As we celebrate International Women’s Day 2018, there is a sobering fact that we should all remember: progress on gender is meaningless in the presence of hunger, which unfortunately is on the rise again.
This is bad news for women, who suffer disproportionately from hunger. Around 60% of the world’s hungry and malnourished are women and girls, and this high incidence remains unabated despite the growing feminization of agricultural workforce in recent years.
How did we get to this point? In parts of developing Asia, a key factor is the provision of better nutrition and medical care for boys compared to girls, along with sex-selective abortions.
These discriminatory practices continue today for instance in India, which has 63 million fewer women than it should have due to such discriminatory practices, and more than 21 million girls unwanted by their families. Such figures are truly chilling, startling to many of us, yet throughout developing Asia millions of women go to bed every night unfed or half-fed simply because they are female.
Economic development and growth are not an automatic alleviator of gender discrimination in poverty and hunger. Even in the US, women are 35% more likely to live in poverty than men, and US female-headed households are over 2.5 times more likely to be food-insecure.
The 2017 Global Gender Gap report, which assesses progress made over time on the male-female divide, noted current trends indicating that the global economic gender gap will not be closed for another 217 years. This forecast, however, is not cast in stone. It can change if we start taking collective action to help women escape the hunger trap.
In a research paper I published almost 20 years ago in Bangladesh, I identified three determinants of distribution of income emanating from economic growth: institutions, sectors, and technology.
Sectoral interdependency effects are about to what extent one sector uses inputs from another (how much steel you need to make a car). It also takes into account consumption patterns of final goods (how much rice, instead of wheat, a household consumes).
Achieving change in sectoral interdependency effects in favor of women is difficult because it depends on changing the whole production and consumption structures too.
Institutional and technological effects, on the other hand, can change to favor women by enhancing women’s entitlement to factors of production. For instance, women hugely benefit from being able to own land and access to high-tech education.
Many international organizations, including ADB, have been working for decades to increase women’s access to education, health, finance, land, and job skills. The impact is clear at the micro level, but not so much at the macro level, where statistics pertaining to women’s hunger are still depressing.
This means that while some women manage to move out of the hunger trap, others fall into it around the same time. We thus need to not only free women from the hunger trap, but also prevent them from stumbling back into it.
One area in particular where we need to strengthen our efforts is women’s access to markets. Recent research concludes that an enabling environment promoting women’s physical mobility and market participation would drastically reduce the gender gap in hunger, even among female-headed households which are considered more vulnerable to food insecurity.
However, women’s access to markets is restricted by several factors, including social and cultural norms that discourage their mobility beyond a defined limit (and which excludes markets).
Across most of developing Asia, agricultural supply chains are dominated by male middlemen, who don’t want women to gain access to markets. This results in women earning less from their produce and losing control over sales.
ADB experts are currently providing technical assistance to support efforts to improve agricultural supply chains in Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan, and Viet Nam. The goal is to build modern wholesale markets and reduce the number of middlemen so farmers can sell their produce directly to end-users.
Women producers will be organized into groups to embolden them to defy the social and cultural norms that discourage them from market participation. Women will also be empowered to handle the ICT systems that dominate markets as well as finance and to which they need access as producers.
Countries in developing Asia need social infrastructure to connect women with wholesale markets. This can make a huge difference to the number of women caught in the hunger trap, which will make true progress in closing the gender gap.