Agriculture for Nutrition? Not Without Gender!

Agriculture for Nutrition? Not Without Gender!


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In South Asia, the majority of people are dependent on land and agriculture for their livelihood, yet producing your own food does not necessarily translate into better nutrition for your family.  


In fact, malnutrition is widespread in the region with 4 in 10 children chronically malnourished. Latest figures suggest, 45 percent of children under 5 years were stunted in Pakistan, 41 percent in Bangladesh, and 48 percent in India (Global Nutrition Report Country Profiles). While many interventions aimed at improving nutrition target women, given their central role in caring for children, the problem persists.

What seems lacking is a thorough analysis of gender relations, roles and expectations that may enable or limit the possibility for women, or indeed men, to make decisions and exercise their own choices.  A deeper understanding of both paid and subsistence work and caring roles could help to reduce hunger and malnutrition when designing programme interventions. Without unpacking local, context-specific differences in allocation of resources and relationships within households, progress in tackling nutrition may be difficult. This is a gap that Leveraging Agriculture for Nutrition in South Asia (LANSA) research seeks to fill, in order to better inform policies and programmes.

Trade-offs between work and care

We need to consider the gender divisions of labour, in relation to both agricultural and domestic work (including care) and the degrees of flexibility that may or may not be possible. This is especially important for farming communities across seasons, as intensity of work and time inputs are likely to vary. Women’s time is a crucial factor for improving child nutrition, and in particular the regularity of feeding and care has significant implications for the nutrition and health of children under 2 years. Emerging findings from LANSA research in Pakistan indicate that the period of cotton harvesting, for instance, involves intensive work for women in small and marginal farms as well as landless labour households. While this contributes to improved incomes for the women, it severely affects the time available to care for children.

Not giving due consideration to the different needs and interests of women and men across seasons can lead to conflicts within the household, and the failure of interventions. While there are several studies examining the links between the gender divisions of labour and wellbeing outcomes in the context of Africa, such understanding is missing in South Asia. Research from LANSA is beginning to fill this gap. By examining trade-offs between work and care, a new paper examines whether agricultural work helps or hinders nutrition outcomes in Pakistan.

This issue of changing work patterns across seasons raises larger issues of women’s position and decision-making power within households. Families are often not nuclear units, hence bargaining and negotiations across different domains of work and life involve both men and women of different generations. A mother-in-law, daughter, or daughter-in-law may take over care functions rather than the husband. Understanding gender then involves understanding relationships across generations too.

Women as agents of change or ‘victims’

Interestingly enough, women are often at the centre of policy discourses and seen to mediate food and nutrition security at the household level. However, they are either portrayed as ‘victims’, bearing the burden of household food security, or as agents, capable of improving both child and maternal nutritional outcomes. It is concerning that men are often absent in these discussions, though food production and providing for the family remains a central element of male identity in south Asia. This focus on women can lead to several unintended consequences: men are increasingly found to be relinquishing responsibility for household food security, or exercising physical/psychological pressure, even using violence, to appropriate women’s wealth. In many parts of Asia, not just South Asia, one now finds negotiations within the household not just around work, but equally mutual responsibilities, reciprocity and peace. 

Gender needs to be at the core

Of course, all of this needs to be located within an analysis of changes in agriculture and development – processes of commodification, migration, price fluctuations, market competition, educational expansion, health provision – all of which contribute to shaping gender hierarchies and nutritional outcomes. Ongoing LANSA research is focusing on some of these issues – for example, identifying elements of the functioning of markets in delivering nutritious food to the most vulnerable communities. However, without examining such topics through a gender lens, we would miss a big part of the story.

Those of us working to make agriculture deliver for nutrition need to take note of gender. When interventions and research are informed by a deep understanding of the implications of participation and resource access we can avoid aggravating inequalities.  Taking a sensitive and ‘gendered’ approach will hopefully set in motion more equitable ways to not only transform gender relations, but to also better serve our goal to reduce undernutrition.

Related Resources

LANSA Paper: Women's Agricultural Work and Nutrition in Pakistan
Interview with Nitya Rao on agriculture, nutrition, and gender

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Women in a field

At a Glance

Agriculture, Nutrition, Gender
South Asia