FAO Programme ::: Food security

Women play a decisive role in household food security, dietary diversity and children's health

FAO estimates that around one billion people are undernourished, and that each year more than three million children die from undernutrition before their fifth birthday. Micronutrient deficiencies, which affect about two billion people, lead to poor growth, blindness, increased severity of infections and sometimes death.

The root causes of world hunger - including rural poverty, population growth and environmental degradation - are exacerbated by the global economic slowdown, volatile food prices and the impact of climate change.

FAO's strategy for improved food security and nutrition calls for action to meet the immediate needs of vulnerable populations and to strengthen national government capacities to formulate and implement food security policies and address nutrition issues.

Gender dimensions of food security and nutrition

In developing countries, rural women and men play different roles in guaranteeing food security for their households and communities. While men grow mainly field crops, women are usually responsible for growing and preparing most of the food consumed in the home and raising small livestock, which provides protein.

Rural women also carry out most home food processing, which ensures a diverse diet, minimizes losses and provides marketable products. Women are more likely to spend their incomes on food and children's needs - research has shown that a child's chances of survival increase by 20% when the mother controls the household budget. Women, therefore, play a decisive role in food security, dietary diversity and children's health.

But gender inequalities in control of livelihood assets limit women's food production. In Ghana, studies found that insecure access to land led women farmers to practise shorter fallow periods than men, which reduced their yields, income and the availability of food for the household. In sub-Saharan Africa, diseases such as HIV/AIDS force women to assume greater caretaking roles, leaving them less time to grow and prepare food.

Women's access to education is also a determining factor in levels of nutrition and child health. Studies from Africa show that children of mothers who have spent five years in primary education are 40% more likely to live beyond the age of five.

Having an adequate supply of food does not automatically translate into adequate levels of nutrition. In many societies women and girls eat the food remaining after the male family members have eaten. Women, girls, the sick and disabled are the main victims of this "food discrimination", which results in chronic undernutrition and ill-health.

The physiological needs of pregnant and lactating women also make them more susceptible to malnutrition and micronutrient deficiencies. Twice as many women suffer from malnutrition as men, and girls are twice as likely to die from malnutrition as boys. Maternal health is crucial for child survival - an undernourished mother is more likely to deliver an infant with low birth weight, significantly increasing its risk of dying.  

Good nutrition and health depends on the safety of the food consumed - contamination leads to illnesses such as diarrhoea that are a major cause of illness and death in children. Efforts to improve food safety must take into account existing gender roles in the food chain - training for women in hygiene and sanitation can make an immediate contribution to household and community health.

FAO's targets 2008-2013

To mainstream gender equity in its programmes for improved food security and nutrition, FAO has set itself the following targets to 2013:

Nutrition policy
Promote sector policies and programmes for nutritional improvement at national and community-levels that recognize gender-defined needs, opportunities and constraints.

Nutrition education
Develop gender-sensitive nutrition education initiatives, training programmes and materials that target men, women, girls and boys.

Food quality and safety
To reduce disease outbreaks caused by home-prepared food, develop awareness and educational materials on household handling of food.

Street foods
Improve the quality and safety of street foods through training for men and women vendors in basic hygiene.

Gender-specific data     
Promote assessments of nutrient requirements, dietary intakes and nutritional status that analyse gender, age and development stage. 

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