Empowering Women and Their Communities Through Nutrition Security

The theme for this year's International Women's Day: "Equal rights, equal opportunities: progress for all," recognizes the importance women play in their communities from being the essential caretaker in almost every society in the world to leading the growth of small businesses in areas such as Africa. At the same time, women are also the most likely to sacrifice their health and needs for those of their families.

Across the developing world, women are disproportionately affected by malnutrition and micronutrient deficiency or "hidden hunger". Hidden hunger leads to impaired cognitive and physical development, increase mortality rates, and leaves the individual more prone to chronic illnesses.

One of the most serious health problems facing women that suffer from hidden hunger is anemia. Anemia is a problem for more than 40% of all women of child-bearing age, causing at least 60,000 childbirth deaths a year. In total, up to 2 billion people suffer from anemia globally. According to the World Food Program, it is estimated that iron deficiency, anemia and maternal short stature increase the risk of death at delivery and account for at least 20% of maternal mortality.

This has a ripple effect on the entire community as the most critical period of child development is between the ages of zero and two. If mothers do not have access to vital nutrients and minerals, then the mental and physical development of their children will be impaired, affecting an entire generation.

According to the WFP, the cost of child malnutrition accounts for between two to three percent of GDP in some developing countries. Furthermore, in many countries around the world, women make up the bulk of agricultural labourers and inadequate nutrition will limit their physical capabilities and thus impact the family food basket.

There can be no doubt that the current economic crisis, combined with rising food prices, has made hunger problems worse. Indeed, the WFP now believes that "today, there are more chronically under-nourished people than at any time in history", and it seems that progress between 1990 and 2006 in reducing the numbers of under-nourished children from 33% to 26% might have already been reversed.

This is a personal tragedy for those involved, but also economically perverse. Just over two years ago, under the auspices of the Copenhagen Consensus, 50 economists reported that the single most valuable investment that the world could make would be a program to provide vitamins and minerals to children in developing economies and economies in transition, which would provide a return of $17 in increased output and reduced healthcare costs for every $1 invested.

DSM and the World Food Program have led many efforts around the world to help households achieve nutrition security. One solution developed by DSM is a single dose sachet of vitamins and minerals, called 'MixMe', that can be used at home sprinkled over the food just before serving or eating. It provides the household with the full 'Recommended Daily Allowance' of all essential micronutrients as recommended by the World Health Organization.

Women have played a key and vital role in the success of this WFP led program. The WFP educated women in various countries and communities about the importance of nutrition and how to properly use the sachets. Without proper understanding and usage of the product, the success achieved would never have been realized.

Statistics from the World Food Program demonstrate the vital role women perform in their households and communities and why they are the key to tackling hidden hunger and achieving nutrition security: eight out of 10 people engaged in farming in Africa are women and six out of 10 in Asia; in one out of three households around the world, women are the sole breadwinners; and when income is in the hands of the mother, the survival probability of a child increases by about 20 percent in Brazil.

So as the world celebrates the economic, political and social achievements of women in past, present and future, we must not forget the untapped potential of millions of women to improve their lives and those of their family and communities by giving them the simple, yet vital gift of nutrition security.