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Hunger linked to women’s literacy levels

Women in Kenya's Chalbi desert gather during a three-year drought that has led to pastoral tribes being vulnerable to disease and famine / Frederic Courbet - Panos pics

Increasing women’s literacy levels and social standing would dramatically help reduce global hunger, according to this year’s Global Hunger Index. The study, which aims to calculate levels of malnutrition and hunger around the world, claims that equalising the status of women and men in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa reduces the number of malnourished children by 13.4 million and 1.7 million respectively.

Overall, the study found that progress in reducing global hunger levels since the 1990s has been slow and thirteen countries have actually seen an increase in hunger levels during this period, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The Global Hunger Index (GHI), which has been published annually since 2006 by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), looks at three indicators: the proportion of people who are calorie deficient, child malnutrition prevalence and child mortality rates of under fives. Countries are ranked on a scale of 0 (no hunger) to 100 (chronic hunger). The report was published by the IFPRI earlier this month.

The lasting effects of hunger

The World Health Organization cites hunger as the gravest single threat to the world’s public health. Malnutrition is also by far the biggest contributor to child mortality. Malnutrition in childhood can lead to problems in adulthood as in the severest cases can cause irreversible long-term damage, in terms of physical development and health.

South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa have the highest GHI scores at 23.3 and 22.1 respectively, the report found. However, the causes of food insecurity in the two regions are different. In South Asia, low nutrition and poor education of women have contributed to a high incidence of underweight children under five. In Sub-Saharan Africa, weak governments, political instability, conflict and high rates of HIV/AIDS have led to high child mortality rates and high levels of hunger the study reported.

Hunger and gender inequality

The report found strong links between hunger levels and gender inequality, especially in education and health. “Hunger and gender inequality often go hand-in-hand. Women’s educational levels and status, meaning women’s power relative to men’s within both households and communities, significantly affect children’s nutrition,” says the co-author Agnes Quisumbing, a senior research fellow at IFPRI.

Women who have a higher status within their households and communities are usually better nourished and care for themselves better, translating into better care for their children.

Hunger and the recession

The recession has had a serious impact on global hunger levels, the report found. In North Korea, negative trends in economic growth and food production have increased rates of undernourishment and underweight children. Similarly, Zimbabwe’s economic collapse is reflected in the increase in the number of underweight children.

“According to IFPRI estimates, 16 million more children will suffer from malnutrition by 2020 as a result of the global recession and reductions in agricultural investment,” explains Joachim von Braun, the director general at IFPRI.

Last year’s hike in food and fuel prices coupled with the recession has made it harder for households to buy enough food for their families.

Purnima Mal from West Bengal, India, told researchers, “My income has increased because of better wages, but prices have risen a lot over the last few months. I have reduced my own intake of oil, spices and vegetables.”

The next step

The report calls for measures to reduce gender inequality. These include reducing the cost of schooling to encourage families to educate their daughters, investing in women’s health and nutrition and reforming legal systems to ensure that women have rights to property and other resources including access to credit and agricultural inputs.

“Policies that eradicate gender disparities and empower women are critical to reducing hunger,” says the lead author, Klaus von Grebmer, a communications director at IFPRI. “Closing the gender gap in schooling and investing in female health and nutrition are especially key.”

Further information

Title: Global Hunger Index 2009

Link to study:

Authors: Klaus von Grebmer, Agnes Quisumbing et al.


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