By: Anna Kotenko, Associate Director, Advocacy and Communications

8 is a powerful number. In many religions, the number 8 signals infinity. 8th March is an equally powerful day. Every year, International Women’s Day puts the spotlight on women’s social, political, and cultural achievements, reminding the world that women are in and of themselves worthy of celebration.

This year’s theme is #BreakTheBias. The campaign asks us all to:

Imagine a gender equal world.

A world free of bias, stereotypes, and discrimination.

A world that is diverse, equitable, and inclusive.

A world where difference is valued and celebrated.

Together we can forge women’s equality.

In 2022, we ask is this reality possible without good nutrition for women and girls? And which comes first?

Today, the biases a woman faces in her family, in her community, in work, and in society mean that her nutrition suffers most. Malnutrition is the single largest cause of death among women[1]. More than one billion women experience at least one form of malnutrition and women experience at least 60% of the world’s malnutrition[2].

450 million women and girls are stunted, or short for their age, which means that they have experienced chronic malnutrition. [3] Globally, anemia affects one in three women of reproductive age[4], causing fatigue, lower resistance to disease and increased maternal mortality.

Across the world, women eat last and least due to entrenched social norms. It is common practice for a woman to forgo meals to provide for her husband or children. In many cultures, this is an accepted norm, even when women are pregnant and have higher nutritional needs.

Gender inequity drives poor nutrition. At the same time, poor nutrition also significantly reduces women and girl’s resilience, health, and wellbeing, and can contribute to harmful social norms. Malnourished girls are more likely to drop out of school and go on to earn under their potential. Malnutrition is correlated with higher levels of domestic abuse, early child marriage, lower confidence, and lower earnings[5].

Malnutrition is also an intergenerational cycle – a low birth weight baby girl often becomes stunted in childhood, malnourished in adolescence and adulthood, and, more likely to have a low-birth-weight baby herself. Low birth weight is correlated with higher chances of disease and impaired cognition growth and development[6].

At FHI Solutions, we want to see women and girl’s access safe, affordable, and nutritious food to nourish herself and her dreams. One of our initiatives, Alive and Thrive (A&T), is working in 19 countries to positively change social behaviours and norms, improving maternal and infant and young child feeding practices.

By working with communities and health workers, A&T builds knowledge, skills, and behaviours. A woman’s confidence, ability to own her finances, and have control over her income stream is strongly correlated with positive nutrition outcomes for herself and for her children. Reaching community is vital, which is why we engage husbands and fathers. We cannot leave men out of the solution.

FHI Solutions incubates, tests, and scales solutions for nutrition in partnership with governments. National systems can be strengthened by improving the demand and supply of quality services. Today, with the unacceptable state of women’s and girl’s nutrition, food, health, social protection, and gender sectors all have an opportunity to share lessons and work together towards a common agenda.

To support national systems, we also need to break data biases. Diet quality  – the amount and type of nutritious foods that women and girls have access to and consume must be measured. Our initiative, Intake, is a Center for Dietary Assessment that increases the availability, quality, reliability, comparability, and use of dietary data and metrics.

Our 1,000 Days initiative advocates for increased nutrition investments in the United States and around the world. Together with global partners, 1,000 Days and FHI Solutions are advocating for increased financing for women’s nutrition with a focus on achieving World Health Assembly targets on anemia, breastfeeding, and low-birth weight.

This March 8th, we call for innovation and investment in policies, plans, solutions, and data for all women, everywhere. Multilaterals, donors, and country governments have an opportunity to invest in gender sensitive policies, articulated in costed nutrition plans. There are many proven ways to safe-guard women’s nutrition and doing so would generate significant social and economic returns.

Women are nurturing our families, fuelling our global food system, running our social enterprises, and excelling in business. Like the number 8, girls and women are born with infinite potential. It is unthinkable that millions are stopped from reaching it.

[1] GBD Diet Collaborators, Health effects of dietary risks in 195 countries, 2019, The Lancet.

[2] Results UK; Malnutrition is Sexist: The determinants of nutrition for women and girls; 2021

[3] Global Nutrition Report 2021

[4] WHO, Fact Sheet, 2021

[5] Saaka, M; (2020); Women’s decision-making autonomy and its relationship with child feeding practices and post-natal growth; J of Nut SCI, 2020; 9: e38.

[6] Christian, P. et al (2013) Risk of childhood undernutrition related to small for gestational age ad pre-term birth in LMIC Int. J. Epidemiol, 2013, 42 (5), 1340-1355