New Canadian gender equality solution for global hunger

Dec 14, 2020
By Melani O'Leary

Today, the Government of Canada kicked off a Nutrition for Growth Year of Action with partners from across the globe, including World Vision. This is a rallying cry for all of us to work together to end hunger by 2030. It could not be needed more in a year when COVID-19 and conflict threaten to double global hunger. All told, what I’m most proud of as a Canadian is the emphasis that Canada has put on gender equality in the fight against malnutrition. Here's why:  

Global setbacks in gender equality

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Canadians are seeing major setbacks in gender equality. Women are leaving the workforce in significant numbers. They’re shouldering the burden of domestic care responsibilities and mental health impact and facing alarming increases in sexual and gender-based violence. We continue to see our voices diminished, and to lose control over our bodies, well-being, and futures. 

Globally, we see these same obstacles to gender equality show up in different ways. When it comes to nutrition, COVID-19 has unleashed a global malnutrition crisis whose primary victims are women and girls. It makes me concerned for my own daughters, for their peers, and for where the world will land after this crisis if we don’t stay the course on gender equality and women’s empowerment.

Over the last two years I have been leading an amazing group of individuals, across multiple agencies, to explore how gender inequality contributes to poor diet around the world. As an expert in nutrition, the more I learn about the consequences for vulnerable women, girls, and people of diverse gender identities, the more outraged I become. Why are over 60% of the 820 million undernourished people around the world women and girls? Why are women who are pregnant with a baby boy better taken care of than women who are pregnant with a baby girl? 

An Ethiopian woman works in a field she is farming.
Photo: Paul Bettings

What I’m learning is that gender norms around the world result in discriminatory practices throughout the course of a girl’s life, including everything from being less well fed, clothed, and cared for.

This message has not changed in decades; girls are still being taught that they don’t have control and that their voice doesn’t matter. It’s true globally and here in Canada too. Last week my five-year-old daughter came home from school and said she made friends with a boy who can protect her. As a mother of two young girls, I want to ensure my girls understand that they have complete control over their bodies, their future, and their choices. I wish I didn’t have to focus so much energy on teaching them to advocate for themselves, or their rights. But the problem of inequality infests every corner of our society.

Robbed of their rights

Women are continually denied a voice and decision-making rights regarding what and when they eat, where and when they go to seek health care, and if and when to have children. In short, women have less agency than men. And what could be more unjust than that? 

The power dynamics that govern social norms for food consumption, for example, put restrictions on people with less power. This is most often women and girls, who eat last and least. On top of this, the outrageous number of women who experience sexual and gender-based violence are not only robbed of the right to autonomy over their own bodies, but face physical, emotional, and psychological consequences that directly impact their nutritional well-being. 

This reality is painfully illustrated by looking at the experience of Ehitenesh, a woman who participated in the Born on Time program in Ethiopia. The program seeks to address gender-based discrimination and barriers that contribute to preterm birth. 

Ehitenesh shared how her husband used to control her diet, access to health care, and treated her violently.

"I used to wash my husband’s feet every day after I spend the day preparing meals for our children, wash our clothes, fetch water and perform other very difficult activities all day. He used to get mad and yell at me when I said that I was tired at the end of a very long day. He treated me like a piece of material he owned. He used to beat me all the time and abused me badly. When I remember my previous pregnancy, before I delivered this child it was very difficult. I got sick all the time and didn’t eat well. He didn't help me with chores or take me to a health center for checkups."

Women like Ehitenesh who are subject to violence in the home and restrictions on their diet and health care during pregnancy face greater risks of dying or giving birth to a baby who is malnourished or born too soon. These babies are more at risk of dying before the age of five. They also suffer from poor growth and brain development, trapping them in a cycle of poverty and poor nutrition. 

Thankfully the Born on Time project, funded by Global Affairs Canada and Johnson & Johnson, has worked to shift these power dynamics, and has created space for Ehitenesh’s voice. Born on Time has empowered women like Ehitenesh with knowledge of nutrition and gender equality. 

At the same time, male partners of women like Ehitenesh were engaged to face the reality of what discriminatory social norms and gender inequalities mean for the women and girls in their lives. Training couples on how to better communicate, the importance and benefits of gender equitable relationships and the power of joint decision-making is creating new opportunities for women and girls.

An Ethiopian woman smiles at the baby she holds. The baby smiles at the camera.
Photo: Andrea Arrogante 

"On my last pregnancy, my husband made sure that I got sufficient rest, ate well and took care of myself. He helps in the house to lessen the workload. Now I’m very glad in my home. My husband and I love each other."

When I think about the opportunity to make this world a better place for my girls, for all who are marginalized because of their gender identity, I can’t help but think of the powerful ripple effects that will come. Things we sometimes take for granted, like having control over the food we eat, and whether to have a baby, can impact a girl’s ability to gain an education. Equipped to act on these kinds of healthy choices, girls miss less days of school, perform better in class, and avoid early marriages and early pregnancy. This has a dramatic impact on their future as adults, both on their nutrition and economic well-being.

Having agency over one’s own body is the most fundamental human right – one that is freely given to men, but not yet to women or those with diverse gender identities. And this right is vitally important to one’s nutrition. 

The Government of Canada’s call to action matters for my girls as much as for girls half a world away because decision makers are standing up not just for them, but with them. World leaders are standing together to tackle malnutrition in a way that changes the position and condition of women and girls in their homes, schools and communities. We can’t stand by and let decades of progress evaporate. 

A new framework

And that is why I am incredibly proud  to announce that alongside this important commitment from the Government of Canada, we are launching a groundbreaking new framework and commitment to reach over 1 million women, girls and boys to prevent malnutrition. Together, these efforts have the potential to radically improve the lives of vulnerable women, girls, and people with diverse gender identities. This new practical model directly addresses the systems and norms that disempower women and girls in their efforts to improve their nutrition. It means women like Ehitenesh can exercise their voice, control the resources they need and live in a supporting environment that allow them to reach their fullest potential.  

Join me, join us, in putting gender equality at the centre of nutrition efforts and put this new, amazing framework to use!

Melani O'Leary is a Nutrition Technical Specialist at World Vision Canada. She led the development of the Gender-Transformative Framework for Nutrition, which directly addresses the systems and norms that disempower women and girls in their efforts to improve their nutrition. She holds an MPH in Nutrition and Global Health from Loma Linda University, and a BSc in Biology and Psychology from Houghton College.

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