On World Day of Social Justice, we ask: why women eat last and least?

World Day Social Justice - Action Against Hunger

Women and children participating in a culinary demonstration held by local Action Against Hunger staff. Photo: Lys Arango for Action Against Hunger, Senegal.

According to the United Nations, 60% of the world’s undernourished population are women. The Food and Agriculture Organization, in its 2019 report on food insecurity and nutrition in the world, indicated that the chances of being food insecure are still approximately 10 percent higher for women than for men.

Considering these facts, the question to ask is not just “how do we eliminate hunger for women,” but rather “why are more women suffering from malnutrition than men in the first place?” While there are many factors at play, the reason is often quite simple: women eat last and least.

Why do women eat last and least?

Central among the reasons for this inequality when it comes to food are traditional gender roles. In many developing countries, men are the primary breadwinners, while women are responsible for completing most of the domestic unpaid work.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, women perform most of the domestic work and are often the caregivers for the family. This involves collecting and preparing food, and sometimes walking many kilometers to collect water.

Since women are often responsible for caring for and nourishing their families, they often ensure the rest of their family has eaten first and eat what is left. This translates into unequal access to highly nutritional food and greater susceptibility to malnutrition. Additionally, in these households, women often lack the rights to land ownership and financial services to secure their livelihoods. This again results in women consuming less, in order to ensure the health of their children.

How do we end food discrimination?

Overcoming issues of violence against women involves deepening the understanding of trends in gender inequality and monitoring undernutrition through a gender-specific lens. Understanding dietary patterns, such as who eats what and when, is vital to uncovering differences between members of the household.

It is crucial to educate women on the importance of nourishing themselves alongside their family members. This is something that we, at Action Against Hunger, achieve through mother-to-mother support programs.

Kolom buys food for her group of Porridge Moms, an initiative of Action Against Hunger

Established in 2016, the ‘Porridge Moms’ program in the war-torn region of Borno state, Nigeria, has been essential in providing mothers with nutritional advice and peer support. It helped a number of women, including Kolom Abbas, a mother of three, who was forced to flee the war with her children.

Every day, the women from her group – each group of Porridge Moms counts 15 women – gather together and make nutritious meals for themselves and their young children. As they cook, the mothers learn and share with each other and with our teams about nutrition, healthy childcare practices, and good hygiene. The group receives a monthly stipend to pay for food items and other costs.

In Kenya, we have constructed a series of wells in order to reduce the distance that women need to travel to collect water. This has encouraged the women to build their own ‘food gardens’ near the wells, which they use to grow and share food. The ownership of food gardens increases women’s sense of control over the production and consumption, ensuring women no longer face food discrimination.

These are only a few of the initiatives that we have implemented to reduce the gender equality gap in access to food. These are crucial in changing the way the role of women is perceived and ensuring that women are not left with the crumbs at meal time.