Almost everywhere and across all age-groups, female nutrition indicators are worse than those of their male counterparts. In the developing world this is much more evident, particularly in much of South Asia and parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, where malnutrition (especially under nutrition) has grown worse in the recent past.
Sadly, this has ceased to surprise us, so used have we become to gender inequities in different spheres. But surprise us it should, because across much of the world, women are now the main producers of food: as members of farming households, engaged in recognized or unrecognized work, in cultivation and as agricultural labourers. Despite this, structural features of food cultivation and distribution – aggravated by the shift to more corporate activity – continue to generate gender imbalances that may have become more severe.
Consider the case of India, which has the worst nutrition indicators among all the larger countries in the world, and certainly the largest number of hungry people. Gender differences in food access obviously reflect socio-cultural realities. In many parts of the country women and girls within households received less food and worse quality food not just because of overt discrimination but also because of self-deprivation in conditions of household scarcity. But these social factors are unfortunately reinforced by public policies that are either gender-blind or downright discriminatory in how they treat women in the food system overall.
To start with, despite the importance of women in food cultivation, women are scarcely recognized as farmers. Because they rarely have land titles in their own names, they are denied access to institutional credit, to public agricultural extension services and inputs, and even to marketing channels. This increases their costs substantially and obliges many of them to stick to increasingly insecure subsistence farming. Policies directed towards farmers have to move away from identification based on land titles, towards recognizing all those who are involved in cultivation.
In any case farmers – including women cultivators – are being squeezed by the rising cost of inputs, reduction of subsidies that add to costs, and reduced public investment in rural areas, even as they are being asked to compete with subsidized imports. The same forces affect the demand for agricultural labour, an area where women are also heavily involved. Further, the livelihood crisis of the farming community has disproportionate adverse effects on women and girls, given the existing gender inequalities in society. Policies towards agriculture should be specifically oriented towards small holders, and cover the entire range of issues including irrigation and access to water; agricultural research and extension; access to affordable institutional credit; access to relevant and sustainable inputs; and access to stable markets for selling the output. In each of these, special care has to be taken to reach women farmers, who tend to be excluded from benefits because of economic and cultural constraints.
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