The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimated that 239 million people (around 30 percent of the population) in sub-Saharan Africa were hungry in 2010. This is the highest percentage of any region in the world. In addition, the U.N. Millennium Project reported that over 40 percent of all Africans are unable to regularly obtain sufficient food. Women make up majority of the agricultural workforce however they have the least access to the food produced. Malnutrition in women often occurs due to their position in families and communities in Africa.
What is malnutrition?
“Malnutrition refers to deficiencies, excesses or imbalances in a person’s intake of energy and/or nutrients. The term malnutrition covers 2 broad groups of conditions. One is ‘undernutrition’—which includes stunting (low height for age), wasting (low weight for height), underweight (low weight for age) and micronutrient deficiencies or insufficiencies (a lack of important vitamins and minerals). The other is overweight, obesity and diet-related noncommunicable diseases (such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer)” – WHO
Malnutrition is not only about insufficient quantities and quality of food. It is also related to nutrition insecurity. The causes of nutrition insecurity are: limited access to quality healthcare services; deficits in environmental health; lack of safe water, sanitation and hygiene; and unsafe food preparation practices.
Why malnutrition in women matters
Malnutrition is directly linked Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 2 “Zero Hunger” – end hunger, achieve food security and improve nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture. Malnutrition is also indirectly linked to: SDG 1 (No poverty) and SDG 3 (Good health and wellbeing). People in poverty are more likely to be undernourished.
Malnutrition in women not only affects the individual but also the family and community. In Africa where women are primarily the caregivers as well as financial contributors to the household – family members heavily depend on her wellbeing. Her wellbeing is directly linked to the wellbeing of the family.
The health of babies is inextricably linked to the health of the mother. Undernourished mothers give birth to children who have low birth weight. Pregnant undernourished mothers are at higher risks of obstructed labour or death. Undernourished mothers produce low quality breast milk that affects the development and wellbeing of the baby.
Malnutrition in women can result in anemia, lethargy and/or depression. Iron deficiency exasperated by menstruation leads to iron deficiency and/or anemia. Women in Africa have higher prevalence of anemia compared to the global average. Tired or depressed women are significantly less productivity and have decreased potential to earn income. This affects the business’s productivity and ultimately profitability.
Why are African women more affected by undernutrition than men?
According to African traditions, men and boys are served meals first. Women eat what ever is left. This tradition perpetuates gender inequality by giving women whatever food is left. This is particularly harmful when there is a limited amount of food. Lack of access to resources and poverty compound this problem. In dire circumstances and natural disasters women are the first to forfeit their food to feed those around her.
Malnutrition affects people around the world. Family members heavily depend on the wellbeing of women. Women in Africa are further at risk of malnutrition due to traditions, poverty and gender inequalities. We call on the African Union and Regional Economic Communities to scale up their intervention and consider malnutrition in African women as a serious matter. Furthermore we call for better national, regional and continental coordination in ending malnutrition for women in Africa.
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