“In global health, we talk a lot about neglected diseases like onchocerciasis and schistosomiasis—serious ailments that most people have never heard of. But a condition that everybody is perfectly aware of, malnutrition, may be the most neglected health problem in the world—and it affects many more people than any single disease.” – Melinda Gates
Chronic malnutrition or hunger is one of the least visible, but most insidious impacts of extreme poverty. 92% of hunger’s victims are from this daily pervasive and sometimes hidden deficit, as opposed to the more visible acute form that may be widespread in media during crises or famine. Chronic hunger is when an adult or child regularly does not get enough to eat, and/or when that food doesn’t contain the essential vitamins and minerals their bodies need to be healthy. If poverty is sexist, then the malnutrition of mothers and their children is one of the leading causes.
Nearly half of all child deaths, or 3.1 million children per year are due to malnutrition.
This isn’t only because kids aren’t getting enough to eat; it is a product of a cycle of poverty and hunger between generations. When adolescent girls and mothers are malnourished, marginalized, poorly educated, and without control over economic resources, their daughters and sons grow up malnourished, and continue this cycle.
As our new report clearly states, the challenges are stark. We know that 39,000 girls under the age of 18 become child brides every day. We know that a woman in Serra Leone is 183 times more likely to die bringing a new life into the world than a woman in Switzerland. We also know that the first 1,000 days between a woman’s pregnancy and a child’s 2nd birthday have proven to be the single most important time in a child’s life.
Fortunately, the opportunity is clear. Just from closing the gender gap in agriculture alone, we know we can feed 100-150 million more people. If girls and women were center stage in agriculture, food security and nutrition, even more communities could benefit.
The world has taken notice, and started to take action. In 2012 at the World Health Assembly, governments agreed to six targets for malnutrition that attempted to break this cycle by 2025. The targets addressed chronic and acute malnutrition, the growing threat of overweight, and importantly for women, reduced anemia and increased exclusive breastfeeding.
Half a billion women of reproductive age worldwide suffer from anemia, which impairs health of mother and child. Exclusive breastfeeding is when babies are only fed breast milk from birth through 6 months, and can increase a child’s chance of survival by 6 times. This is considered the optimal source of nutrition for children, but at present only 39% of infants are exclusively breastfed.
The World Health Assembly targets were a great signal that the world is taking the nutritional needs of girls and women seriously, and subsequent commitments in 2013 at the Nutrition for Growth Summit and 2nd International Conference on Nutrition have kept this on the agenda.
However, when we follow the money, less than 1% of development assistance globally is specifically for nutrition. When the draft Sustainable Development Goals were proposed last year, nutrition was mentioned only once. Furthermore the world is currently off track to meet the World Health Assembly targets by 2025.
Good investments in nutrition are good investments for girls and women. If we can start to break down the structural, economic and political barriers that girls and women face, we can also begin to break the intergenerational cycle of poverty and hunger that stems from chronic malnutrition.
In 2015, let’s make sure that global government and development leaders put girls and women at the heart of the agenda and target investments accordingly.