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The ‘Women factor’ in food insecurity
By: Elishma Noel Khokhar

Gender equality is a pivotal determinant

Conventional models have hypothesised the household as an integrated unit in which each member jointly contributes to maximising utility. In Pakistani households, however, women assume the primary role of being the managers of social reproduction and often production too.

This patriarchal divide forms a certain ideological resistance towards women being perceived as active, productive members of society who have a powerful impact on the socio-economic conditions of the country. This mindset has created unequal resource distributions in intra-household dynamics.

The national discourse on agriculture and food security is reflective of gendered socio-cultural
attitudes. Food security comprises three fundamental pillars: food availability, access to it, and its proper utilisation. Yet much of the national focus has been on spearheading supply side policies for increasing production of strategically important crops.

Although the 2013 Agriculture and Food Security Policy recognises the critical role that women can play in alleviating food insecurity, access to and utilisation of food have altogether been ignored in the 23 page draft as worthy instruments for alleviating food insecurity.

The current figures on nutrition are reflective of the ‘add woman and stir’ approach adopted by the government. Approximately one third of Pakistani children are recorded as being underweight according to the National Nutrition Survey 2011, 43 per cent of children fewer than five years of age suffer from chronic malnutrition and more than 15 per cent from acute malnutrition.

Although World Food day last month illustrated an optimistic picture globally, recording the amount of food per person to be increasing steadily, Pakistan continues to score poorly in the Global Hunger Index (GHI) maintaining its position from last year at 57 as opposed to India which has managed to jump eight places despite facing similar issues.

Although
World Food day last month illustrated an optimistic picture globally,
recording the amount of food per person to be increasing steadily,
Pakistan continues to score poorly in the Global Hunger Index (GHI)
maintaining its position from last year at 57

The National Economic Survey 2013 highlights under-utilisation of food as the main cause for the poor GHI score. Food utilisation, which entails the provision of adequate time and attention to meet the physical, mental and social needs of growing children and other household members, requires immediate attention. To ensure food security there is an increasing need to focus on utilisation practices which involve satisfactory feeding practices such as preparation of nutritious food as well as breast feeding and health and hygiene practices such as washing hands before food preparation.

Nutritional security being almost entirely a woman’s domain calls for the careful weaving of a gender sensitive food security policy such that mothers and wives who directly impact the consumption patterns of households can be enabled to become carriers of efficient food absorption and sanitation practices.

Female literacy plays a fundamental role in achieving adequate utilisation as women’s knowledge and awareness directly impacts household knowledge of a balanced diet and food quality. Sadly, female literacy across the country is scarce to the point where a significant majority of women are either poorly
educated, or have no education at all. In rural areas, literacy figures drop even further, a solemn condition for net food security as 67 per cent of the country’s population currently resides in rural areas.
According to SDPI’s 2009 Food Security Report, women in rural areas may spend up to five hours a day in collecting fuel wood and water and up to four hours preparing food. Women in both rural and in most urban middle class households inevitably carry the double burden of both paid and unpaid domestic work which in turn adversely affects their own health.

Women and girls also face ‘food discrimination’ in the form of culturally induced practices where they often eat after the male family members have eaten and on the whole, consume lesser. In turn, women, girls, sick people and the disabled are also more likely to suffer from chronic under-nutrition, underscoring the need for addressing gender food absorption discrepancies.

The results of the 2011 National Nutritional Survey further cement the link between a mother’s nutritional status and a child’s nutritional status. Physiological needs of pregnant women make them more vulnerable to malnutrition and micronutrient deficiencies. Maternal health is imperative for nutritional security as an under nourished mother is more likely to give birth to an under-nourished infant. Recently, cases of malnutrition of women in urban households highlight the underutilised role of lady health workers in disseminating nutritional knowledge in only rural areas which are traditionally conceived as being poorer and less informed.

Female literacy plays a fundamental role in achieving adequate utilisation as women’s knowledge and awareness directly impacts household knowledge of a balanced diet and food quality

Scholars and activists have long argued that successful economic policies integrate not only the public and private but also the domestic spheres of social life. In lieu, gender equality is a pivotal determinant of food security especially for Pakistan which ranks a dismal 141 out of a total of 142 countries in terms of gender disparity according to the Global Gender Gap Report (2014).

The Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) reports that if women had the same access to resources as men, food output could increase by 20 to 30 per cent – enough to feed not only their own families but also an estimated 150 million undernourished people globally, which can help achieve MDG on hunger and poverty reduction.

To eliminate food insecurity, the government must demonstrate not only political commitment towards all three pillars of availability, access and utilisation of food through comprehensive national and provincial polices, but also focus on the broader transformation of traditional gender roles which can only be achieved through structural changes in the socio-cultural paradigm.

Ensuring decent wages, improving access to education, strengthening access to credit and social security nets and guaranteeing the right to own and access land are simple yet effective tools for alleviating food insecurity and reducing hunger.

As a society we need to seriously consider eliminating economic, social and cultural gender discrimination if we are ever to make food security and interchangeably economic development and inclusive growth, permanent features of our country.

Source : http://www.pakistantoday.com.pk/2014/11/15/comment/the-woman-factor-in-food-insecurity/

This article was originally published at:

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint or stance of SDPI.