Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting nature.com. You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

The achievement of food and nutrition security in South Asia is deeply gendered

Abstract

Women form an integral part of the agricultural sector, and in much of South Asia women make up a majority of the agricultural workforce and are often compelled to work to meet their families’ basic needs. While their contributions are recognized as central to the food and nutrition security of households and communities, their work is not recognized or supported adequately by public policy and social institutions. Women continue to face inequality across key development indicators including health, education and nutrition; discriminatory laws; and high levels of precarity in terms of income, employment conditions, safety and well-being. Social structures that promote gender inequality and inhibit the agency of women contribute to the South Asian enigma — the persistence of undernutrition despite economic growth — and must be addressed to achieve food and nutrition security.

This is a preview of subscription content

Access options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.

from$8.99

All prices are NET prices.

References

  1. 1.

    Cornwall, A. & EdwardsJ. Introduction: Beijing+20—where now for gender equality?. IDS Bull. 46, 1–8 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. 2.

    2019 Global Hunger Index (GHI, 2019); https://www.globalhungerindex.org

  3. 3.

    Smith, L. C. & Haddad, L. Reducing child undernutrition: past drivers and priorities for the post-MDG era. World Dev. 68, 180–204 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. 4.

    Comprehensive National Nutrition Survey (CNNS) National Report (Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Government of India, UNICEF & Population Council, 2019).

  5. 5.

    Delivered by Women, Led by Men: A Gender and Equity Analysis of the Global Health and Social Workforce Human Resources for Health Observer Series No. 24 (WHO, 2019).

  6. 6.

    Rao, N. Assets, agency and legitimacy: towards a relational understanding of gender equality policy and practice. World Dev. 95, 43–54 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. 7.

    Rao, N. Rights, recognition and rape. Econ. Polit. Weekly 48, 18–20 (2013).

    Google Scholar 

  8. 8.

    Rao, N., Gazdar, H., Chanchani, D. & Ibrahim, M. Women’s agricultural work and nutrition in South Asia: from pathways to a cross-disciplinary, grounded analytical framework. Food Policy 82, 50–62 (2019).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. 9.

    Usta, J., Makarem, N. & Habib, R. Economic abuse in Lebanon: experiences and perceptions. Violence Against Wom. 19, 356–375 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. 10.

    Lentz, E. C. Complicating narratives of women’s food and nutrition insecurity: domestic violence in rural Bangladesh. World Dev. 104, 271–280 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. 11.

    Rao, N. From abandonment to autonomy: gendered strategies for coping with climate change, Isiolo country, Kenya. Geoforum 102, 27–37 (2019).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. 12.

    Bellows, A. C., Lemke, S., Jenderedjian, A. & Scherbaum, V. Violence as an unrecognized barrier to women’s realization of their right to adequate food and nutrition: case studies from Georgia and South Africa. Violence Against Wom. 21, 1194–1217 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. 13.

    Chilton, M. M., Rabinowich, J. R. & Woolf, N. H. Very low food security in the USA is linked with exposure to violence. Public Health Nutr. 17, 73–82 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. 14.

    García-Moreno, C., Jansen, H., Ellsberg, M., Heise, L. & Watts, C. WHO Multi-Country Study on Women’s Health and Domestic Violence Against Women (WHO, 2005).

  15. 15.

    Rao, N. & Pervez, A. in India Social Development Report 2018: Rising Inequalities in India (eds Haque, T. & Reddy, D. N.) 165–173 (Oxford Univ. Press, 2019).

  16. 16.

    National Family Health Survey (NFHS-4), 2015–16: India (IIPS & ICF, 2017).

  17. 17.

    Bellows, A. C. Exposing violences: using women’s human rights theory to reconceptualize food rights. J. Agric. Environ. Ethics 16, 249–279 (2003).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. 18.

    Ackerson, L. K. & Subramanian, S. V. Domestic violence and chronic malnutrition among women and children in India. Am. J. Epidemiol. 167, 1188–1196 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. 19.

    Chilton, M. M., Knowles, M. & Bloom, S. L. The intergenerational circumstances of household food insecurity and adversity. J. Hunger Environ. Nutr. 12, 269–297 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. 20.

    National Nutrition Monitoring Bureau Diet and Nutritional Status of Tribal Population and Prevalence of Hypertension Amongst Adults: Report on Second Repeat Survey NNMB Technical Report No. 25 (ICMR, 2009).

  21. 21.

    Menon, P., Mani, S. & Nguyen, P. H. How are India’s Districts Doing on Maternal, Infant and Young Child Nutrition? Insights from the National Family Health Survey – 4 POSHAN Date Note No. 1 (International Food Policy Research Institute, 2017).

  22. 22.

    Rao, N. & Raju, S. Gendered time, seasonality and nutrition: insights from two Indian districts. Fem. Econ. https://doi.org/10.1080/13545701.2019.1632470 (2019).

  23. 23.

    Johnston, D., Stevano, S., Malapit, H. J., Hull, E. & Kadiyala, S. Time use as an explanation for the agri-nutrition disconnect: evidence from rural areas in low and middle-income countries. Food Policy 76, 8–18 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. 24.

    Harris, L. M. Gender and emergent water governance: comparative overview of neoliberalized natures and gender dimensions of privatization, devolution and marketization. Gender Place Cult. 16, 387–408 (2009).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  25. 25.

    Mitra, A. & Rao, N. Contract farming, ecological change and the transformations of reciprocal gendered social relations in Eastern India. J. Peasant Stud. https://doi.org/10.1080/03066150.2019.1683000 (2019).

  26. 26.

    NSSO Household Ownership and Operational Holdings in India: NSS 70th Round (Ministry of Statistics and Program Implementation, Government of India, 2013)

  27. 27.

    Watts, M. J. Silent Violence: Food, Famine, and Peasantry in Northern Nigeria (Univ. California Press, 1983).

  28. 28.

    Harriss-White, B. Commercialisation, commodification and gender relations in post-harvest systems for rice in South Asia. Econ. Polit. Weekly 40, 2530–2542 (2005).

    Google Scholar 

  29. 29.

    Agarwal, B. in Technology and Rural Women (ed. Ahmed, I.) 67–150 (George Allen and Unwin, 1985).

  30. 30.

    Swaminathan, M. S. National policy for farmers: ten years later. Rev. Agrar. Stud. 6, 133–144 (2016).

    Google Scholar 

  31. 31.

    Djurfeldt, G. et al. Agrarian change and social mobility in Tamil Nadu. Econ. Polit. Weekly 43, 50–61 (2008).

    Google Scholar 

  32. 32.

    Swaminathan, M. & Prasad, V. in Towards Universalisation of Maternity Entitlements: An Exploratory Case of Study of the Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy Maternity Assistance Scheme, Tamil Nadu Ch. 2 (Public Health Research Network, M. S. Swaminathan Research Foundation & Tamil Nadu Forum for Creche and Child Care Services, 2010).

  33. 33.

    Rao, N. & Mitra, A. Migration, representations and social relations: experiences of Jharkhand labour to western Uttar Pradesh. J. Dev. Stud. 49, 846–860 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  34. 34.

    Rao, N. Male ‘providers’ and female ‘housewives: a gendered co-performance in rural North India. Dev. Change 43, 1025–1048 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  35. 35.

    Springer, K. W., Hankivsky, O. & Bates, L. M. Gender and health: relational, intersectional, and biosocial approaches. Soc. Sci. Med. 74, 1661–1666 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  36. 36.

    Shekhar, H. S. The Adivasi Will Not Dance (Speaking Tiger Books, 2015).

  37. 37.

    Kadiyala, S., Harris, J., Headey, D., Yosef, S. & Gillespie, S. Agriculture and nutrition in India: mapping evidence to pathways. Ann. N. Y. Acad. Sci. 1331, 43–56 (2014).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  38. 38.

    Petesch, P., Smulovitz, C. & Walton, M. in Measuring Empowerment: Cross-disciplinary Perspectives (ed. Narayan, D.) 39–68 (World Bank, 2005).

  39. 39.

    Chattopadhyay, R. & Duflo, E. Women as policymakers: evidence from a randomized policy experiment in India. Econometrica 72, 1409–1443 (2004).

    MathSciNet  Article  Google Scholar 

  40. 40.

    The State of Food and Agriculture 2010–2011: Women in Agriculture—Closing the Gender Gap for Development (FAO, 2011).

  41. 41.

    Chowdhry, P. in Caste in Question: Identity of Hierarchy? (ed. Gupta, D.) 1–42 (Sage, 2004).

  42. 42.

    Gender and Land Tenure Security: Challenges and Barriers to Women’s Entitlement to Land in India (UN Women & RDI, 2011).

  43. 43.

    Agarwal, B. Widows vs daughters or widows as daughters: property, land and economic security in rural India. Mod. Asian Stud. 32, 1–48 (1998).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  44. 44.

    Kelkar, G. Between Protest and Policy: Women Claim their Right to Agricultural Land in Rural China and India Working Paper 10 (United Nations Research Institute for Social Development, 2016).

  45. 45.

    India State-level Disease Burden Initiative Collaborators. The burden of child and maternal malnutrition and trends in its indicators in the states of India: the Global Burden of Disease Study 1990–2017. Lancet Child Adolesc. Health 3, 855–870 (2019).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  46. 46.

    Rome Declaration on World Food Security (FAO, 1996).

  47. 47.

    Jones, S. Singlehood for security: towards a review of the relative economic status of women and children in woman-led households. Soc. Transit. 30, 13–27 (1999).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  48. 48.

    Connell, R. W. Gender and Power: Society, the Person and Sexual Politics (Stanford Univ. Press, 1987).

  49. 49.

    Sen, A. K. Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation (Oxford Univ. Press, 1981).

  50. 50.

    Elson, D. Recognize, reduce, and redistribute unpaid care work: how to close the gender gap. New Labor Forum 26, 52–61 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  51. 51.

    Cavatorta, E., Shankar, B. & Flores-Martinez, A. Explaining cross-state disparities in child nutrition in rural India. World Dev. 76, 216–237 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  52. 52.

    Prasad, V., Sinha, D., Chatterjee, P. & Gope, R. K. Outcomes of children with severe acute malnutrition in a tribal day-care setting. Ind. Pediatr. 55, 134–136 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  53. 53.

    Gope, R. K. et al. Effects of participatory learning and action with women’s groups, counselling through home visits and crèches on undernutrition among children under three years in eastern India: a quasi-experimental study. BMC Public Health 19, 962 (2019).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  54. 54.

    Coffey, D., Khera, R. & Spears, D. Intergenerational Effects of Women’s Status: Evidence from Joint Indian Households (r.i.c.e., 2015).

  55. 55.

    Dreze, J. & Sen, A. Hunger and Public Action (Clarendon, 1989).

Download references

Acknowledgements

This Perspective draws on several years of work in South Asia, particularly India. I thank the many rural women and men who have shared their lives and thoughts with me over the years. Some of these ideas have been refined by my involvement with the DFID-funded Leveraging Agriculture for Nutrition in South Asia (LANSA) consortium (2013–2018) and the BBSRC-funded Transforming India’s Green Revolution towards Sustainable Food Supplies (Tigr2ess: 2018–2021), and I acknowledge their support.

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Nitya Rao.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The author declares no competing interests.

Additional information

Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Rao, N. The achievement of food and nutrition security in South Asia is deeply gendered. Nat Food 1, 206–209 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s43016-020-0059-0

Download citation

Further reading

Search

Quick links