Food Security

Malnutrition in women and girls has soared 25% in crisis-hit countries

Nutrition is a widely overlooked issue, and coordinated access and policy intervention is urgently needed.

Nutrition is a widely overlooked issue, and coordinated access and policy intervention is urgently needed. Image: REUTERS/Anne Mimault

Charlotte Edmond
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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Food Security

This article is part of: Centre for Health and Healthcare

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  • More than a billion women and adolescent girls are malnourished, which has broad health, economic and well-being impacts.
  • We are making slow progress and issues like soaring food prices, climate change and the lasting impact of the pandemic risk making the nutrition crisis an even greater problem in 2023.
  • Nutrition is a widely overlooked issue, and coordinated access and policy intervention is urgently needed.

Every mother wants the best for their child. But a nutrition crisis means that many children are seeing their life opportunities negatively affected before they are even born.

More than a billion adolescent girls and women suffer from undernutrition, micronutrient deficiencies and anaemia. It’s amplifying gender inequalities, curbing learning and wage-earning potential, and shaping lives.

We have made scant progress on targets to improve nutrition, and many of the countries most affected are those already grappling with poverty, conflict and climate change.

Now, the global food crisis is deepening the problem, a new report from UNICEF finds, with maternal acute malnutrition rising by a quarter between 2020 and 2022 in the worst-hit countries.

The nutrition crisis is particularly acute in Ethiopia, Yemen and Sudan.
The nutrition crisis is particularly acute in Ethiopia, Yemen and Sudan. Image: UNICEF.

How bad is the problem?

Poor nutrition and the issues associated with it can have major and long-lasting implications throughout a person’s life. These include poorer defence against disease and infection, reduced learning ability and stunted growth.

Poor maternal nutrition can increase the risk of stillbirth, newborn death, and preterm delivery. It can also affect foetal development, creating lifelong impacts. Globally, 51 million children under two, have stunted growth, about half of which will have become stunted during pregnancy or the first six months of life, when they are fully dependent on their mother for nutrition, the report says.

Poor maternal nutrition can increase the risk of stillbirth, newborn death, and preterm delivery.
Poor maternal nutrition can increase the risk of stillbirth, newborn death, and preterm delivery. Image: UNICEF.

Where is the problem most acute?

Over two-thirds of adolescent girls and women who are underweight live in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, with these regions also home to 60% of women and girls with anaemia. But there is significant variation between countries and regions – less educated, poorer and more rural women and girls are significantly more likely to be affected by issues related to nutrition.

Rising poverty and inequities increase the chances that people will turn to cheap, ultra-processed, unhealthy foods. In Sudan already only 10% of girls and women have diets that meet the minimum dietary diversity to provide sufficient nutrients. The story is similar in Burundi, Burkina Faso and Afghanistan, where fewer than one in three have a sufficiently diverse diet.

In the 12 countries that are most affected by the current food crisis (Mali, Niger, Kenya, Nigeria Northeast, Burkina Faso, Chad, Somalia, South Sudan, Afghanistan, Sudan, Yemen and Ethiopia), the number of acutely malnourished pregnant and breastfeeding women increased by 25% between 2020 and 2022. These countries alone account for almost 7 million acutely malnourished mothers, according to UNICEF’s report.

A graph showing the gender gap in food insecurity.
The gender gap in food security has widened as a result of the pandemic. Image: UNICEF.

Why is the problem getting worse?

A series of local and global crises could combine in 2023 to exacerbate the problem for women and girls in several regions of the world.

The pandemic had a devastating impact on food security, which disproportionately affected women and girls. Indeed, the gender gap for food insecurity more than doubled between 2019 and 2021 as girls and women found their livelihoods, income and access to nutritious food all hit. In southern and eastern Africa, for example, up to four in five pregnant and breastfeeding women were food insecure as a result of the pandemic.

These themes are mirrored in the World Economic Forum’s Global Health and Healthcare Strategic Outlook, which discusses how the pandemic exposed disparities in healthcare coverage that impacted women, children and adolescents in particular.

Adolescent girls and women are also disproportionately affected by conflict, climate change, poverty and other economic shocks.

Alongside this, entrenched inequalities and discrimination exacerbate the problem by limiting access to nutritious diets, restricting women’s ability to make autonomous decisions, and stopping employment opportunities.

A graphic showing disparities between women and men in today's world.
Longstanding inequalities affect women and girls’ access to healthy, nutritious diets. Image: UNICEF.

“Addressing malnutrition in women and girls is essential to reduce the gender health gap,” says Amira Ghouaibi, Project Lead, Women’s Health Initiative, Shaping the Future of Health and Healthcare, World Economic Forum.

“For too long, women and girls have deprioritized their own needs impacting their health and wellbeing- they eat least, less and inadequately. Access to good nutrition will not only improve health outcomes for women and girls but will create equal opportunities, increase economic empowerment and promote gender equality.”


What's the World Economic Forum doing about the gender gap?

What can be done?

The scale and consequences of the problem are being widely overlooked and underrecognized by families, society, governments, researchers, humanitarian agencies and the private sector, UNICEF says.

The challenges facing women and children, particularly in the worst affected areas, continue to mount and much faster progress is needed. But only 8% of countries had all of the eight policies UNICEF considers key to tackling the problem. And there is also a lack of data to inform the problem and actions being taken.

Coordinated action which brings together multiple sectors and unites policies is needed to widen access to good nutrition. This includes improving access to and education about affordable, nutritious food, as well as expanding access to essential nutrition services for pregnant and breastfeeding women in particular.

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Related topics:
Food SecurityAgriculture, Food and BeverageGender Inequality
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