpetuated by powerful factors that include norms, values, habits, religious beliefs and national laws. That is why it is so important that all levels in the civil society and in government work together to end discrimination practices against women.
It has been argued that the yields for women farmers are 20%-30% lower than for men. The reason, however, is seldom explained – women have less access to improved seeds, fertilisers and equipment.
According to estimates by food agencies, 79% of economically active women in developing countries spend their working hours producing food in the fields, and constitute 43% of the farming work force. In spite of this, however, 60% of the world’s hungry are women.
Children are also affected. In many developing countries tradition dictates that women eat last, after all the male members and the children in the family are fed. In spite of that, however, 66 million primary school-age children attend classes hungry, 23 among them in Africa alone. According to the Hunger Project, every 10 seconds a child dies from hunger-related diseases at world level, and a third of all childhood death in sub-Saharan Africa is caused by hunger.
On 20 November, in his address at the FAO conference in Rome on nutrition, Pope Francis urged delegates from 170 countries to do more to help those in need.
“Perhaps we have paid too little heed to those who are hungry. The hungry remain, at the street corner, and ask to be recognised as citizens, to receive a healthy diet. We ask for dignity, not charity,” he said.
In his address to the European Parliament in Strasbourg on 25 November, Pope Francis reiterated that migrants need more help saying that “aged and weary Europe” should accept migrants and reject hunger that has women and children among its main victims. The address before his to the European Parliament was by Pope John Paul II in 1988.
This is a critical time to address gender and economic inequities in the world. As the World Food Programme states: “Women are often victims of hunger. They also have a crucial role to play in defeating hunger. As mothers, farmers, teachers and entrepreneurs, they hold the key to building a future free of malnutrition.”
Dr Cesar Chelala is an international public health consultant and a winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award