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A Gateway for Women Empowerment
Bhabani Prasad Mahapatra, Professor of Economics,Gandhi Institute for Technology  Bhubaneswar  5/30/2011 12:08:44 AM

The great philosopher Aristotle rightly noted that Wealth is evidently not the good we are seeking, for it is merely useful and for the sake of something else. In other words the wealth created through growth of economy is not desirable for its own sake rather it allows us to get substantive freedom. So growth is a means to achieve end that is freedom and expansion of freedom to have a fuller and enriched life in society. It is naturally to conclude that empowerment is a development process which is an offshoot of economic growth.

 However, gender inequality is one of the many types of stigma of the modern society. There are so many variations of gender inequality like survival inequality (which results from high mortality rate of women and consequence preponderance of men in total population), natality inequality (it is reflected in the practice of sex-specific abortions aimed at eliminating female fetuses), unequal facilities (this is evident in inequality in schooling, restriction on women to enter politics or commerce, restriction on women for an active social participation) ownership inequality (especially of property), unequal sharing of house hold benefits and chores (since more assets are owned by male in family, the power relation in the family goes in favour of male, similarly health and nutritional attention or opportunity of schooling and of post school education) and the last type of inequality is manifested in domestic violence and physical victimisation. It is in this context the process of women empowerment should be understood.

Empowerment should basically mean (a) economic empowerment (i.e greater and better access to savings and credit and hence greater economic role in decision making by the women in the household), (b) Increased Well Being (as a consequence of economic empowerment, more decisive role to spend on health and education of women and their children) and (c) Socio-political empowerment of women (a combination of women’s increased economic activity and control over resources thereby enhances the women’s skill, mobility, access to knowledge and support networks.) Food security and nutritional security is one of the instruments for increased well being of women and hence empowerment.

Food Security and its Linkage to Well-being of Women
Food security is defined as an access by all people at all times to enough food for a healthy life. It was FAO Committee on World Food Security which, in a way, formalised the definition in 1983 and incorporated following three specific goals for food security: i) ensuring adequacy of food supplies; ii) maximising stability of supplies; and iii) securing access to available supplies to all who need them. The World Bank Position Paper on Poverty and Hunger (1986) added an "activity level" concept to these goals, stating that "food security must assure access by all people at all times to enough food for an active and healthy life." In turn, food insecurity was defined as the lack of access to enough food for a healthy, active life style. It is now being increasingly appreciated that food security is primarily a matter of ensuring effective demand rather than a problem relating to food supply. With such realisation, inter-relationship between poverty, hunger and food security is gaining international recognition and serious attempts are being made to define and identify people at risk. It is, therefore, important that every household should either have capacity to produce adequate food for all the members or have purchasing power to acquire it.

Although national food security is important as providing a foundation, in the ultimate analysis what is more important is food security for each and every household and within it to every member of the family. Put differently, "at the household level, food security is defined as access to food that is adequate in terms of quality, quantity, safety and cultural acceptability for all household members." Reference can, at this stage, be also drawn to the concept of household food security adopted at the International Conference on Nutrition (ICN) held at Rome during December 1992, at which "Food security is defined in its most basic form as an access by all people at all times to the food needed for a healthy life". Achieving food security has thus three dimensions. "It is necessary to ensure a safe and nutritionally adequate food supply both at the national level and at the household level. It is necessary to have a reasonable degree of stability in the supply of food, both from one year to the other and during the year. And most critical, is the need to ensure that each household has physical, social and economic access to enough food to meet its needs" This means that each household must have the knowledge and the ability to produce or resources to procure the food that it needs on a sustainable basis. The Conference went one step forward and recognised the importance of intake of balanced diets and also cautioned against over consumption or waste of nutrition as sometimes seen in developed countries.
Household food security on its own cannot guarantee good nutrition status. The standard food–care–health conceptual model (FAO/WHO 1992) makes it clear that the provision of adequate care to women and children, together with adequate water, sanitation, and health care systems is needed to ensure good growth and development. The generation of household food security is dependent on the physical availability of food at the market or community level, the ability of the household to access the available food, the ability of individuals — particularly those especially susceptible to food deficits such as women, infants, and children — to eat the food and finally the body’s ability to process the nutrients consumed. The physical availability of food is a function of productive agriculture, effective trade infrastructure, and efficient food aid logistics, if necessary. Agriculture, trade and aid policies are important in influencing the availability of staple and nonstaple foods. The promotion of staple crops that are high in micronutrient status can increase calorie and micronutrient availability simultaneously. Economic access is a function of prices (food and others) and incomes (not only the level of income but who earns it). Economic growth and social security policies (i.e., social insurance and social safety net initiatives) are important in generating and preserving the entitlements to food (and other nutrition inputs such as health, sanitation, and water). The quantity and quality of the consumption of foods by individuals depends on the mother’s decision-making status, her access to information, her time burdens, and her education (Engle 1999; Engle, Menon, and Haddad 1999).

Policies that promote the status of women, provide formal and informal education and reduce time burdens do much to ensure that women, infants, and children get their fair share of food and nonfood inputs into nutrition. When women control income, a higher proportion of that income is spent on food and other inputs that improve nutrition and health. These policies also promote food production, because they avoid the underutilisation of entrepreneurial talent. Finally, diet modification policies can do much to ensure the bioavailability of micronutritents contained in the consumed foods. These policies include the promotion of micronutrient enriched food staples and nonstaple food production, and nutrition education/behavior changes, preferably in combination with each other. The status of women has an important influence on all these four areas. Women occupy a key role because they have food production and child production responsibilities. To undertake these responsibilities effectively, they need to maintain their own nutrition status. In addition, women have claims on multiple duty-bearers to guarantee their own right to food. The dependence of household food security on the nutrition status of women when set against their low status relative to men creates difficult trade-offs for women. In South Asia these trade-offs are particularly acute and result in much higher rates of child under-nutrition than would be expected based on GDP per capita and national food availability (Haddad 1999).

Malnutrition is the most serious consequence of food insecurity. Adult malnutrition results in lower productivity on farms and in the labor market. In women, it also results in fetal malnutrition and low birth weights. Fetal and infant under nutrition lead to lower cognitive development and schooling performance. For school-age children, nutritional deficiencies are responsible in part for poor school enrollment, absenteeism, early dropout, and poor classroom performance with consequent losses in productivity during adulthood. Not only does food insecurity in itself have deleterious effects on households and individuals, but efforts at achieving food security may also exact a heavy toll on households if households must spend most of their income on obtaining food. Households may achieve temporary food security at the cost of substantial asset disposal and future indebtedness. In the extreme case, a household that uses almost all of its resources to achieve food security in the present time renders itself highly vulnerable to becoming food-insecure in the future, compared to a household that uses a smaller share of its resources to achieve current food security (Owens and Hoddinott 1998).

The search for food security may also have important implications for a region’s demographic situation, especially if it leads to migration (short-term or long-term) by the food-insecure to other areas in search of employment and income and, in the extreme case, of relief food. This out-migration may result in an increase in the number of female-headed households and in the dependency ratio in the sending area as well as changes in the dynamics of the labor market. The receiving areas, mostly urban slums, experience considerable food security strain from the influx of migrants (Ruel et al. 1999).

Gender bias is deeply ingrained in our social psyche and this is reflected in indicators such as sex ratios, literacy and health gaps of boys and girls, Maternal Mortality Rates etc. These data, however, do not fully reflect the discrimination against women. The 11th Plan strategy for gender equity must pay attention to all aspects of women’s lives. It must ensure that women live and live with dignity. It must examine everything from generic problems like freedom from patriarchy to specific issues such as clean cooking fuels, care for pregnant and nursing women, dignified spaces for violated women, toilets for women and girls, crèches at work places etc.

Gender equity requires adequate provisions to be made in policies and schemes across Ministries and Departments. It also entails strict adherence to gender budgeting across the board. All this must be complemented by campaigns for public awareness that educate men and women — both are gripped with patriarchal values — about emerging social and economical realities. Special measures for gender empowerment and equity will be an essential component of the 11th Plan.
 11th Plan will recognise the pivotal importance of women’s holistic health. It will focus on reducing the incidence of anemia and malnutrition among adolescent girls to break the cycle of ill-health and maternal and infant mortality.

The measure of nutrition security to ensure the required calorie consumption would certainly be a good indicator. However, the nutritional status of such individual household again would depend on their access to health care services and also to hygienic water, sanitation and housing conditions. Even though the role of agriculture in reducing food insecurity is well established, policies should be designed or structured to suit to the livelihood problems of the poor.

The recognition of a right to food (and therefore to freedom from undernourishment and hunger) is a landmark measure and deserves great credit. However, there is an imbalance between the expansive vision expressed by the Act in principle and the narrow means it seeks to achieve it in practice; reflected, for instance, in its focus only on calories from food grains and on direct distribution rather than on the provision of means for commanding food and on complementary policies. It appears that the Act may not add much to the existing Public Distribution System or State and Central programmes to provide subsidised cereals.
A related distinction is between legislation seeking to promote or protect a basic right and the strategy of doing so. The proposed Act will help further the fulfillment of the right but will not by itself achieve it, and it is unlikely that any one piece of legislation would do so. Already, diverse pieces of legislation, including the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), contribute in different and important ways toward that end. It should be ensured that these diverse measures together constitute a layered social security system which protects various groups of vulnerable people, going beyond the able-bodied poor to include the elderly, the handicapped and children. As Amartya Sen has famously underlined, starvation results from insufficient command over food and not usually from inadequate food availability as such. Since command over food is achieved in a diversity of ways, through the market mechanism and otherwise, it can also fail in a variety of ways.

India is not famous for its democracy alone; it is also famous as the second largest populous country with huge segment of its population under the trap of abject poverty. It is a matter of fact that anti-poverty measures in India have achieved nothing substantial to uplift a major segment of the population from the poverty trap. The Government of India has adopted many democratic poverty alleviation strategies and mechanisms with the pumping of huge financial resources. The democratic intervention in the form of redistribution and direct attack on poverty is very old. However, it is a matter of regret that chronic poverty continues to hound major segments of the rural populace in India. India is on the 94th position, as per the Global Hunger Index, out of 119 countries. All the South Asian countries have done well in poverty alleviation. India occupies the 132nd position among 179 countries in the UNDP’s 2009 Human Development Index. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (UNFAO), in one of its reports in 2006, had expressed despondency over the discovery of the fact that India had contributed a majority to the pool of malnourished mass of the world

The National Family Health Survey 2005 - 06 (NFHS-3), highlights some very disturbing truths about the prevailing situation in the country: 56 percent of the women are anaemic; 30 percent of new born babies are of low birth weight (LBW); and 47 percent of the children are underweight. The malnutrition scenario in India is given as: Almost 40 percent of children under three are underweight and 45 percent are stunted. 22 to 30 percent children are born with low birth weight. 36 percent adult women and 34 percent adult men suffer from chronic energy deficiency. The National Family Health Surveys show a marginal increase in anaemia from 74 percent to 79 percent in children under five and 52 percent to 56 percent in young women. Iodine deficiency disorders, vitamin A and vitamin B deficiency are fairly rampant.

The persistence of hunger in a world of plenty is the most profound moral contradiction of outrage. The theory of economic growth leads to better nutrition rests on a series of often-questionable assumptions: A national increase in per capita income means an increase, large and rapid enough in the income of the poor to be of nutritional significance. Increase in the income of the poor leads to an immediate and automatic increase in the amount the family spends on food. Increase in food expenditures by the poor lead to an improvement in nutrition. Increase in food production will lead to improved food consumption. Improved nutrition in the family means an improvement of the nutritionally vulnerable members of the family like women and children. No doubt after the adoption of Liberalisation, Privatisation and globalisation policy by India and many other countries, the growth of economies have been moving upwardly. However the data mentioned above indicates that above assumptions are really questionable. However these assumptions are to be proved empirically.

Let us not forget the declaration of World summit on Food security 2009, Rome. Urgent national, regional and global action are to be taken to fully realize the target of Millennium Development Goal 1 and the 1996 World Food Summit goal, namely to reduce respectively the proportion and the number of people who suffer from hunger and malnutrition by half by 2015.

Recently noted scientist M.S Swaminathan has added a new dimension to food security. He defines the food security as livelihood security for the households all members within, which ensures both physical economic access to balanced diet, safe drinking water, environmental sanitation, primary education basic health care. The definition is broad based and hopefully can effectively address the various issues including the well being of the women and their empowerment. 

References and Additional Thinking

  • Approach paper for Eleventh Five-Year Plan, Government of India
  • Argumentative Indian by Amartya Sen
  • Development as Freedom by Amartya Sen
  • From Employment Guarantee to National Food Security, Mainstream, Monday 22nd June 2009, by Sitaram Kumbhar
  • Declaration of the World summit on Food security Rome 16-18 November 2009
  • State of food insecurity in rural India By M.S Swaminathan Research Foundation
  • The linkage between Food and nutritional security in lowland and coastal villages in the Philippines by Emelita M. Balatibat

(Bhabani Prasad Mahapatra has more than eight years of teaching experience in Economics in different under graduate and post graduate institutions after having more than four years of project management experience in development sector. Currently he is working as a faculty member in Economics in Gandhi Institute for Technology, Bhubaneswar. In development sector he worked in different projects like Street children, Community development for Juang tribes, Operation Healthy Platform and sanitary education project for slum school children supported by different agencies like CCF, Concern world Wide, Water Aid, Government of India. Mahapatra holds an MA in Economics from Berhampur University, Orissa and a post graduate diploma in Economics from Madras school of Economics, Chennai. He currently pursues PhD in Food security. He has published several research papers covering areas like food security, women empowerment, Special economic zone, climate change and other developmental issues. He has authored six books and has been contributing to various newspapers, magazines and journals. Currently, he is also a Ph.D candidate with the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.

The views expressed in the article are personal and do not reflect the official policy or position of the organisation.)


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