By Tracy Pannozzo, Humanitas Global
The health of a nation is tied on the health of its people—physically, socially and economically. So too, the physical, social and economic health of a family is often tied to the health and nutrition choices of its women no matter the country, no matter the culture. Research, including the recently released 2016 Global Nutrition Report, has shown that as more women are empowered through education and skills development, the benefits translate not only into livelihood, improving the financial and social health of the family, but also to the overall wellness and nutrition status of their spouse, children and other family members.
Women the world over often make the food selection and preparation choices for their families. Day in and day out, what the family consumes either enables them to combat malnutrition, stunting, non-communicable diseases, overweight and obesity or it is a leading contributor to these preventable ails. Likewise, the survival, growth and development of babies is at the mercy of the mother’s diet both during the gestation period and while breastfeeding. Therefore, the nutrition status of women and adolescent girls is a high priority. Pregnant women are eating for two after all.
According to the Global Nutrition Report, malnutrition is becoming the new normal around the world. Overall there is much to be improved, particularly when it comes to female nutrition. Fifty percent of all pregnant women are anemic and approximately 120 million women are underweight in developing countries. Oftentimes, these women (and adolescent girls) give birth to children that are underweight and stunted, perpetuating the cycle of malnutrition. How do we break this cycle of poor dietary intake that has gone on for generations in many families around the world?
I believe it is possible. Global studies, including the 2011 HUNGaMA Report—the largest public survey on hunger and malnutrition in India—show that when women are afforded the knowledge and power to make decisions related to nutrition or an income to enable the purchase of more nutrient-rich food, the nutritional state of their children improves exponentially. The HUNGaMA Report found that among illiterate mothers, the prevalence of underweight children was at 45 percent and child stunting at 63 percent. However, among mothers with 10 plus years of education, prevalence of underweight children was much lower at 27 percent, and child stunting at 43 percent.
“The most common craving among pregnant moms worldwide is knowledge,” states Chicago Council Senior Fellow Roger Thurow in his new book The First 1,000 Days: A Crucial Time for Mothers and Children and the World. As a mother of two, I can relate. Understanding the nutritional needs of infants empowers mothers everywhere to make more informed dietary choices that not only impact the cognitive, physical and social development of their children but will be handed down and practiced for generations to come.
The Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA), a joint international institution of the African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of States and the European Union underscores the importance of women in improving agriculture and nutrition, stating that “with knowledge, access to fresh products they are able to make better meal choices for their families.”
There is no silver bullet when it comes to eradicating the scourge of malnutrition. And besting malnutrition won’t happen overnight. Frustrating? Of course it is. Tackling malnutrition in all of its forms and in every country (developed and developing) will require a multi-faceted, flexible approach, with custom-tailored investments of mindshare, money, research and development, technology, staffing and training. Changing deep-rooted mindsets, habits, traditions and environments will take all of us—individuals, households, communities, and countries.
As we work together to uncover the right approaches, this much is clear: We must empower women—through education, skills development, and access to livelihoods—in order to put an end to malnutrition. For if we ignore the nutritional needs, ability and influence of one-half of the world’s population in the battle to improve the health of us all; we don’t stand a chance.