December 26, 2023
Nutrition is a feminist issue. This is the message of the Close the Gender Nutrition Gap campaign, cited as one of the biggest announcements at Women Deliver in Kigali in July, and it is the message at the heart of a global webinar series hosted by Global Nutrition at FHI 360 with support from Alive & Thrive, the Scaling Up Nutrition Civil Society Network (SUN CSN) and the Scaling Up Nutrition Civil Society Alliance Viet Nam with support from the Swiss Agency for Development and Corporation and Irish Aid. Two webinars, hosted on December 5th and 11th 2023, engaged over 180 participants from more than 40 countries, fostering insightful questions and discussions.
The statistics are alarming. Every year malnutrition kills more women than any other risk factor, including tobacco, alcohol, and air pollution. Women produce more than half of the world’s food, yet they comprise 70% of the world’s hungry. Today, more than one billion women and adolescent girls experience at least one form of malnutrition, while the gender gap in food insecurity more than doubled from 2019 to 2021. One-third of adolescent girls suffer from anemia – a debilitating condition with life-threatening implications, with progress unabated and no country on track to meet global anemia targets.
Put simply, if we fail to close the Gender Nutrition gap, we will fall short on almost every single Sustainable Development Goal. And we will be turning our backs on a moral equity crisis.
The webinar was opened by Mr. Sean Farrell, Deputy Head of Mission, Embassy of Ireland to Vietnam, Lao PDR, Cambodia, who explained that improving nutrition and tackling hunger and gender equality are the two pillars of Ireland’s foreign policy.
To date, the Gender Nutrition Gap coalition has more than 40 member organizations, including United Nations bodies, such as the World Food Program, and the African Development Bank Leaders for Nutrition, implementing agencies, research organizations, international non-profits, and national societies, such as the Indian Federation of Obstetric and Gynaecological Societies. Together, members define the Gender Nutrition Gap as the way in which women and girl’s unique biological needs, disparities in access to food and services and harmful social norms have a bearing on their health and economic outcomes.
The Closing the Gender Gap Action Agenda is a global framework of concrete actions to improve women and girls’ rights, advance gender equality and improve their nutrition. Designed to be interpreted and adapted at the national level, it is a guide to increase funding for evidence-driven interventions and gender-responsive policies that consider and address unique needs and challenges women and girls face. As Deborah Ash, Senior Nutrition Specialist at Global Nutrition, FHI 360, outlines, “The need to focus on gender transformative actions emerged as a central theme during global and national consultations. It is not a theoretical document. The Action Agenda is a practical tool drawn from the latest evidence, opinion leader research, policy reviews, stakeholder mappings, and extensive consultations with global and national experts.”
UNICEF’s recent flagship report, Undernourished and Overlooked: A Global Nutrition Crisis in Adolescent Girls and Women, sheds light on the gravity of the challenge and calls for urgent and decisive action to prevent further failure in addressing the nutritional needs of adolescent girls and women, safeguarding the well-being of future generations.
“Undernutrition, micronutrient deficiencies, and anaemia on gender inequalities hinder the learning potential, wages, and life opportunities for adolescent girls and women, making them more susceptible to infections and complications during pregnancy,” said Ms. Emily Mates, Maternal Nutrition Specialist, UNICEF HQ.
Ms. Isabelle Wyss, Program Manager in the Health Determinants Section for the Swiss Development Cooperation (SDC) highlighted the importance of civil society in advocating for women and girls’ rights. Local actors in Uttar Pradesh, India, demonstrate the power of civil society, where local partners carried out a stakeholder mapping and strategy development with participation from the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, leading to the inclusion of a clause on women’s and girls’ nutrition in the G20 New Delhi Leaders Declaration. Member organisations of the Gender Nutrition Gap campaign in India call for coherence to nation-wide national technical guidance and strategies across the Ministry of Women and Child Development and Ministry of Health and Family Welfare.
Similarly, in Nigeria, SUN CSN demonstrated the power of advocacy directed by the local political economy. Mr. Sunday Okoronkwo, Executive Secretary, Civil Society Scaling-up Nutrition in Nigeria (CS-SUNN) reminded the webinar participants that “men have a role to play in ensuring that the girl child can aspire to whatever she wants to become in life.”
The coalition was the first of its kind in Nigeria to go beyond the focus on maternal nutrition and include women’s and girls’ nutrition across their lifecycle, including adolescent girls and non-pregnant and non-lactating women. Partners, together with the government, defined a joint advocacy plan, securing the buy-in and leadership of the Ministry for Women Affairs to lead on the development of National Guidelines for Women’s and Girls’ Empowerment for Optimal Nutrition.
During the development of the Action Agenda, advocates spoke to the need to establish standardized nutrition data to ensure consistency and comparability to facilitate informed decision-making, target interventions and build accountability at country levels. This will be a focus for future campaigning efforts in the French presidency of Nutrition for Growth, a global Summit designed to encourage governments, donors, philanthropy and civil society to make bold, ambitious and SMART commitments to end malnutrition.
As we advance into the new year, the campaign will call for governments, donors, and philanthropic organizations to adopt Action Agenda policies, increasing policy integration and embedding nutrition considerations into education, health, agriculture, and employment policies. The Action Agenda covers eight policy domains to close the Gender Nutrition Gap across four Action Areas:
Action Area One: Healthy Diets
Boitshepo Bibi Giyose, Senior Nutrition Advisor, African Union Development Agency explored the various gender aspects of a healthy diet and the importance of changing social norms around intrahousehold food allocation where it is common practice for women to eat last and least in many countries. Similarly, the Action Agenda calls for targeted education on the importance of healthy diets and actions to protect consumers from predatory marketing practices through global regional and national regulations, financial disincentives (taxation on sugar-sweetened beverages) and mandatory front-of-pack nutrition labelling. Rody Gangte, Senior Manager, Programs, EngenderHealth India recalled how mainstreaming gender in large-scale food fortification requires gender analysis and capacity building on gender sensitivity and gender disaggregated metrics.
Action Area Two: Care – Integrate Nutrition into Health and Social Protection
Dr. Sebanti Ghosh, Senior Technical Adviser for Alive & Thrive South Asia, explained how the Action Agenda emphasizes calling for a doubling down on high-impact, cost-effective interventions within maternal, newborn and child health services and antenatal and postnatal care platforms. For example, a well-delivered package of iron supplementation could cut maternal and newborn deaths by 28 percent and reduce stillbirths by 22 percent.
Strengthening the links to support women across the care system can be achieved by embedding critical contact points to prevent, detect and treat malnutrition. Equally, we must expand functions of social protection systems for nutrition and women’s and girl’s economic empowerment, including maternity leave, as well as extend employment protections to the informal sector where women and girls are overrepresented. Globally, 58 percent of all women’s employment is informal. In lower-income countries, this can rise to 92 percent.
Action Area Three: Gender Equality
Mandana Arabi, Vice-President, Global Technical Services and Chief Technical Advisor, Nutrition International reminded attendees that gender transformative policies and programs must address the root causes of gender inequalities including providing equitable access to quality education for girls and promoting their economic empowerment. Currently, being malnourished can reduce potential lifetime earnings by at least 10 percent due to decreased education and productivity.
Action Area 4: Multisectoral Policy Environment
Alongside closing vast data gaps on women and girls’ nutrition, multiple actions can improve cohesion in multisectoral policy environments. Such actions include prioritizing women and girls’ nutrition in humanitarian responses and accounting for the immense value of the unpaid care economy, largely carried out by women, including incorporating breastfeeding into national food systems balance sheets and national planning frameworks. Ultimately, effective multi-sectoral policy will made considered trade-offs to prioritize those actions that respond to the unique needs of women and girls and the underlying causes of gender inequality and malnutrition.
As a lead organizer for this webinar series, SUN CSN Viet Nam looks forward to hosting a learning retreat for SUN CSNs from 8th to 12th January 2024 to share lessons and experiences relating to innovations and policy integration for women and girls’ nutrition in Viet Nam. One such innovation is the Little Sun Clinics, established by Alive & Thrive and the National Institute of Nutrition Viet Nam, in partnership with the government, to bring quality care and nutrition counseling to antenatal and postnatal care services to improve exclusive breastfeeding rates and infant and young child feeding practices. Today, there are 1,200 Little Sun nutrition counseling clinics across fifteen provinces.
Another innovation in Viet Nam is the Centers of Excellence for Breastfeeding, which improves the quality of care in the health service, especially in the first 1,000 days of life. Accredited by provincial Departments of Health, Centers of Excellence are connected to Birthing Experience Surveys, which enable women to voice their experience. Human Milk Banks have also been piloted and scaled to collect, pasteurize, test, and store breastmilk donated by volunteer lactating mothers who have passed a health screening to support optimal health outcomes and save infant lives. Ensuring maternity protection and breastfeeding-friendly workplace policies are part of a supportive policy package that extends the continuum of care.
As the webinar series closed, participants were invited to consider ways in which they can be active and vocal advocates to Close the Gender Nutrition Gap. Going forward, the success of the campaign depends not only on our existing members, but on those already actively campaigning to close gaps for women and girls in all sectors and domains, including climate, education, tech, and global and national workforces.
As Ms. Mates said, “A global movement is happening. For the first time in twenty years, we are seeing a step up for adolescent girls and women. We must make the most of this moment.”
If you want to become a gap closer in the Close the Gender Nutrition Gap Campaign, find out more and read the full Action Agenda Policy Framework. SUN CSN is thrilled to announce the creation of a vibrant Gender & Nutrition Community of Practice. If you are interested in joining, please sign up here.