I usually spend the Jewish holiday Yom Kippur obsessing over my hunger, steering clear of the kitchen and counting the hours until I can eat again. But last week, my grumbling stomach gave me something to really grumble about: the 925 million people around the world who can’t grab a snack at their fridge a few feet away, and who don’t get to break their fast with deli trays and dessert spreads. And of the few that do get to eat, most tend to be men. In fact, women make up more than 60% of those starving, even though they are less than half of the world’s population. Gender inequality is causing a food gap.
Mahabouba, from Ethiopia, was just a teenage girl when she got pregnant with her first child. As she was so malnourished, she developed a fistula, and could not give birth to her baby. When experts took a closer look at Mahabouba’s family life, they found that the men were well fed and in perfect health, while the women suffered from starvation.
In their recent book, Half the Sky, co-authors Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn tell the story of Mahabouba and other girls like her, affected by the same disparity, from countries all over the globe.
The 2011 Nepal Demographic and Health Survey highlights Nepal as one of these countries. The survey discovered that in the remote northwest, more than half of all girls are “chronically malnourished.” Many of rural Nepal’s patriarchal societies deprive women of the abundant fruit and grain found in the area.
This is ironic, considering that Nepal’s culture requires females to work so hard. Women carry baskets of food and rocks on their heads. They walk miles to bring buckets of water to their villages. They cook and clean and raise their children. Despite all this, they are offered the dinner’s leftovers, while husbands and sons get the most nutritious food first.
It’s a vicious cycle. Women who are malnourished give birth to weak children, and cannot feed them as a result of a reduced breast milk supply. This can lead to a generation of stunted, underweight children, at risk of getting infections.
So how do we stop the cycle? Tara devi Sejuwal, a health worker in Urthu, Nepal, says supporting maternal healthcare is the answer. As of now, communities expect pregnant women to fulfill all of their usual tasks. It has even become a tradition that women be deprived of doctors’ check-ups. She says that if improvements were made, and births were spread out between children, kids could be born with a healthy foundation.
But even with better maternal health, the food gap would still be an issue. That’s why several NGOs, like the World Food Program, are working in Nepal and in countries around the world to change the way men think. Educating men about women may be the first step to improving women’s lives.
Photo from J McDowell via flickr creative commons