- June 2, 2016
- Klaus Kraemer
“We have evidence that great energy is unleashed when women are freed from the constraints of violence, discrimination and unintended pregnancies.” The words of Margaret Chan, The Director General of the WHO referring to, The Women Deliver 4th Global Conference – the world’s largest conference on the health, rights, and wellbeing of girls and women that happens every three years.
This years’ gathering in Copenhagen, with the theme of how to implement the SDGs so they matter most for girls, had a specific focus on health (maternal, sexual, and reproductive health and rights, and the inter-connections with gender equality, education, environment, and economic empowerment). The meeting amplified the increasingly loud message that women are the gatekeepers to a better world. Important for those of us passionate about nutrition, because studies show that money in the hands of women is more likely to provide positive nutritional and health benefits for their children than money given to men. It also provides the women with greater bargaining power in their own households. At the Women Deliver conference, the SUN movement released an excellent publication, ‘Empowering women and Girls to Improve Nutrition: Building a Sisterhood of Success’ in which authors from five SUN Countries (Senegal, Sierra Leone, Tajikistan, Malawi and Zimbabwe) share inspiring accounts of their experiences of gender responsive nutrition actions.
For an in-depth analysis of why investing in women is critical, the 2008 ‘Women and Development’ Copenhagen Consensus Challenge Paper by King et al. is recommended reading. But consider just three facts from the Girl Effect factsheet:
1. Closing the joblessness gap between girls and their male counterparts would yield an increase in GDP of up to 1.2 percent in a single year.
2. An extra year of primary school education boosts girls’ eventual wages by 10–20 percent. An extra year of secondary school adds 15–25 percent.
3. Giving women the same access to non-land resources and services as men could increase yields on women’s land by up to 30 percent, raise total agricultural output in developing countries by up to four percent and reduce the number of hungry people in the world by 100-150 million.
Yet sadly, we have a long way to go in convincing the world about the importance of investing in women and girls – less than 2 cents of every international development dollar goes to females. To really see, hear and feel the plight of different aspects of girls’ and women’s opportunities and challenges in a structurally unequal world take the time to watch 10 short films narrated by Academy Award-winning actress Dame Helen Mirren.
With regards to nutrition, in low income countries women often enter pregnancy malnourished and the demands of gestation and lactation can and do exacerbate micronutrient deficiencies with negative health consequences for both the baby and mother. It has been well researched over the last 20 years that multiple micronutrient supplements (beyond just the folic acid and iron that is commonly recommended) should form part of antenatal care services. They reduce the risks of babies being born with a low birth weight, small for gestational age or stillborn in undernourished settings. But should we be intervening earlier?
In our enthusiasm for the catchy 1,000 Day tagline (the window of opportunity between a woman falling pregnant and the child’s second birthday), which we at Sight and Life fully support, have we perhaps neglected to highlight the critical role of and need for increased investment in good nutrition in women and girls before they fall pregnant? Particular attention should be paid to the nutrition status of the 17 million teenagers becoming pregnant every year. They and their offspring experience even higher malnutrition and health risks than their adult counterparts. 1 billion women are undernourished – that means 1 in 3 are held back from reaching their full potential and their suffering will be passed on to the next generation unless we prioritise #WomensNutritionNow.
There needs to be more discussion on what is required and, what it will take to scale-up implementation of programs that reach young girls with good nutrition from behaviour change interventions that improve dietary diversity to new innovations that reach girls and women most in need.