By Noortje Verhart; Annoek van den Wijngaart


In developing countries, women comprise around 43 per cent of the agricultural labour force. Women are hence among the main food
producers, yet they are disproportionally affected by hunger and malnourishment. Maternal and child undernutrition is the cause of 3.5 million deaths annually (Black et al., 2008). It is estimated that over a lifetime, malnourished individuals can earn 10 per cent less than wellnourished people. Good nutrition is thus not just an outcome of economic growth and social development, but an essential input as well. Investing in nutrition through agriculture is more than a social good - it is sound policy and economics. 

FAO (2011) estimates that if women worldwide had the same access to productive resources as men, they could increase yields on their farms by 20-30 per cent and total agricultural output by 2.5-4 per cent, lifting between 100 and 150 million people out of the state of hunger. Evidence tells us that when women make more decisions on how to feed their children and on how much time to use for feeding their children, and when women have better access to health care, undernutrition rates go down. Women's status is thus linked to the undernutrition rate i.e. undernutrition of themselves and their children.

The objective of this article is to contribute to the debate on nutrition-sensitive interventions in agriculture, from a gender lens. This paper aims to show the importance of understanding how gender relations affect nutrition security and how addressing unequal gender relations holds part of the solution to better link agriculture and nutrition interventions.

Linking agriculture to nutrition - an emerging approach
Agricultural development is seen as the main pathway to contribute to food and nutrition security. For the purpose of this paper, food security is used as an entry point to look at agriculture and nutrition linkages.

Food security
There are many different definitions of food security. In this paper, the definition provided by the 2009 World Summit on Food Security (WSFS) is used. Four pillars of food security are identified: availability, access, utilization and stability of food (FAO, 2009). If any one of them is not in place, food security of a nation, its communities, households, or individuals is jeopardized.

Interventions that aim to contribute to improved food security have generally focused on food availability and access. For example, many international programmes focus on increased agricultural production and productivity of commercial cash crops. The aim here is to increase production for consumption and to produce a surplus, which can be sold to purchase food other than what is produced. This means that on top of training to enhance productivity, such programmes also often have a focus on improving market access for farmers to enable them to sell their produce.

Nutritional status is determined by three broad factors (SPRING, 2014): food, health and care. The first factor refers to food availability and access. For enabling nutrition security, available and accessible food also needs to be sufficient, safe, nutritious and diverse so that it can support healthy and active lives. However, only having plenty of healthy food available, accessible and utilized is not enough. The capacity to efficiently metabolize nutrient-rich foods is also important and this depends on the health environment (in terms of pathogens and environmental contaminants), water quality, and accessible sanitation and health facilities. The third factor refers to care practices and child feeding practices at home such as child feeding, support and cognitive stimulation for children, and care and support for mothers during pregnancy and lactation.

Women and children are especially affected by malnutrition. Children under 2 years old are at high risk as damage done to the health and growth of children under this age is irreversible. Pregnant women and mothers are therefore key to addressing the problem of malnutrition.

Food security and nutrition
During the WSFS in 2009, it was stated that food security cannot be achieved without adequate nutritional value in terms of protein, energy, vitamins and minerals for all household members at all times (FAO, 2009b). Recognizing that more food produced and/or higher incomes from agricultural production does not automatically lead to better nutritional status has led to multiple initiatives and attempts to look for those pathways in agriculture that also contribute to nutrition security. Women's empowerment is an important emerging pathway. However, there are still many issues that have been overlooked in the development of this pathway. Given below are some examples of where, according to the authors, research should be targeted to further develop the women's empowerment pathway. 

Women’s empowerment
Women play multiple roles as producers in agriculture, as consumers and as caregivers but these multiple roles are not always recognized. In interventions for improving nutrition, women are often viewed simply as mothers or potential mothers and it is thus considered important to improve their nutritional status. This is a reasonable argument as children need to be fed well during their first 1,000 days, but this approach only takes into account women's role as mothers. It needs to be recognized that their activities in the field, for example as producers of food, often conflict with their role in caring for their children. To illustrate, when women work in the fields, this may interfere with feeding of their infants and young children (UNICEF, 2011). These conflicts are at times not well understood and therefore overlooked in nutrition-sensitive interventions. For instance, if awareness raising sessions focus on the importance of breastfeeding without taking into account whether women have the opportunity (time and decision-making power) to put their knowledge into practice, such interventions can potentially cause more harm than good. When women do have knowledge about the importance of breastfeeding but feel powerless to actually act and start to care well for their children, this may worsen their situation instead of improving it. 

In terms of existing women's empowerment pathways, improving women's nutritional status can contribute to their caring ability and healthy pregnancies. Reducing women's work burden is often considered to be one of the ways to improve their nutrition status. However, it should be recognized that the work burden is connected to their roles as food producers and as income earners from agricultural production or other sources. Trying to reduce women's work burden needs insights into other tasks they do or are supposed to do, and assessing whether reducing work in one area actually leads to improvements in their status and ability to care for their children. To design more effective nutrition and gender sensitive agricultural programmes, women's roles in agricultural production and the link to their caregiving practices need to be examined carefully. This can be done by looking at what women do (in relation to men), what they have access to (in relation to agricultural and healthrelated resources), what decisions they can make as a result, and how these are embedded in local structures.

Food and nutrition security solutions should be targeted in areas where roles overlap and potentially conflict with each other. The below example in the box shows how breastfeeding can be in conflict with women's role in the field. Interventions that solely focus on informing women about exclusive breastfeeding are not enough. Nutrition programmes which focus only on pregnant women and mothers to reach young children during their first 1,000 days do not consider women's gendered relationships and therefore their ability and space to make decisions about issues such as exclusive breastfeeding.  

Concluding remarks and ways forward
This paper has reviewed current debates on food and nutrition and argued that using a gender lens can be helpful to more closely link food with nutrition. Based on this review it can be seen there is a need to better understand the causes of food and nutrition insecurity from a gender lens and gather more evidence on what type of interventions work well. This implies, for example, that we should look at women's roles in relation to men's roles, examine how this influences the decisions women can make and the access to resources they have, and then assess what they need to improve their position. It is recommended that such analysis be taken into account in redesigning nutrition-sensitive interventions. In the above context, the Royal Tropical Institute (KIT) and SNV have also developed a Nutrition and Gender Sensitive Agriculture Toolkit (available at The Toolkit includes tools which aim to help practitioners plan and design holistic agriculture programmes using a nutrition and gender lens.



(List of references can be made available upon request)


This paper is based on a literature review and test results of the Nutrition and Gender Sensitive Agriculture Toolkit in four
countries in the SNV Asia project in Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao PDR and Nepal.