In the fight against hunger, why don't we prioritize women?
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In the week leading up to Thanksgiving, anti-hunger activists across the country are raising awareness about those who are doing without on this major holiday. But in the public conversation around hunger, are we asking, and prioritizing, the right questions? 

How many women in the United States may be skipping meals to provide a hearty feast for their families next Thursday? Research here and abroad shows the number is way too high — and if we really want to fight hunger, we would do well to look at issues to specific to women on this major holiday in the United States and beyond.

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Poverty and domestic violence exacerbate food disparities between men and women living in the same household and has serious consequences for the food security of women and their children. 

My research at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at University of Texas, Austin on gender and nutrition suggests that the key to ending hunger may lie not with food alone, but also with the well being of women.

What has been missing from the conversation about hunger? Tragically, our research indicates that the high rates of domestic violence experienced by women may be undermining the fight against hunger.

Our recent community-based research funded with UK AID by the UK government, and in partnership with Nijera Kori, a landless laborers’ movement in Bangladesh, highlights the importance of attending to domestic violence in nutrition. Research in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Sweden have similar findings.

Domestic violence in rural Bangladesh is rampant. In 2011, 50 percent of married women reported being physically abused by their partners in the past 12 months. In the most horrific cases, food is withheld from women as a form of control or punishment. One respondent describes how, as a punishment, her husband refused to buy food for either her children or her after beating her.

Due to fear of loss of custody of her children and lack of alternatives, she stays. One of the women we interviewed said, “[husbands] beat us so much but we don’t go away. They don’t bring food when they are angry, not even for the children.” Research from high-income countries such as the U.S., U.K., and Sweden also find that violence against women harms child nutrition.

Living with the threat of domestic violence also shapes daily choices about food. To avoid domestic violence, many women in our study reported choosing to go hungry. The same respondent with school-aged daughters further explains that she sacrifices for them but does not discuss either the need more money for food or her own hunger with her husband, because if she raises the issue, “he will beat me at night.”

A third respondent, a worker at a rice mill and a mother whose son is not yet grown, describes “Sometimes there isn’t much. So, my son gets the biggest share and as a parent should, I skip the meal.” Yet, there is more to her story. Her husband, who once beat her so badly she was left partially blind, gets a share equivalent to her son’s. While she believes parents ought to sacrifice for their children, only she is willing to do. 

Without addressing the violence faced by women, Bangladesh’s improvements in nutrition will remain limited. As studies from around the world are increasingly suggesting, this problem is not unique to Bangladesh.

The intersection of poverty and violence results in women forgoing food to either help their children or avoid triggering violence. It also points to the critical importance of examining nutritional outcomes for all members of the households, not just children. Efforts to achieve what my research partners and I call women’s "nutritional empowerment" requires attending to these often overlooked factors.

Now, if the global community wants to continue making strides in nutrition in developing countries and beyond, we have to violence against women seriously. This Thanksgiving is the perfect time to begin.

Erin Lentz is an assistant professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, University of Texas, Austin and a Public Voices Fellow with the Op-Ed Project.


 

 

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