Hunger and malnutrition: a challenge for mothers everywhere

May 03, 2021
There are few things more primal than a mother’s instinct to feed her children. 

As a young mom, I recall having little awareness of whether I’d remembered to eat that day. I was too busy trying to hide vegetables in whatever I prepared for my kids.

If we were low on milk, I automatically gave it to them. One can of tuna? Just a bite or two for me, as my little boys loved it. Like many mothers, I encouraged the children to eat as much as they felt hungry for. Nourishing them made me feel wonderful. 

Silent hunger 

But what happens in a mother’s heart when there’s nothing to sacrifice, nothing left to cook? 

Knowing you have nothing to feed your children is one of the worst things a mother can imagine. I’ve been fortunate – that’s never been me. But globally, millions of mothers face the anguish of watching their children go hungry.  

It breaks my heart to know that many mothers are suffering in this way. And it hurts to know that moms themselves go without proper meals, year after year. Sometimes through sacrifice, but often by order. 

In many societies around the world, it’s expected that girls and women will eat last, least and the poorest-quality food. Not only does this cause multiple health challenges for women. It reflects – and reinforces – realities where nutritional status is biased by gender.  

COVID-19, violent conflict and climate change are only making matters worse. By December 2020, the United Nations estimated that 270 million people were at high risk of – or already facing – acute levels of hunger. 

Not only does this mean millions of children are malnourished, at critical points in their growth and development. It means that in countless households from Yemen to Afghanistan, Ethiopia to Northern Nigeria, mothers are struggling to eat.  

Mealtime hierarchy 

Mothers’ hunger is something that World Vision teams witness all-too-frequently. Even when those women are pregnant or breastfeeding. 

“Many cultures dictate that men eat first, then boys, then women and girls,” says Melani O’Leary, nutrition expert with World Vision Canada. She explains that societies often have misconceptions about how much food women actually need to be healthy. 

“In some cultures, there is a fear of pregnant women eating too much, for fear it will make birthing the baby more difficult,” she says. Even when food is desperately short, due to drought, for instance, traditions prevail, limiting women’s choices.

An Ethiopian woman holds a baby. There is a crowd of men and boys behind her.In Ethiopia, Leges (the mother) has seven family members to feed each night, as the Tigray region edges closer and closer to famine. In many cultures, women and girls eat last. Photo: Fitalew Bahiru 

“In a food crisis these norms would not change … it would just mean even less food available at the end of the eating hierarchy. When it comes to a family’s nutrition, many women have none of the power, but all of the responsibility.” 

Learning from their mothers 

And it’s not just women who are suffering. In many regions, girls join their mothers in eating last, least and food of the poorest quality. This holds true even once a girl is menstruating and more vulnerable to micronutrient deficiencies like anemia. 
women and girls from Nicaragua line up at a community kitchen to receive food.Girls and women line up for supplementary food at a feeding centre in Nicaragua, run by community volunteers. Sixty per cent of the world’s people with chronic hunger are female. Photo: Carlos Urroz 

Here are some other examples of the hunger and malnutrition realities girls and women face, because of their gender: 
  • Sixty per cent of the world’s people with chronic hunger are female.
  • Micronutrient deficiencies affect women and girls as a group, more than they do men and boys. 
  • Anemia is the leading cause of death for pregnant teenaged girls.
  • Girls forced into marriage may have little say as to whether they receive nutritious food and when they become pregnant.
  • Poor nutrition during pregnancy can actually cause changes to the DNA of a mother’s growing fetus.
When it comes to motherhood, not only does a hungry, malnourished woman or girl suffer in her own right. Her lack of nutritious food – combined with her lack of control over food decisions – perpetuates the cycle of hunger and gender inequality. 

Putting myself in their places 

While writing this piece, I imagined lacking input into food and nutrition decisions in our home, just because I’m a woman. It shook me to my core. 

I experimented with the idea of having no voice; of a scenario where my husband would make the decisions, often putting his own purchasing preferences before nutritious food for the family. How would I nourish everyone on a fraction of our normal food budget? 

I tried to picture mealtimes, with my husband eating most of the meal while the boys and I watched. What if my youngest son were small for his age, at risk of becoming physically and emotionally stunted? It made me feel sick to imagine remaining silent. 

At no point in this exercise did I consider my own nutritional needs. But I did consider the idea of being pregnant, during this mealtime scenario. How would I choose between feeding our children and nourishing an unborn child? 

The gender-nutrition bond 

When put this way, I’m sure you can see why it’s critical for communities around the world to address gender and nutrition simultaneously. When women have little or no power in their households, nutrition needs for the most vulnerable members of the family and community go unmet. 
So, what needs to happen, for global malnutrition to come to an end? For World Vision teams, it’s clear. Women must have access to – and greater control over – resources of many kinds, so they can nourish themselves and their children. These resources include essentials like: 
  • education for women about the kinds and amounts of foods that their children and they themselves need to be healthy, as well as choices around family planning. 
  • education for girls about what they need to be well-nourished through their teens and later, in pregnancy if and when they choose to do so, as well as comprehensive sexual education so they can make those choices. 
  • knowledge for mothers about how to source and prepare nutritious food for themselves and their families. 
  • control over allocation of resources within the household, so nutritious food can be sourced, secured, prepared and shared among family members as per their individual needs. 
  • choices around family planning to ensure women can choose if and when to become a mother and to space out their pregnancies for optimal health of both mom and baby and successful breastfeeding. 
It also requires that men, boys, and other traditional power holders are engaged in this change process as champions for gender equality and join the fight to end these harmful practices.

The seeds of empowerment 

That relationship between gender and nutrition has underpinned World Vision’s development work for many years. Our FEED program, funded by the Government of Canada, for instance, focuses on empowering women, as well as appropriate nutrition for mothers, babies and young children. It also engages men as allies toward gender equality. 

In South Sudan, we’ve invited mothers like Ayak Akol to join our farmer training program. Not only did Ayak receive seeds, tools and two goats, she learned about sustainable farming practices and animal husbandry. 
This empowered the mother-of-four with knowledge, gave her space to exercise her voice, earned her the respect of others, and handed her more control over her family’s nutrition. 

Instead of scraping by selling firewood as she used to do, Ayak is now earning a stable income. Selling produce in the market pays her children’s school fees. Ayak makes nutrition decisions for herself, nourishes her children and empowers the next generation through education.  
A South Sudanese mother lays out her crops on a mat under the shade of a lean-to.Not only has Ayak improved her nutrition and her children’s. Her farming and animal husbandry know-how is helping this mother empower a new generation through education. Photo: Lambert Coleman 

A nutrition revolution 

As COVID-19 spreads, climate change worsens, civil conflict rages on and food crises become more frequent, World Vision and other organizations are striving to place the gender-nutrition relationship at the centre of their programs. 

In December, we launched A Gender Transformative Framework for Nutrition, joining with the Canadian government’s new commitments to empower and nourish thousands of mothers and their children. It’s all part of a worldwide movement, the Nutrition for Growth Year of Action

“In programs moving forward, we’ll be diving deeper to address the root causes, the social norms that disempower women and girls in their efforts to improve their nutrition,” says World Vision Canada’s Melani O’Leary. 

“Not only are we striving to help women everywhere exercise their voices. Women have the right to control the resources they need – and to reach their fullest potential.”

Nourish and cherish on Mother’s Day 

World Vision’s Gift Catalogue has many life-changing offerings which combine nutrition and women’s empowerment. This Mother’s Day, honour the women in your life who have helped ensure you enjoyed nutritious meals over the years. 

Perhaps it’s your own mother or mother-figure. Maybe it’s your wife, your aunt, your sister or your friend. Whoever she is, you can make her day, while helping change the world. 

Visit our Mother’s Day gift collection today!

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