By Mariam Dib
Picture from fanack.com
Abstract: The following article explores both gender inequality and nutrition’s impact on women, and their societal implications in the MENA region. Gender inequality, discrimination and nutrition have an interlinked cycle that influences many aspects of global society including education, economic growth, healthcare and poverty. Gender equality and access to healthy nutritious food are key to reducing chronic and preventable diseases, and to ending inter and intragenerational cycles in society.
Gender Equality (SDG 5/17), according to UN Women Concepts and Definitions, is “the provision of equal inclusive rights to women, men, girls and boys in terms of responsibilities and opportunities.” Gender equality is the belief in equity between women and men while taking into consideration their unique interests, needs and priorities. Gender inequality, on the other hand, is when people (in this case, women) are treated differently and disadvantageously under similar circumstances on the basis of their gender.
Gender equality is of interest to both males and females since it is at the core of family dynamics which, in return, shape local, national and global societal interactions and outlooks. A family with a healthy dynamic will positively affect parents and children alike, allowing them to have a safer and healthier relationship with each other and their outer social circle and community.
Gender inequality’s presence in all aspects of society (healthcare, education, economics, security etc.) makes its elimination among the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (goals also tied to the access to quality nutrition and whole foods). Malnutrition is often present within regions facing great conflict alongside famine and physical or psychological disorders and diseases (whether chronic, communicable or non-communicable). Such persistent issues only greaten the gender inequality as women face still-births and mortality as mothers; child marriage, violence and abuse as wives; and illiteracy and a deepened gender gap as women and girls as a whole.
Despite the Millennium Development Goals aiding the development of the MENA region, the heavy amount of conflicts has impaired or regressed any achieved development. Inequalities widened, and the direct and indirect consequences of malnutrition became prominent and deeply-interwind in all aspects of society. According to the UNICEF-Nutrition Report on the MENA region “The MENA region consists of low- and middle-income countries that are facing a double burden of malnutrition (i.e., stunting, wasting and micronutrient deficiencies) and over-nutrition (i.e., overweight and obesity) and the associated chronic, non-communicable diseases (NCDs)” .
The area suffers from great economic, social and educational disparities. The following article will explore the link between gender equality, women and nutrition in enhancing the nutritional status and health of women, as well as that of generations to come.
GENDER INEQUALITY, NUTRITION AND WOMEN:
A woman’s biology greatly differs from that of a man: she, from her own nutritional reserves, is responsible for the co-creation of a new life. During menstruation, a woman requires a greater intake of iron than a man. And during pregnancy and breastfeeding, a woman’s nutritional intake and needs will grow to cater for two bodies.
Not meeting such needs will result in vitamin and mineral deficiencies, impaired methylation, hormonal imbalances, non-optimal detoxification process and pathways, weakened immune system, cognitive and physical weakness, lethargy, mood swings, mental illness, gut dysbiosis, intestinal permeability, skin diseases, chronic infections and inflammation, reproductive system and conception delays, still-birth, birth complications, child-death. In time, the woman may develop chronic diseases.
Gender inequality can be at play in this dilemma, mainly on the level of education, poverty, economic empowerment, and discrimination. A woman suffering from gender inequality might not have access to formal or informal education. This might lead to illiteracy and make her vulnerable to abuse, exploitation, and bad decision-making. Educated and cultured people can seek answers for their questions and are better equipped to make well-thought and planned decisions. For instance, a woman that knows languages and has digital literacy can research and become more knowledgeable on topics related to healthcare, nutrition and healthy lifestyles. A lack of an education can also lead to poverty, since it obstructs a woman’s job and business opportunities. Poverty and discrimination, on the other hand, will prevent a woman from having a healthy and balanced diet and may eventually push her into early marriage as a way to escape her current reality.
GENDER INEQUALITY AND FUTURE GENERATIONS’ HEALTH:
The role of women in society is trans-generational; starting before conception and continuing post-partum. Before and during conception, the intra-uterine environment health status, nutritional reserve, and toxic load of a mother will impact the fetus’ development, genetic disposition and risk of obesity and other non-communicable diseases. NCDs account for 74% of all deaths in the MENA region .
Food insecurity, malnutrition and child marriage are interlinked and go both ways; they are both causes and consequences of each other. Faced with poverty and limited food resources, families may force their daughters into arranged marriages at very young ages in an attempt to lessen the burden on their limited food supply and income. In the MENA region, statistics published by CARE show that 1 in 5 girls, mostly in low-and middle-income countries affected by war and conflicts, are married before they are 18 . These girls are likely to become pregnant in their adolescent years.
Gender inequality begins in the womb. The body of a teenage mother still growing and developing at the expense of fetal growth heightens the possibility to give birth to a stunted child. Hence, the child will be susceptible to diseases, birth defects, micronutrient deficiencies, and its implications such as cleft palate, Spina Bifida (due to Vitamin B12 deficiency), childhood blindness (due to Vitamin A deficiency), anencephaly, developmental delays, and behavioral problems (challenging to reverse). These lead to poor cognitive functions, adversely affecting their ability to benefit from education and preventing them from reaching their full potential.
Moreover, a woman deficient in micronutrients and vitamins such as folic acid, vitamin B6, and B12 will be prone to depression, anxiety, poor attention, and fatigue. Consequently, she will not be able to provide enough care to her children who will, therefore, be more likely to develop anxiety, conduct and hyperactivity disorders, anger issues, and learning difficulties that might lead them to drop outs of school.
These children will then go on to earn little, increasing their likelihood of living in poverty and malnourishment, being at great risk of developing chronic diseases such as diabetes and hypertension later in life. Given the societal and economic biases against women in most countries, these early life circumstances place girls at an even more severe disadvantage. These disempowered and malnourished women give birth to stunted babies, perpetuating the cycle of inequality.
In conclusion, we can no longer treat gender discrimination and malnutrition as separate issues. The two are inextricably linked; they reinforce each other in a cycle that affects women at every stage of their lives. Gender equality and nutrition dynamically and intricately impact education, sustainable economic development , equity, healthcare and peace, creating, in turn, an inter and intragenerational cycle.