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Stephan B. Tanda

Stephan B. Tanda

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Nutrition: The Hidden Women's Rights Issue?

Posted: 03/13/11 12:56 PM ET

On March 8, women celebrated 100 years of advances that have changed their lives irreversibly and in the process have made a monumental impact on our world -- from the first woman in space, to the growing list of female Nobel Prize recipients and the steadily increasing number of female business and political leaders.

But a closer look at these achievements spotlights a darker truth: by and large they are the successes of women in the developed world. What about the billions of women in the developing world?

The numbers that signpost the societal changes -- and the stark contrasts between women in the developed and developing world -- are staggering.

In the U.S., for every two men who get a degree, three women will do the same. In 2010, women became the majority of the workforce for the first time in U.S. history and today the female spouse brings home over 40 percent of her family's income -- while this is not high enough it is still progress.

Yet in rural Africa 70 percent of girls will not finish primary school. In developing countries women produce between 60 percent and 80 percent of all food, yet over 60 percent of the world's chronically hungry are women and girls.

While millions of women and girls in the developed world are adapting to a new reality that gives them unprecedented opportunities to explore, develop and make a difference, for many others in the developing world, the story is still far from rosy.

It is widely recognized that education is the first step to women's empowerment. However, even before a girl enters the classroom, assuming this option is even available to her, the level of nutrition she gets in the first 1,000 days of her life will highly likely predetermine her life's potential ("Under-Five Deaths by Cause," UNICEF, 2006).

There is a fundamental lack of awareness and understanding of the impact of nutrition on one's development. The most critical period of a child's physical and mental development is between the moment of conception and the age of two -- called the critical "first 1000 days". If mothers are not aware of the importance of sufficient nutritional value in their daily diets and if they don't have access to these vital nutrients and minerals, then the mental and physical development of their children could seriously be impaired, affecting an entire generation.

Girls who start out life with this fundamental setback will most likely never reach their full potential as women. The lack of adequate nutrition can mean a reduction of at least 10 percent of her lifetime earnings. A study in Guatemala that provided adequate nutrition to boys up to the age of three resulted in adulthood wages that were an astounding 46 percent higher than the control group. This illustrates how nutrition truly lies at the foundation of personal development and thus also of female empowerment.

Once this important foundation is laid, girls (and boys) are more likely to succeed as students, be more productive in the work force, and have less health complications. This not only increases their lifetime potential but women's education also has the greatest impact in reducing childhood malnutrition, accounting for a 43 percent reduction. ("Effect of nutritional intervention during early childhood on economic productivity in Guatemalan adults," The Lancet, 2008.)

Perhaps most striking when it comes to the idea of providing women and children in developing countries with sufficient vitamins and minerals: it was voted "the single most valuable investment the world could make" by the world's top 50 economists at the Copenhagen Consensus. Every $1 invested would deliver a return of $17 in increased output and reduced healthcare.

A tiny investment thus has the power to unleash a new wave of female empowerment in the developing world. Given the fact that women in Africa tend to work 50 percent longer each day than men and that women produce most of the food in developing countries, providing with women the power to reach their full potential will also help elevate their position within the community and help them achieve equality and representation.

But malnutrition is not a glamorous subject, nor is it easily associated with women's rights, and so it is often neglected in favor of more visible causes: not just by the general public, but also by governments and donors. Yet nutrition, while perhaps lacking the media appeal or overt sense of urgency of more well-known issues, can make a monumental difference to people's lives, and especially those of women and their children.

While the economic, political and social achievements of women, specifically in developed countries have been remarkable, we must not forget that the potential of so many millions of women throughout the developing world has gone mostly untapped. By helping them improve their lives and those of their daughters through nutrition and by ensuring their long-term nutrition security, we can help empower entire generations of women and girls. While it is important to improve nutrition security for boys as well, we cannot ignore that over 60 percent of the world's chronically hungry are women and girls.

As we celebrate a century of women's progress, it is wise to reflect on our definition of empowerment and what it means to both women in developed and developing countries, as the definition will differ depending on a woman's background and culture.

What we can all agree on, however, is that empowerment means giving women the necessary tools to take charge of their own lives and live up to their full potential. By providing them with the nutrients they need to live healthier and happier, we can at least begin to make a difference.