Bridging the gender gap

Tabinda Ashraf Shahid
Wednesday, Oct 11, 2023

The social, economic and cultural rights to health equity, sustainable nutrition, and education are fundamental to all. However, the climatic crisis, economic challenges and various conflicts have compromised the fate of many.

Investing in health, nutrition and education to empower women is not only a crucial requirement for societal health and welfare but also a strategic investment in human capital while ensuring the sustainability and prosperity of generations to come. Women are undermined in low-middle-income countries (LMIC) when it comes to receiving nourishing food and education for healthier growth and survival with dignity.

However, in initiating socio-economic progress women serve as a driving force while constituting 49.6 per cent of the global population. They not only fulfil the role of the caregiver but also bear the responsibility of ensuring the family's sustenance by providing food. At the same time, basic education and knowledge about food, nutrition, sanitation, and hygiene can affect their health and the nutritional status of other family members.

As indicated by the Food and Agricultural Organization, women contribute to 60-80 per cent of the food production sector of developing countries but are unable to access sufficient nutritious food. According to Lancet Global Health, two in three women of reproductive age globally are affected by vitamin and mineral insufficiency referred to as ‘hidden hunger’. The impact is simultaneously seen in children as one in two preschoolers is affected by micronutrient deficiencies worldwide.

Meanwhile, the World Food Program has identified that 60 per cent of victims of extreme hunger are women and girls. According to a Unicef 2023 report, it is a dilemma that the current global hunger crisis has increased acute malnutrition in pregnant and breastfeeding mothers from 5.5 million to 6.9 million since 2020 in low-middle-income countries (LMIC). Besides that, Unesco emphasizes the need for girls’ education as it lays the foundation for a healthy mind and body. It also states that around 129 million girls are not attending school, including 32 million primary and 97 million secondary school age around the globe.

Empowering women to get their right to safe and nutritious food, basic education, a healthy environment, and livelihood is vital. However, due to biological differences, the dietary recommended allowances for women differ from men. While some sociocultural traditions and customs, inequality in education, and poverty impact the nutritional and socio-economic status of women.

Safeguarding quality education is both a human right and a responsibility of the state. According to the World Bank, 12 million girls in Pakistan are out of school. Article 25A of Pakistan’s constitution mandates free education for ages 5-16, yet girls face barriers like child labour, poverty, and cultural norms. They are kept at home to assist with daily household chores, while certain security and social customs force them to refrain from attending school. However, the multifaceted advantage of educating girls can pave the way for progress and prosperity yielding substantial benefits for both individuals and nations.

Moreover, educated women tend to participate better in economic and financial matters at both the home and the workplace, help generate more income, deter early marriages, and enjoy better health. Well-nourished mothers have rich stores of micronutrients which reduce the risk of deficiencies conversely. Poor nutrition leads to malnourished mothers and their children being susceptible to infections and diseases hence contributing to stunting and wasting.

Studies from various research sources have indicated that emphasis should be placed on education and nutrition interventions together, which ultimately aid girls in learning and performing better academically while raising their nutritional status.

Malnutrition has been a persistent concern in Pakistan with high rates of stunting, wasting, and anemia among children, as well as maternal malnutrition. The transmission of basic education and knowledge combined with skills early in life can play a positive role in women’s lives. Women with secondary school completion in LMIC countries have shown a reduction in the number of stunted children by 26 per cent. The significance of educating women lies in the well-established fact that promoting exclusive breastfeeding through counseling alone can avert 820,000 child deaths globally.

Amid challenging conditions, public schools can still serve as a crucial agent for nurturing healthy, educated future mothers. These schools could effectively monitor girls' nutrition by offering a daily cost-effective meal and collaborating with local food producers, a strategy embraced by other developing nations. However, research indicated that for every $1 invested in a school feeding programme, there is a return of $9 on investment in terms of better health. The availability of nutritional and health services in schools motivates parents and children, leading to a 9.0 per cent average rise in enrollment and an 8.0 per cent increase inattendance.

The 2023 Unesco report, in collaboration with the Interagency Group on School Health and Nutrition (SHN), has endorsed cost-effective school nutrition initiatives. Nearly 90 per cent of schools worldwide offer various school health and nutrition services concurrently including one meal a day encompassing both affluent and economically challenged nations. Additionally, this policy will deter families from sending their underage members, particularly girls, to engage in labour on low salaries in inhumane conditions.

Furthermore, it is central to ensure women’s perspective of equality before formulating social economic and cultural strategies to bridge the gender gap in health and education. Interventions that are multi and cross-sectoral, involving the public, private sector, and NGOs, are needed to address educational and nutritional challenges.

It is also imperative to deploy tactics aimed at diminishing poverty and disparities through advancing health welfare among marginalized sectors of society by expanding social welfare programmes. Many steadily adopted health and educational approaches across the globe can be implemented in Pakistan by tailoring existent strategies to cater to the nutritional and physical well-being of girls to perform better academically while raising a healthy future community.

The writer is a registered dietitian and nutritionist. She can be reached at: