The continuing battle for bread and peace - Hindustan Times
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The continuing battle for bread and peace

Mar 09, 2024 10:04 PM IST

We should remember that the fight for a woman’s right to nutritious food is a fight for a future where the promise of bread and peace is fulfilled for all.

Another International Women’s Day (IWD) has come and gone but it might be instructive to remember that the day owes its origin to the Great October Revolution when a group of female workers gathered in the Russian capital of Petrograd and raised the banner for “Bread and Peace”. In other words, the fight for women’s equality began as a fight for food. The United Nations (UN) has been observing IWD annually since 1975. Yet, it’s a sad fact of life that a woman’s basic need for nutrition often gets forgotten amidst discussions on women’s empowerment.

A schoolgirl eats her free mid-day meal, distributed by a government-run primary school in New Delhi. (Reuters Photo) PREMIUM
A schoolgirl eats her free mid-day meal, distributed by a government-run primary school in New Delhi. (Reuters Photo)

This year’s theme — “Invest in Women: Accelerate Progress” — has called for the global redressal of women’s economic disempowerment. It is important to remember that investing in women’s nutrition is a powerful tool as it has positive effects on their educational, economic and health outcomes. Millions of women are often the last to eat, sometimes getting no food at all after they have fed their families. Food insecurity among women has continued to rise globally. In 2021, there were 126 million more food-insecure women than men. This can lead to increased risks of malnutrition. In India, 18% of women of reproductive age (15-49 years) have lower than normal Body Mass Index (BMI): They are underweight. This is a significant indicator, as this can impede a woman’s ability to contribute as a productive member of society.

A good place to start would be investing in the nutritional health of adolescent girls. Healthy and well-nourished girls stay in school longer, achieve better academic results, and advance the development of their country. Adolescent girls are vulnerable to nutritional deficiencies, especially to iron deficiency anaemia (IDA). As per the latest NFHS-5 survey (2019-21), IDA impacts more than half of the adolescent girls in India. This is alarming since it means that a large number of girls could be affected by cognitive impairments. In terms of economic losses, IDA in women cost India 1.2% of its GDP. Apart from IDA, deficiencies of other critical micronutrients — Vitamin B12 and Vitamin D — can also lead to chronic fatigue, and depression and cause other long-term health complications.

Improved nutrition in women would obviously foster healthier communities. For instance, the nutritional well-being of mothers is directly linked to the health of their newborns. During pregnancy, both the mother and her foetus need micronutrients such as Vitamin A, iron, iodine, and folate, the lack of which could lead to complications like low birth weight and stillbirths. It is essential that women consume a diverse diet during and after pregnancy, to provide their child with optimal nourishment. Healthy women set the foundation for a healthy family and community.

India has implemented targeted interventions that address malnutrition in women and adolescent girls through programmes like Anaemia Mukt Bharat and POSHAN 2.0. However, it is important to remember that malnutrition in women is also influenced by social environments. There is a need to integrate a robust gender lens in communities along with awareness-building exercises. In addition to promoting good nutritional practices, addressing social customs and practices that discriminate against women within households is important. A more encompassing perspective at the policy level is vital. It can be effectively facilitated if there are more women representatives from the grassroots to the highest levels of decision-making.

Targeted missions such as the Sustainable Development Goals: Zero Hunger and Good Health and Well-being are intricately connected with Gender Equality. Achieving one is impossible without addressing the other. We owe it to our women to create a comprehensive approach to tackle malnutrition and put them in positions of transformative change. After all, apart from yielding economic dividends for society, it is important to remember that the fight for a woman’s right to nutritious food is a fight for a future where the promise of bread and peace is finally fulfilled for all.

The views expressed are personal

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