Cesar Chelala
A physician and writer

Empowering Women Can End World Hunger

At a global level, more than 800 million people, many women among them, are estimated to be chronically undernourished. This is, in part, a consequence of systematic gender discrimination, that doesn’t provide women with the same socio-economic opportunities as men. It is estimated that 60 percent of the world’s hungry are women.

In developing countries, most women work in subsistence farming with much fewer resources than men. Although it has been argued that the yields for women farmers are 20-30 percent lower than for men the reason is seldom explained: Women have less access to improved seeds, fertilizers, equipment, and loans. In Kenya, it was shown that women with the same level of information and experience who were given equal farm resources as men were able to increase their farming yield by 22 percent.

Estimates by food agencies indicate that 79 percent of economically active women in developing countries spend their working hours producing food in the fields, and constitute 43 percent of the farming work force. According to World Bank statistics, if female farmers had the same access to productive resources as male farmers, agricultural output could increase by 2.5 to 4 percent.

In industrialized countries women are also at a disadvantage compared to men. In the U.S., it is estimated that women earn 80.4 percent of men’s earnings for the same work, according to statistics of the U.S. Department of Labor. This gender gap is considered the single greatest contributor to poverty among women and their families in the U.S.

A study by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), a Washington organization that conducts and disseminates research on women’s issues, found that achieving equal pay would cut the poverty rate in half among all families with a working woman. However, at current rates, the gender pay gap in the U.S. is not projected to close until 2055.

Policies and programs that empower women increase not only their earning potential; they also directly contribute to ending hunger. Providing more resources to women could bring the number of hungry people in the world down by 100-150 million people, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO.)

Although women feed and nourish their children, they often receive little support in caring for them and for their families, a situation more prevalent in developing countries. Although most national constitutions prohibit discrimination against women, there is still a wide gap between what governments say they do to eliminate gender inequities, and what is done in practice.

These inequities are perpetuated by powerful factors that include patriarchal norms, values, habits, religious beliefs and national laws. That is why it is so important that all levels of civil society and government work together to end discrimination practices against women.

A devastating impact of these discriminatory practices against women is the negative effect on children. In many developing countries tradition dictates that women eat last, after all the male members and the children in the family are fed. In spite of that, however, 66 million primary school-age children attend classes hungry, 23 million among them in Africa alone. According to the Hunger Project, every 10 seconds a child dies from hunger-related diseases at a global level, and a third of all childhood deaths in sub-Saharan Africa are caused by hunger.

In addition, economic crises are far more deadly for infant girls than for boys: during these trying times, one to two baby boys per 1,000 births died who would have lived in a non crisis economy, while the figure for baby girls was 7 to 8 extra deaths per 1,000 births, according to the FAO.

The changing political times in Washington signal the need to address gender and economic inequities in the world to end hunger at the global level and in the U.S. as well.

As Bread for the World Institute states, “Now is a unique moment in history to stand up for women and girls. It is not only the right thing to do –it is essential to ending hunger and malnutrition.”

About the Author
César Chelala is a physician and writer born in Argentina and living in the U.S. He wrote for leading newspapers all over the world and for the main medical journals, among them The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Japan Times, The China Daily, The Moscow Times, The International Herald Tribune, Le Monde Diplomatique, Harvard International Review, The Journal of the American Medical Association, The Lancet, Annals of Internal Medicine, and The British Medical Journal. He is a co-winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award and two national journalism awards from Argentina.