Although both rural women and rural men each have different and complementary roles in guaranteeing food security at the household and community levels, women often play a greater role in ensuring nutrition, food safety and quality. In much of the developing world, women produce most of the food that is consumed in their homes, and are generally responsible for processing and preparing food for their households. Women tend to spend a considerable part of the cash income that they generate from marketing activities on household food requirements.
Recognizing women's and men's distinct roles in family nutrition is a key to improving food security at the household level. To tackle this issue, FAO bases its approach to nutrition on the economic and cultural context of the area concerned, and considers that food security depends not only on the availability of food, but also on access to food, as well as on food adequacy and acceptability to consumers. Other underlying causes of malnutrition must also be addressed. These include dietary intake and diversity, health and disease, and maternal and child care - areas in which women play decisive roles. Another key issue is respecting the knowledge of traditional communities, particularly women, about the nutritional value of local crops and foods gathered from the wild.
Across most of the developing world, people typically rely on one or two staple crops - such as rice, wheat, maize or millet - for as much as 80 percent of their daily caloric intake. Home garden foods also have an important «safety net» function as supplements to staple crops. Unlike field crops, home garden foods can be cultivated to provide food for the family to eat all year round, as long as enough water is available. During the lean season between harvests, home garden foods can augment or replenish family food supplies. And cash earned from selling the produce of home gardens can be used to purchase food items that the family cannot produce itself.
As the main cultivators of home gardens, women often grow most of the secondary crops that provide the diversity needed for a healthy diet. Home garden foods typically include roots and tubers, green leafy vegetables, legumes and fruits, all of which are rich in vitamins and minerals. A study in Nigeria, for example, found that women grew as many as 57 different plant species in their home gardens.
Teaching women and men about the nutritional value of certain foods, such as green leafy vegetables, and encouraging them to grow and eat these is an effective way of improving nutrition and preventing micronutrient deficiencies. For instance, a pilot project in Bangladesh encouraged landless and at-risk populations to cultivate vegetable gardens. By the end of the pilot period, target households were eating an average of almost 30 percent more vegetables, with particularly notable gains in infants' and young children's consumption. Night blindness in children, a symptom of vitamin A deficiency, was reduced by nearly half. The project emphasized the need to educate both men and women about the importance of a diverse diet and the use of foods from home gardens to provide it.
Planning for action
FAO's Gender and Development Plan of Action includes a number of commitments aimed both at improving women's access to adequate nutrition and at providing them with the knowledge and resources they need to improve their families' nutritional status. Key areas of activity include: capacity building and the development of curricula and training materials for gender-sensitive nutrition education; the collection, analysis and dissemination of gender-disaggregated data on nutrition; and technology transfer to increase efficiency and reduce men's and women's workloads in food processing, storage and related agro-industries.
Food processing and food safety
Nutritional needs and food discrimination
Improving household food security and nutrition
As part of an FAO project in Viet Nam, some 12 000 poor households, each with at least one malnourished child under the age of five years, received training and grants to establish home gardens. Interviews and evaluation confirmed that home gardens had a greater productive impact when men and women understood their nutritional and economic benefits. The project resulted in measurable gains for the poorest, most food-insecure households: 82 percent of participating households improved their food availability, and children increased their daily consumption of vegetables and fruits. The project was credited with reducing the rate of malnutrition by 12.8 percent within just two years.
Food processing contributes to food security by regularly assuring a diversity of diet, minimizing waste and losses and improving the marketability of foods, thereby enabling women to participate in the trade of food products. In developing countries, women carry out most food processing activities, which often create a heavy workload. In parts of North Africa, women may spend up to four hours a day grinding wheat for couscous.
Food processing also contributes to nutritional well-being, not only by making food more digestible, but also by enabling foods to be preserved and marketed, which generates additional income and gives people access to a wider range of products and nutrients. Drying, smoking, pickling and other ways of preserving nutrient-rich foods help protect families against protein or micronutrient deficiencies during seasons when fresh produce is hard to come by. Using solar dryers to preserve fruits can provide a year-round supply of vitamin A.
For example, by smoking and drying much of the daily catch, women in fishing communities improve both incomes and nutrition. Losses through waste and spoilage, which often amount to at least 25 percent of a catch, can be cut by more than half. And fish as a rich source of protein and other nutrients can be eaten or sold over a much wider area and for a much longer time.
Food storage also greatly increases food security. Men are usually responsible for constructing storage facilities, while women prepare the food to be stored and maintain and use the stocks and facilities. In some developing countries, as much as 25 percent of the food produced becomes spoiled or is eaten by insects and other pests before humans get to it. Reducing such post-harvest losses can make more food available as effectively as increasing production in the fields can.
As in many other areas, women are often hampered in their ability to acquire tools and skills for food processing and storage because it difficult for them to obtain access to credit and training services. By the same token, agricultural research and extension programmes often fail to consider the distinct roles that men and women play in food processing and storage. As a result, these programmes rarely benefit from women's valuable knowledge of traditional techniques, conditions and materials.
Good nutrition depends on the quality and quantity of the food that is available, as well as on health. Contamination of foods by bacteria or chemicals can make them inedible, dangerous or even deadly. Through their responsibilities for processing food for markets and preparing it for the home, women generally play a key role in ensuring the quality and safety of what people eat.
Even when they do not kill, diarrhoea and many other food-borne illnesses accelerate the passage of food through the digestive system, reducing the body's capacity to absorb nutrients and increasing the loss of water and body salts. Where food-borne illnesses are widespread, even people who consume adequate amounts of food are frequently malnourished.
In many cases, lack of access to adequate water, sanitation and fuel may prove to be the principal cause of food-borne illnesses. If the only water available is polluted, or if fuel scarcities make it impossible to boil water and cook food, families will suffer from illness and malnutrition.
Improving food safety can be achieved only by taking into account women's and men's roles in producing and processing food. As women do most of the cooking in their homes, education about hygiene and sanitation needs to target their concerns and schedules. Furthermore, policies that take account of women's key roles in preparing food and collecting water and fuel can simultaneously reduce their heavy workload and improve their families' nutrition.
Nutritional demands vary depending on age, sex, health status and activity level. In their reproductive years, especially during pregnancy and lactation, women have specific additional nutrient requirements, which determine both their own and their children's nutritional status. These extra needs are not always recognized, and women and children suffer the consequences. For example, nearly half of women in developing countries suffer from anaemia, which affects their health, limits their activity and greatly increases the risks that they face during pregnancy and childbirth. Their babies also suffer much higher rates of infant mortality and birth defects.
Women themselves are often the victims of food discrimination, which compromises the nutritional and health status of female family members. In many households and communities, women and girls eat only the food that is left after the males in the family have eaten. This often results in chronic undernutrition. In parts of South Asia, men and boys consume twice as many calories, even though women and girls do much of the heavy work. A study in India found that girls are four times more likely to suffer from acute malnutrition than boys are.
«Experts estimate that effective policies to treat anaemia can raise national productivity by as much as 20 percent»
FAO pays special attention to the economic and social dimensions of these issues, including the gender approach, and concentrates on the need to improve total dietary intakes, without focusing on a single micronutrient. Efforts to deal with micronutrients should not be isolated from efforts to address other malnutrition problems. It is therefore essential to take into account the distinct nutritional requirements of men and women, as well as their roles in the household.
Food and nutrition education plays a vital role in promoting food security, as it is especially important for poor households to make the optimal use of local foods and to follow healthy eating patterns. Education that draws on traditional knowledge, usually that of women, can focus on the local foods and plants that are used to prevent or cure the illnesses caused by malnutrition and to combat diet-related diseases.
Nutrition education helps people to make the best choice of foods for an adequate diet by providing them with information on the nutritional value of foods, food quality and safety, preservation methods, processing and handling, food preparation and eating habits. Successful nutrition education leads to positive actions, such as growing and eating specific fruits and vegetables in order to protect the body from infectious diseases or learning how to store maize in order to reduce nutrient losses and increase household food reserves.
Successful nutrition education requires the active participation of both men and women, their awareness of nutritional problems and their willingness to change. Because women play such a key role in growing, choosing and preparing foods, nutrition education for women can have an enormous impact. For example, a project in Tamil Nadu, India, trained the mothers of healthy children to become nutrition workers and led to 55 percent fewer incidences of severe malnutrition in more than 20 000 villages.