Background on nutrition and gender

  • Background on gender and nutrition

    Nutrition and gender are inextricably linked. Women and girls suffer disproportionately from poor nutrition and are subject to social, cultural and political norms of how food is produced, accessed and consumed and how nutrition services are provided and used.

    Gender issues affect nutrition outcomes in many ways. The most recent literature review1 2 on the correlation between women’s empowerment and child nutrition outcomes describes these as being strongly related.

    Energy and nutrient requirements are influenced both by sex and biology while nutrient uptakes might be influenced by gender roles and responsibilities. For instance, women and girls often eat last and least (due to gendered norms), which restricts their ability to achieve their potential and there are also more likely to be affected by hunger. In fact, out of the 690 million people in the world who are suffering from hunger, 60% are girls or women3. The gender gap in food insecurity4 widened even further in 2021, driven largely by LAC and Asia. In 2021, 31.9% of women in the world being moderately or severely food insecure compared to 27.6% of men.

    Gender inequality is thus both a cause and a consequence of malnutrition, which can trap women and girls in a multigenerational cycle of poverty and unmet potential, restricting livelihoods, education, and growth opportunities, and limiting access to and control over the resources they need to meet their nutritional needs.

    According to the 2022 Global Gender Gap report, gender parity is not recovering. It is estimated that another 132 years are needed to close the global gender gap5. As crises are compounding in addition to the reverses experienced during COVID-19, women’s workforce outcomes are suffering and the risk of global gender parity backsliding further intensifies. Gender-sensitive recovery strategies will be critical in making up ground lost that has been lost with the recent global crises.

    One powerful indication of a systematic gender bias is the gender data gap. Few surveys, research and data analysis see, count and value women and girls. National and sub-national level statistics are not sufficiently nuanced and disaggregated to capture gender disparities. This could be solved, in part, by correcting gender biases in research, data collection and analysis methodologies: better survey design, appropriate use of terminology, development and inclusion of specific gender indicators to measure advances in gender equity, and analysing and communicating data from a gender viewpoint might contribute to more equitable policies.

    The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development emphasises the need for structural transformation to address not just the symptoms but the root causes of economic, social, political and environmental problems and inequities. The SDG 5 is a crosscutting goal and will affect to all aspects of the development.

    1 Santoso, M. V., R. B. Kerr, J. Hoddinott, P. Garigipati, S. Olmos and S. L. Young (2019). "Role of Women’s Empowerment in Child Nutrition Outcomes: A Systematic Review." Adv Nutr 10(6): 1138-1151.

    2 https://www.fao.org/fileadmin/templates/cfs/Docs1920/Gender/GEWE_Scoping_Paper-FINAL040ct.pdf

    3 Women are Hungrier - World Food Program USA (wfpusa.org)

    4 https://www.fao.org/3/cc0639en/cc0639en.pdf

    5 https://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_GGGR_2022.pdf

  • What are Gender-Transformative Approaches?

    Women and girls are among the key actors that should be considered in the domain of food and nutrition security in low- and middle-income countries. While it is recognized that gender equality and women’s empowerment are pivotal to improving food systems and driving economic development, their contribution to the system has been limited by existing discriminatory gender norms resulting in limited accessibility to education, information as well as resources6.

    In the past decades, the promotion of gender equity within food and nutrition security has translated into advocacy of gender mainstreaming and integration of gender-sensitive or responsive approaches, however they have been insufficient to address the root cause of gender inequality, shifting the conversation, in the past 10-15 years, from gender mainstreaming and integration to Gender Transformative Approaches.

    Gender transformative approaches (GTA) are interventions that create opportunities for an active change in gender norms, promote the inclusion of women in social and political positions of influence, and address power inequities between genders. GTA aims to address the root causes of gender inequalities and transform them7.

    GTA create an enabling environment that goes beyond including women just as participants or beneficiaries of nutrition support. It aims to integrate gender issues into all aspects of programme and policy design, development, implementation and evaluation.

    GTA differs from the standard approaches as it aims to go beyond solely addressing visible challenges in gender inequality by tackling its underlying issues. For instance, until now interventions have focused on filling identified gaps rather than aiming to understand the causes of these gaps, which is what GTA tries to address; thus, while promoting gender inclusion, GTA’s objective is to catalyse shifts in social norms at different levels (individuals, households, small and large institutions).

    In the context of health and nutrition, GTA address community power structures that prevent women from making decisions about their own health such as access to health/nutrition services, family planning, access to food and livelihoods, access to land and access to equitable jobs to meet their needs.

    Research on GTA8 shows that women’s empowerment and greater gender equality are both ends and means to improve the health and nutrition of families and communities as a whole.

    6 Hillenbrand et al., 2015
    7 https://gender.cgiar.org/news/potential-and-unknowns-gender-transformative-approaches
    8 https://www.fao.org/fileadmin/templates/cfs/Docs1920/Gender/GEWE_Scoping_Paper-FINAL040ct.pdf

  • When and why should they be used?

    In the past decades, there has been a growing awareness that gender equality contributes to positive nutritional outcomes. Following the gender continuum (Fig.1 below) gender-sensitive approaches have been promoted as a way to integrate gender in development interventions. However, gender-sensitive and responsive approaches are limited in their ability to address gender-based causes of food and nutrition security as they are mainly focused on creating awareness on the inequalities related to gender norms and responsibilities, or to promote targeted interventions but none of them address the underlying causes.


    Fig 1. Gender continuum

    GTA, on the other hand, aim to address structural causes of unequal power relations as well as existing social norms in order to promote gender equality and empower women. GTA differ from other approaches as they take account of a specific context and how social inequalities influence choices and outcomes. They engage with both women and men and with different actors.

    Gender inequality and community dynamics relating to women’s and men’s roles can have a significant impact on nutrition programmes throughout their lifecycle. For instance, the way data is disaggregated, collected and analysed might have a great impact in perpetuating gender inequalities or, on the contrary, it could contribute to progress on gender equality, if done properly.

    Nonetheless, it is important to highlight that GTA cannot be achieved overnight. It is part of a long-term process that starting from the inclusion of gender-sensitive approaches looks at promoting gender equality by first raising awareness, then develop targeted measures and objective to promote gender equality (gender responsive) and ultimately achieving gender equality by challenging existing status quo and underlying social norms (GTA).

    For this reason, programme implementers new to the gender paradigm should strive to integrate gender in all aspects of NIPN programming and policy, including programme design, implementation and evaluation with the ultimate goal of achieving gender equality through GTA.

    Initial steps towards addressing gender disparities can start with performing gender-based analysis during all data management processes. Gender-based analysis involves understanding how health and nutrition differs between men and women can be related to the different roles and responsibilities that culture assigns to them. Particularly around power and decision-making, using both quantitative and qualitative data collection methods to examine gender roles and norms, and to provide meaning and context for why men and women behave in certain ways when interacting with the nutritional system and to understand the different opportunities, needs and constraints for women and men in a given context.

    Programming can include integrating gender sensitivity training in institutional capacity development efforts, increasing awareness of inequalities among implementing partners and key actors, and encouraging critical assessments of existing harmful gender stereotypes. A successful gender sensitisation will be reflected in how data is collected, extracted and analysed, as well as how it is integrated into recommendations and communication to policymakers.

    As information platform, NIPN can contribute to achieve gender equity by communicating in a gender-inclusive way. Leaflets, evidence-based reports or other communication means have to avoid gender bias language which perpetuate gender stereotypes.

    Initiating conversations about gender and presenting individuals and institutions with an opportunity to critically reflect on how gender norms affect the well-being of individuals, families and communities is a key first step to transform the status quo and reduce gender inequality.

  • What should NIPN implementers know?

    Incorporating gender indicators in NIPN programme implementation and evaluation is critical to determining whether NIPN is contributing to change gender norms and behaviours regarding nutrition policies in NIPN countries.

    Gender equality refers to the idea that individuals have exact same opportunities, access, treatment, regardless of their gender. While Gender equity refers to the idea that access and needs differs for women and men and should be adapted to their specificities as individuals.

    NIPN teams should evaluate the data collected and analyse it from a gender perspective. This will contribute to a better understanding of how nutrition programming can affect men and women differently and the different access barriers that women and men might face.

    With this guidance note, C4N-NIPN Global Coordination aims to develop a framework comprising questions to assess how NIPN platforms are currently addressing gender considerations and determine how best to promote gender transformative programming. This framework will be able to be used during programme planning and evaluation to ensure to be gender transformative.

    Many possible indicators are available to measure gender transformation within a programme. Some of those that might be used in NIPN programmes are explained later in this guidance note. In addition, gender-linked assumptions that might affect the programme or activity’s success should be continuously monitored.