The season of spring is often symbolic of natural changes and new growth. When the ‘SUN’ breaks through the clouds that have hovered above us for months in many parts of the world, we know that March is arrived – and with it, International Women’s Day.
Why are we still celebrating this day – originally called International Working Women’s Day – you may be asking yourself, considering this day was first observed more than 100 years ago in remembrance of the 1908 strike of the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union.
It’s because we have to. All you have to do is turn on the TV or read a newspaper to find someone actively trying to (at worst) fight, or (at best) downplay the many hard-earned wins for women over the past decades. Contrary to (un)popular beliefs, we are not weaker (have you heard of childbirth or tennis champion Serena Williams), nor are women less intelligent (let’s look at who’s attending law and medical schools these days, or who is more likely to allocate resources toward public goods, especially those benefiting children, which sounds pretty smart to me). Yet, women’s access to decent work, although better than a century ago, still lags far behind that of men’s in most corners of the world.
Which makes me think that maybe we are ignoring the “root” of the issue. Women are still too often expected to trail behind men, rather than stand in their own power – at work, at home and everywhere in between – starting with the food we receive (or make) and the services we have access to, as infants, toddlers, children, adolescents, adults and older persons. This should give us further impetus to empower women and girls to improve nutrition. What could be better linked to natural changes and new growth than bringing healthy new lives into this world, as we call on all to step it up for gender equality and equity towards a planet 50-50 by 2030, today, tomorrow and beyond?
The 2030 Agenda requires all of us to change the way we work, especially in a changing world of work. How I turn this into results around me – in terms of substance, structure and staffing – is what matters.
Nutrition is a multi-faceted topic, with some well-known knowns: inequities in access to and control of assets have severe consequences for women’s ability to provide food, care, and health and sanitation services to themselves, their partners, and their children, especially their female children. Resulting from women’s cyclical loss of iron and their childbearing, our nutritional status is particularly vulnerable to dietary, care or health-related deficiencies. Moreover, the nutritional status of newborns and infants is intimately linked with the nutrition of the mother before, during, and after pregnancy, which is why we in the Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) Movement focus on ensuring the best possible nutrition for mother and child in the first 1,000 days – from the second a baby is conceived and until she or he turns two. With this in mind, stepping up for more breastfeeding and better education to counter high rates of adolescent pregnancy and early marriage – three determining factors of whether children get to thrive – is key. Many SUN Countries, like Malawi, are taking a stand by outlawing child marriage. 22 SUN countries ensure a minimum of 14 weeks’ paid maternity leave, including Viet Nam, a country I recently had the opportunity to visit.
In most SUN Countries, nutrition communities unite, with a governmental focal point whose role it is to bring the different sectors and stakeholders together – including business, civil society, donors, and the UN. Today, about 32 per cent of our focal points are women. If gender parity (at least 40 per cent of either sex) is what we strive for, the SUN Movement needs to ensure that women, too, are sitting at the nutrition decision-making tables, at all levels. Furthermore, we need to make sure that that gender-sensitive nutrition plans and policies are in place in all SUN Countries.
At the SUN Movement Secretariat, I’m happy to say that most are women (56 per cent), which is also reflected in its management, including the Director, and of course myself as the Coordinator (although I am one of only 21 per cent Assistant UN Secretary-Generals who are women). Our Executive Committee is driven by 47 per cent women, and our Lead Group can boast 44 per cent female members – many of whom, women and men alike, are extremely vocal about championing equality within our Movement, and beyond.
Maya Angelou’s quote, “how important it is for us to recognize and celebrate our heroes and she-roes!” has always resonated with me.
Which brings me to my last point. We all have a role to play in gender equality and men are often an untapped resource in the promotion of ‘she-roes’. They are also some of the most powerful gender ambassadors I know. This changes the discourse to be more encompassing, just and effective than just women fixing ‘women’s concerns’.
In our work with nutrition champions, we stress the importance of leading from where you are, which also rings true of how men can lead on equality and equity. Although some examples of great leadership we see today of men promoting gender equality may link back to where they were born and to whom, most types of leadership can be built and supported, as change begins at home.
In the SUN Movement we have seen that – from presidents, to chiefs to husbands, fathers and brothers – men must actively ensure that every member of their family gets to enjoy good nutrition. A behavior that is rooted in the conviction that equality improves everyone’s quality of life.
So hope springs eternal, and with that, I invite you to step up with me and the SUN Movement for gender equality towards a healthy and nutritious planet 50-50 by 2030 on this important International Women’s Day, but also tomorrow, the week after and the week after that, until we have made it.