By John Coonrod, PhD; Executive Vice President, The Hunger Project
These days, when we hear “India”, we think of skyrocketing economic growth. Yet India is still home to the largest number of poor and hungry people in the world. Child malnutrition rates are twice as high as much of Africa.
How can this be? Back in 1996, one of India’s leading nutritionists asked this question, and studied various causes – he determined there was one: gender inequality. (For more information, see http://www.thp.org/nutrition)
Women and girls are severely subjugated in South Asia, and this sets in motion a brutal cycle of malnutrition. Families believe that only a son can care for them in old age. When a girl is born, she is breast fed up to 6 weeks less than a boy, in hopes the mother may soon become pregnant again, this time with a boy. Girls are taught to eat last and least, saving the best food for the boys. Girls are married too young, and become pregnant before their bodies are fully developed. She gives birth to underweight babies, and the cycle continues.
So – to improve nutrition, India must transform deeply entrenched discrimination against women and girls. Sound impossible?
The good news is that India passed a constitutional amendment guaranteeing 1/3 of all seats in local government to women. Across rural India, women who previously were never allowed outside the home now have real voice in decision-making. As one Member of Parliament put it – “this is the first chance for the emancipation of India’s women in 5,000 years!”
My colleagues in The Hunger Project-India took up this challenge. They have trained and provided ongoing support to more than 75,000 elected women leaders. Sarmi Bai, an elected woman village council president met President Obama when he visited India (see photo) and proudly shared with him what she had accomplished.
Researchers have shown that the presence of women in leadership roles is transforming gender discrimination. Villagers who’ve experienced women’s leadership tend to support the idea of women in leadership.
Improving nutrition in India, particularly in the 1,000 Day Window, remains a huge challenge. The government has allocated funding for village nutrition centers and subsidized food, but these are stymied by problems of caste, corruption and the simple fact that – just like here – people are not knowledgeable about nutrition.
These challenges that can only be overcome village-by-village, household-by-household. And who are the only change agents with the passion, authority and reach to have the hundreds of millions of conversations that will be necessary? India’s 1.3 million women elected village leaders.
It is for these reasons that The Hunger Project has made pioneering 1,000 Day community nutrition interventions our highest strategic priority in all countries where we work. Our Indian colleagues are working with elected women leaders to pilot comprehensive campaigns to overcome the barriers to making India’s mother and child nutrition programs effective. I hope you will follow our progress in the months and years ahead, and make solving the challenge of 1,000 Day nutrition your personal priority.