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The role of women in meeting food and nutritional needs

An international conference on the role of women in meeting basic food and water needs in developing countries was held at the University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona, USA, 8 - 11 January 1978. The focus of the conference was on the United Nations World Food Conference's "Resolution on Women and Food," (Rome, 1974). The conference was sponsored by the Consortium for International Development (ClD), and partially funded by a grant from Women in Development, United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Two-hundred-and-fifty individuals attended the conference. Of these 44 women and 5 men were from 19 developing countries. The participants came from a wide variety of backgrounds and included representatives from UN agencies, private voluntary organizations, and numerous women's organizations.

The Conference participants developed a working consensus on numerous important issues. The major issues, and some implications for each, are summarized below.

1. The world's major food/nutrition problems are of very great, special concern to women, and they are not subsumed within the domain of any single discipline or interest group.

From this, several considerations follow.

First, if all people in the developing countries are to have a reasonable opportunity to meet their daily dietary needs, there is a place, i.e., a role, for every discipline, interest group, and individual, and women must be involved as equal partners with men in the process of development.

Second, from diversity can come strength in terms of the capability to analyze properly the food/nutrition situation and to design national approaches leading to self initiated, economically viable projects and programmes.

Third, when the common goal is adequate food for all people, general agreement is possible among people who view food and nutrition from very different vantage points.

Fourth, the system of developing-country and aid-agency planning, policy-making, and administration has produced inadequate results in the past, and it will produce no better results in the future. More people will be better fed when more women, people from developing countries, and clients of programmes are involved in the planning, policy-making, and administrative process. Also, a more representative mix between government and private sectors and the various disciplines is desirable.

2. The basic food/nutrition needs of all people could be met in the foreseeable future if the knowledge available today concerning how to grow, market, and equitably distribute food, and to manage consumption within the home, were properly utilized.

If the labour-saving, food-saving, nutrition-improving, and money-earning knowledge available in the world today became common knowledge among all members of the world community, malnourished people could overcome their food problems very soon, at modest cost, and with gratifying results. Information on alternative methods for meeting the basic food needs of all people simply has not been as widely disseminated as it should have been, and women, food producers, and traders make up the largest single group which has been short-changed. A re-evaluation of the current national strategies for development is in order, with the widespread, rapid dissemination of the relevant information to receive the highest priority. This would require greater emphasis on the right kind of educational effort in developing countries, and corollary changes in the assistance by private and international agencies.

The major emphasis in developing-country programmes (and development-agency policies), i.e., the first order of business, should be how people can meet their food requirements within their lifetimes-that is, now, in contrast to, for example, researching exotic potentials not likely to have any material impact before the 21st century. (Such research, however, was not regarded as being unimportant: the point at issue is the priority for alternative activities, given the funds and personnel limitations in developing countries and aid agencies.)

3. Hunger and malnutrition do not occur "on the average," but are, rather, the result of specific situations faced by families, individuals, and certain groups in definable geographic areas.

The Conference recognized that simply increasing the worldwide, or a developing nation's, supply of food may not mean that the number who go hungry is reduced. Families composed of both men and women-must produce their food or buy it in local markets. If the families' food/nutrition problems are to be solved, programmes and projects must be attuned to their specific needs. This led to a theme which was repeated many times during the Conference, namely, that more attention needs to be directed to local conditions-the small scale and simple forms of food production, storage, and marketing, which employ the bulk of the people in a developing country, and through which they obtain their daily diets. It is at this level where women are involved en masse in the food cycle. Also, much more attention needs to be given to household management. Storage losses can be reduced and better nutrition achieved from the foods readily available.

4. Hunger and malnutrition are the result of many causes, but inadequate real income for individuals and the family is the strategic one.

The major causes of poverty must receive priority attention if hunger and malnutrition are to be alleviated. Since those families, countries, areas, and subsectors of the economy which are poor are generally those where the productivity of the human element is low, i.e., women, men, and children work many days to produce and process a few kilos of sorghum, wheat, etc., increasing the productivity of the poor should be a major item in the attack on poverty. Providing opportunities for many more of the currently poor families to obtain sufficient income to cover properly basic food needs was recognized as a very difficult undertaking that would require many years, but societies could embark on the task, and in the short term there is much that can be done to make more food and clean, safe water readily available to those who need it.

The Conference participants noted that the agrarian subsistence subsectors of the national economies of developing countries, and small-scale, local trade, through which the poor generally obtain their incomes and food, were the parts of the national food production and marketing systems which have received disproportionately low levels of development assistance in the past. It is at this level where women are most frequently involved in food production and marketing. The low level of access this group in the food system has had to development resources reinforces women's lack of integration into the development process, and accounts for their worsening economic plight and the sheer drudgery so many must face every day of their lives.

The Conference participants recognized that inadequate diets and hunger are related to high fertility and the large families typically associated with poverty. The demographic factors that bear on the problems of food, nutrition, and family welfare are extremely important, and the remedy clearly must involve enhanced participation by women in designing and carrying out development strategies.

The Conference was united in the view that strategies for development in the developing countries should place more attention on the sources of income for poor people, especially local, indigenous food production, storage, trading, and household management. Examples of methods for raising real income that were given included the introduction and improvement of vegetable gardens; support for increased small-animal production, e.g., chickens, goats, pigs, and rabbits, the raising of which is often done as family enterprises managed by women, and which provide a needed source of protein; improvement of traditional foods such as cassava: protection of wild food: credit for local traders (often women); education and support for local cooperatives (to include women}; and improved local storage facilities. It was noted that small-scale, local production and trade activities are income-generating, and they increase demand for food and those goods and services which stimulate economic growth and development. They also foster monetization and commercialization of the economy.

5. The public and the policy-makers in both developing and developed countries have generally defined food/nutrition problems in too narrow terms.

Development planners, and others in strategic policy influencing positions, have not been properly framing food/ nutrition problems. The wrong questions have been asked, and too many programmes have been planned to impact on the wrong people in the wrong way. One problem is that in analyzing the situation, planners have used macro-analytical techniques which conceal who are the hungry, and why they are hungry. Such techniques preclude proper understanding of the plight of the family, the individual, and women; and they tend to eliminate from consideration many desirable ways to alleviate the most serious food/ nutrition problems.

The "costs" of inadequate problem definition include numerous developing countries utilizing strategies which have emphasized economic growth and longer-term investments at the expense of actions benefiting the rural poor and the other disadvantaged. To country leaders and the society at large, this is an important oversight, since the rural poor and other disadvantaged groups often are so numerous that they constitute a majority of the citizenry. Policies have failed to create political stability, and the instability in turn has reduced the national capacity to industrialize, to cope with hunger and nutrition, and to face other serious problems of human welfare.

The first vital step toward achieving proper problem definition is for developing countries to involve a wider range of people, especially local people, including many more women, in the process of determining local and national goals, identifying constraints to meeting those goals, and in preparing and implementing follow-up projects. The key phrase is "participatory development," and more recommendations concerning this subject were generated by the Conference workshops than were produced on any other single subject.

6. When large numbers of people are not getting minimum basic food/nutrition requirements, the national food marketing system is not fulfilling its proper role. It is through the analysis of the entire system, i.e., not through piecemeal analysis, that methods for improvement can best be determined.

The Conference participants agreed that improved management of the food production/marketing complex at all levels is needed in most countries, both developing and developed, but that all levels do not require equal attention. In the past, some parts of the system in developing countries have tended to receive a great deal of attention and support, e.g., export commodities (usually cash crops), while other parts of the system, such as subsistence crops or the small local trader, were largely ignored. Certain geographic areas, such as those providing food for urban areas, have received much attention, and low-cost, self-help projects relatively little. Big projects have been favoured over the small and the simple. One reason for the emphasis on large projects is that bilateral and international aid agencies, which control much of the development resources available to developing countries, now have project approval and implementation systems which are so complicated and costly that small, simple projects are not worth the effort.

Conference discussion clearly indicated that participants questioned the priorities which have been assigned to alternative approaches and types of activities. More systematic analysis is required if assistance is to be directed to those elements of the system that need it the most. One suggestion receiving considerable support called for the establishment of very broadly oriented, national food and nutrition centres to provide for a continuous evaluation of national food and nutrition situations, to co-ordinate research, and to supply policy and programme guidance. Such centres could provide technical assistance in physical and biological fields as well as on social and economic issues.

The emerging new international economic order is of great importance in the struggle against famine and poverty because it is a medium through which both the international and national systems can be evaluated, problems identified, and plans for improvement prepared and co-ordinated.

7. The family is an important income-earning and decision-making unit in respect to consumption in all the societies of all developing countries, and it should be a focal point for efforts to put adequate food within reach of all people.

Should development strategies view women primarily in the context of the family, or in some other manner? The statement by women from developing countries provided the basis for a consensus, one which had slowly been emerging but which was by no means supported by all of the participants. The consensus recognizes the role of women in the family and its importance-i.e., stresses the centrality of the family in the societies of developing countries-while giving proper weight to the need for equal rights and status for women as individuals.

8. If basic food and nutrition needs are to be met, developing countries must take into account the historic role of women in their food-production and marketing systems, and involve them as equal partners in the development process.

If a key word were to be designated for the Conference, "participation" would be a likely candidate Both by design and default, women in general, and major segments of the developing countries' economics in particular, have not been given equal opportunity to participate in the developmental process. The world is the poorer today as a result. Developing countries' strategies for development, and development-agency policies, for reasons both of social justice and of economic growth, must try to avoid repeating the errors of the past. Greater participation by, and cooperation among, women, programme and project clients, and Third-World personnel, as well as a wider range of discipline and interests within the developed countries, will be necessary if the future is to be more than a re-run of the past.

Recommendations on research needs in nutrition

At the Third Session, held in Rome, 14 - 16 March 1978, the ACC Sub-Committee on Nutrition (SCN) reviewed and endorsed the following list of research areas deserving urgent attention. In preparing this initial list, the Advisory Group on Nutrition (AGN) of the SCN emphasized that the recommendations refer only to the broad issues of global importance and do not include many basic questions requiring study and research in the areas of food production, post-harvest losses, etc. that are already receiving attention from various organizations and institutions. The sequence in the list below does not imply an order of priority.

1. Research designed to collect from different countries in different ecological regions more basic scientific and technical data:

(a) physiological data-energy and nutrient needs; and
(b) food data-nutritive value of indigenous foods, changes during storage and processing and formulations.

2. Research designed to produce more refined, simpler, and cheaper indicators:

(a) to identify groups at nutritional risk; and
(b) to provide for adequate nutrition surveillance.

3. The consequences of malnutrition, and levels, timing, and seasonality of intake as they affect adaptation and performance. Specifically:

(a) labour productivity;
(b) school performance in terms of learning, class attendance and participation, and absenteeism;
(c) pregnancy, fetal outcome and child rearing, breast-feeding;
(d) resistance to environmental stresses, mainly infections, deprivation, and tensions; and
(e) implications of less than severe malnutrition, including mild forms; differential benefits and costs; in general, the health returns for each dollar spent on nutrition.

4. Nutritional status and its relationship to poverty. Research on the structure and functioning of poor households and the impact of poverty on the nutrition of their members. Among the problems to be considered are the following:

(a) inadequate purchasing power;
(b) greater sensitivity of basic staples to price fluctuations;
(c) less time available for child care and stimulation, family well-being, nutrition education, and the use of local services; time as a key economic resource;
(d) opinions, beliefs, and attitudes in regard to food and nutrition; implications of nutrition education;
(e) household size and child spacing;
(f) household food production; and
(g) the dynamics of households or communities and their potential for change.

5. Evaluation of direct and indirect nutrition interventions. The need for a general methodology that should be included in a model to measure structure, process, and outcomes of all nutrition interventions. It is suggested that an assessment of available models and manuals should be made.

6. Research on delivery systems and their management.

The Sub-Committee on Nutrition noted that this was an initial list, subject to future additions.

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