Why a gender transformative approach is essential to address Africa’s malnutrition challenge

A robust understanding of the ways gender relations shape agricultural and food practices is essential to solving Africa’s malnutrition challenge. It is well known that gender norms can either exacerbate existing inequalities or they can prove powerfully useful in the fight against malnutrition. I argue that a gender transformative approach can unlock the difference and is essential in the fight against malnutrition.  If implemented well, such an approach can help us understand how gender norms, institutions, and power relations are currently causing unequal access to food, agricultural resources, markets, and technologies. It will also enable us to develop solutions that address the full social complexity of the malnutrition challenge.

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To me, three examples demonstrate the need to appreciate the social complexities and gender dynamics involved in efforts to address malnutrition.

Household level

My first example relates to a key focus of the Malabo Montpellier Panel’s report Nourished: How Africa Can Build A Future Free From Hunger & Malnutrition: the importance of home gardens for nutrition security. The report found that, “Most of the value of the home garden to the rural household lies not in the net income, but in the range of production and its contribution to the overall livelihood and well-being of the household.” In Burkina Faso, for example, the Enhanced Homestead Food Production program established community gardens, provided seeds and tools, as well as information about good agricultural, hygiene and nutrition practices to mothers with young children, between 2013 and 2016. Within 2 years the program increased women’s intake of meat and poultry by 8% and fruits by 16%.

We often spend a lot of time, energy and money trying to scale interventions in the agricultural sector that are delivering food security at the household level by transforming home garden produce into commodities that feed into entire agricultural value chains. Admittedly, there is a lot to be said for encouraging smallholder farmers to view agriculture as a business and add value to their products in order to grow African economies. However, from a gender perspective, we need to be aware that a lot of the indigenous crops and vegetables that are being turned into valuable commodities for agricultural markets are grown by women in home gardens. When the production of such crops is scaled out to meet the demands of complex agricultural value chains and international markets, women often do not benefit from the increased income being generated. In such cases, not only do women miss out on the valuable economic and employment opportunities being created, food and nutrition at the household level are put at risk too.

My point is not that we should stop expanding agricultural value chains, but that work to expand agricultural commodities into viable value chains must pay attention to ensure women – who, due to current gender norms, deliver food security at the household level –reap equal benefits of this expansion to men. A more gender transformative approach to the expansion of agricultural value chains can help to ensure food and nutrition security at the household level is maintained, as well as employment opportunities for youth created.

Research level

The second example that I want to highlight is something that is near and dear to my heart: scientific research to increase the nutritional quality of our crops. Whether it is through better fortification or improved fertilizer, research is integral to finding solutions to tackle malnutrition. Researchers make incredibly important decisions in the lab, which have huge consequences in our households, in our communities, and in our agricultural markets.

A lot of the time scientists have to make decisions on research priorities, whether it’s boosting yields or fortifying crops. One priority area that many scientists have not been trained to consider, however, is gender. Considerations related to taste, cooking time, the fuel needs and the labor requirements to process foods, are all gendered decisions that agricultural researchers influence. To ensure that researchers take these issues into account we not only need to support more women to get into agricultural science, but also build up the skills and capacities of existing scientists to enable them to assess the gendered elements of nutrition security in their research – that is what will really make a difference.

Policy level

Finally, I want to zero-in on the role of gender in the deployment of nutrition solutions at the national or policy/government implementation level. Here we tend to think a lot about the role of women, and young mothers in particular, in achieving food and nutrition security. But, it is important to remember that it is not just women’s job to secure nutrition. A lot of the time it is left to young mothers to deliver improved nutrition outcomes to their newborn children, without realising that they are often the lowest ranked members of the household. As a result, young mothers often have the least amount of social power in family decision-making processes. Gender-responsive approaches to address malnutrition recognise that often men, in their role as husbands and fathers, have much more social power to help secure desired nutrition outcomes in the first 1000 days of a baby’s life.

Despite common misperception, gender is not just about women. Fathers can be powerful advocates within the family, ensuring that resources are directed towards better nutrition for mothers and babies. Further, older women – in their role as mothers and mothers-in-law – also wield tremendous power within households, and gender norms often position them as critical protectors of their grand-children within the home. They are able to use their powerful voices in a family to ensure that new mothers and their babies have uninterrupted access to the nutritious foods they need. Nutrition interventions should, therefore, seek to engage all of these players in efforts to improve the nutrition security of newborn babies.

The above examples prove that only a gender transformative approach – one with a keen understanding of complex social relations surrounding nutrition – is equipped to engage the diversity of players and interventions potentially available to win the battle against malnutrition in Africa.