How Does Gender Influence Maternal Undernutrition?

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By: Emily Puckart, Program Associate, MHTF

As Amy Webb Girard highlighted in her presentation at the latest Woodrow Wilson International Center policy dialogue, biology is not the only reason women and girls routinely face undernourishment. In fact, undernutrution is often linked to gender, and social and economic restraints that women face in their day to day lives.

Women seeking adequate nutrition face complications due to a variety of social determinants. This can lead to women’s unequal access to nutritious food, as well as high rates of illness, lack of access to healthcare, low education levels, and poverty. Doyin Oluwole pointed out that social determinants strongly impact women’s ability to access nutritious food as well as nutritional supplements such as iron and folic acid. Gender disparity in communities strongly influences maternal undernutrition.

Simply providing fortified food/supplements to local communities is not enough to improve maternal nutrition. If women can not use these nutritional supplements due to restrictive familial and social structures, maternal undernutrition will persist. Consequently, behavior change models which seek to address gender disparity as a root cause of maternal undernutrition, can be incorporated into maternal nutrition programs. The programs should reach out to various members of the community, not just women of child-bearing age. Men, youth, and elder women are critical components of a maternal nutrition program’s success.

While behavior change models should be an integral approach in addressing gender structures which support maternal undernutrition, behavior change models take time to actually work. Results can not be expected overnight, and it may take years before results can be measured. Despite this long timeline which may make program evaluation a challenge, behavior change with a focus on gender disparity can ultimately be a beneficial component of maternal nutrition programs.

Certainly it seems that addressing the role of gender and its influence on maternal undernutrition can only help maternal nutrition programs succeed over the long run.

This is Emily Puckart’s second post on “Maternal Undernutrition: Evidence, Links, and Solutions.” Read the first and third.