Women hold the key to dietary diversity

Empowering women to improve nutritional outcomes (Image Source: India Water Portal)
Empowering women to improve nutritional outcomes (Image Source: India Water Portal)

Evidence world over shows that small scale agricultural production does very little to deal with malnutrition and food insecurity among rural poor. Women are more likely than men to be involved in agricultural activities that not only involve crop production, but also care of livestock, preparation of food as well as activities related to marketing of produce, and are the ones who suffer the most due to malnutrition.

Farm women in India

Women form a significant section of the agricultural labour force in India and contribute about 32 percent of the time required for agricultural activities. There is no limit to women’s contribution in rural farms. Barring ploughing, a major share of agricultural work such as paddy transplanting, weeding, harvesting, sowing, and threshing is carried out by women. Chores like rearing of livestock and poultry, milking, milk processing, preparation of ghee, selling chicken and eggs are also done by women. 

Women work for as long as 14-18 hours on an average daily and expend more total energy a day as compared to men. Agricultural activities almost take equal time and energy as household activities. However, in spite of the amount of work they do, women are often paid less than men and women’s participation in household and agricultural decision-making continues to be poor.

Overwork, poor diet and women’s health

Rural women continue to suffer from a range of health problems in India. Malnutrition, especially anaemia continues to be rampant among them due to dietary deficiencies. Evidence shows that India has the largest number of anaemic women followed by China, Pakistan, Nigeria and Indonesia.

Why is this so

Lack of voice, discrimination and poor decision making capacity continue to take a toll on the health of women. This paper 'Nutritional outcomes of empowerment and market integration for women in rural India' published in the journal Food Security informs that two strategies have been proposed to improve the nutritional outcomes for rural women and their households - market integration and women’s empowerment. However, there continues to a considerable lack of information on how these factors interact to influence nutritional outcomes among women.

The paper discusses the findings of a study that analyses the relationship between market purchases, women’s empowerment in agriculture and their dietary diversity. The study collected data from 3600 households across four districts namely Munger (Bihar), Maharajganj (Uttar Pradesh or UP), Kandhamal (Odisha) and Kalahandi (Odisha) in India on various aspects of agriculture, empowerment, WASH, seasonal food deficits, demand for nutritious foods and the nutritional status of women.

Empowerment can lead to better decisionmaking

Women’s empowerment implies that women can influence household food consumption as both food producers and consumers. For example, women’s input in which crops to grow and sell can influence the choices made for food production while their control over income and participation in decisions related to purchase of food can greatly influence the diversity of food purchased from local market and included in the households meals.

Women’s control over time they spend in farm work and other chores and availability of leisure time can greatly help in influencing the decisions and time they take in food preparation influencing the choice of foods that are prepared.

The study found that women who had control over decisonmaking and money often purchased non-cereals such as pulses, dairy, eggs and meat, fish, poultry (MFP) from the markets thus leading to improved dietary diversity among households where cereals were the dominant crops grown. Women who had a say in decisionmaking related to crop production in their farms, who were a part of self help groups and who had more leisure time were in a better situation to decide the foods that needed to be purchased for the household and included better dietary diversity in their meals.

Empowerment of women led to better decisionmaking and led to increase in the quantity of pulses, eggs, meats and dairy products purchased by women, and improved the diversity of their diets. Women’s ability to make decisions related to agricultural production was also a significant determinant of the diversity of their diets.

Role of markets

The purchase of non-cereal food groups by farm women highlights the importance of ensuring that households are able to access non-cereal foods at affordable prices through local markets.

For this, the markets also need to support women. For example, the ability of smallholder farm women to integrate in local markets depends on their ability to produce for the market, access and connect to a market and the stability of the market.

The paper argues that there is a need to reorient India’s agricultural price and procurement policies to encourage production of non-cereals for the markets which have historically favoured cereals such as rice and wheat. Ensuring market access is important and the ability of both buyers and sellers of non-cereals to access markets will require investments in rural infrastructure like roads, transport and storage facilities.

If women are empowered to participate in decisions related to agricultural production in their farms, they could influence nutritional outcomes for themselves and their households by making changes in cropping practices by moving away from cereals to pulses, fruits and vegetables and using them for home consumption; selling produce from farming/livestock/kitchen gardens to generate incomes and also contributing in decisonmaking on technologies to adopt to reduce their drudgery in field level activities and use that time for leisure and deciding about preparation of nutritious foods. 

While factors such as shorter distance to market, greater proportion of crop sold leading to a better financial status and capacity to spend higher higher might improve household access to diverse food types, these factors might not influence the decision to purchase more diverse foods. This study shows that in contrast, women's agricultural empowerment can greatly influence the choice of women to buy and grow more diverse foods and helps in understanding the gender dynamics in changing agri- food systems and promoting gender equality in nutrition- sensitive food systems.

The study highlights distinct agriculture-nutrition pathways- income and empowerment and argues that public policies need to address these pathways in order to improve nutritional outcomes for women in smallholder farming communities.

The paper can be accessed here