The fight against malnutrition is one of humanity’s longest running battles. We are at a unique turning point in this historic struggle, with many reasons for optimism. Never before has the role of nutrition in achieving human progress been so well understood or so widely recognized as both a chronic and urgent problem that requires immediate and committed action.
Approximately one in three people in the world lack the essential nutrition they need to survive and thrive. 155 million children are stunted, 1.6 billion people are anaemic and two billion are overweight or obese. The potential of billions of people to fully participate in the evolving global digital economy is being lost every single day. If we are to truly build a world where no one is left behind, greater investments to break the preventable, intergenerational, and broad-reaching impacts of poor nutrition are essential.
Malnutrition is also sexist. Women and girls are twice as likely to suffer from poor nutrition as men and boys, with gender inequality and harmful social practices leading many to eat last and least. Unequal access to the essential building blocks of human capital – including essential micronutrients such as iron, folic acid, zinc and iodine - creates unjust barriers to health and development and increases the risks of disease, disability and even death.
More than one billion women and girls worldwide suffer from malnutrition. This has catastrophic consequences not only for themselves and their children, but for their communities, countries, and the world as a whole. The global gender dialogue often focuses on breaking the glass ceiling. Equally crucial is the need to ensure that all people – women and girls in particular – are also free of the ‘sticky floor’ that prevents them from having the chance of breaking the glass ceiling in the first place. Building a better world requires both.
When the potential of women and girls is undermined due to poor health and nutrition, personal, social and economic development is knocked off course. The consequences span across generations, as malnourished women are more likely to give birth to malnourished babies, leading to economic losses and social injustices that are compounded from one generation to the next.
On the opposite side of the coin, improving the nutritional status of adolescent girls has significant impacts for their own growth as girls and young women, for their future health and potential as adults, and for the wellbeing of any children they might choose to have in the future.
It is therefore absolutely essential that nutrition for adolescent girls be prioritized within the international development community and amongst donor and country governments.
The evidence is clear:
- Well-nourished women have safer pregnancies and deliver healthier babies
- Well-nourished infants and children have stronger immune systems, making them better able to fight infection and disease
- Well-nourished adolescent girls are more likely to stay in school, succeed in their studies, and delay their first pregnancy
- Greater education and earning reduces inequalities, which increases female empowerment and social inclusion.
- More education also increases lifetime earnings, broadening the tax base of entire countries and contributing to overall economic growth
- A broader tax base, for many countries, is a critical element in dreaming more ambitiously about Universal Health Care (UHC).
Through these ripple effects of investing in nutrition we will truly be able to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, remove longstanding barriers to gender equality, and ensure that no one is left behind.
For these reasons, it is crucial that countries with high burdens of malnutrition and their international partners scale-up their investments in the things we know make a difference – including micronutrient supplementation and fortification, breastfeeding promotion, improved infant feeding practices, dietary diversity, and access to nutrition, education and resources. We know the high-impact and low-cost solutions that are necessary for creating a better world.
We also know that unexpected partnerships that build bridges across sectors and between global leaders, donor countries, local governments, and civil society organizations are critical in this effort.
One example of this is a recent partnership announced between Nutrition International and the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts (WAGGGS) that will help to tackle the gender-specific impacts of poor nutrition and better equip girls to assert their own power and voice. This collaboration is unique in its effort to build the next-generation of partnerships that reach outside of and across the usual suspects – putting the girl at the center, rather than the issue by itself. It will challenge practices and start important conversations about girls’ nutrition driven by girls themselves. Through engaging activities designed to help women and girls take charge of their own learning, Girl Guides and Girl Scouts in Bangladesh, Madagascar, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Tanzania will learn about the importance of eating the right quality, the right variety, and the right amount of food.
At the partnership launch, Marie-Claude Bibeau, Canada’s Minister for International Development and La Francophonie, met with young women leaders and shared her firsthand experiences meeting with women and girls around the world who have experienced the effects of poor nutrition. Helga, 27, a Girl Guide volunteer and medical doctor in Tanzania, shared how traditional beliefs have led to poor nutrition for girls in her country:
Some tribes in Tanzania have many harmful customs. Girls and women are often not allowed to eat certain food. Pregnant women are not allowed to eat eggs. Sometimes they are told not eat certain parts of the chicken. Many families grow vegetables for sale, but rarely leave a portion for the family. They are all sold or only eaten by the father and boys of the family.
It is through open and inclusive dialogues and initiatives like these that we will best be able to create change that is transformational, empowering and supportive of the basic principle of “nothing about us without us” – ensuring that the voices of women and girls are not only at the table but are leading the conversation.