How Food Scarcity Amid COVID Can Increase Violence Against Women

As the COVID crisis evolves, it also risks intensifying the gender gap in Food Security & Nutrition.

Published
Opinion
4 min read
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The COVID-19 pandemic and the measures to contain it have already resulted in a negative impact on the state of food security and nutrition (FSN) around the world. However, as the crisis evolves and continues to transform the food systems, it also risks intensifying the gender gap in FSN, thereby worsening the existing problem of malnutrition and hunger among women and young girls.

Women & Hunger: Pre-Pandemic Era

Over the past several years, there has been a rise in the number of people suffering from undernourishment, food insecurity and hunger. As per the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), in 2019, almost two billion people, or 25.9 percent of the global population, experienced hunger – and almost 690 million people or 8.9 percent were malnourished. Thus, at the global level, the state of food security and nutrition has been quite distressing.

Women and young adolescent girls however, account for nearly 60 percent of the world’s chronically hungry people.

Consequently, in comparison to men, the prevalence of food insecurity is significantly higher among women.

The situation is particularly dire for pregnant women—who biologically are more likely to be malnourished—as they need to consume more calories to support the development of their babies.

According to estimates, in 2016, 32.8 percent or 613 million of women belonging to the reproductive age of 15-49 years suffered from anaemia.

How Patriarchy Makes Women More Vulnerable To Hunger & Poverty

But while poor nutrition has a much more serious impact on women than men, sociocultural values and traditional practices have, time and again, continued to affect women’s consumption of sufficient food and nutrients that are vital for boosting immunity and maintaining good health.

For instance, in many societies, tradition dictates that men eat first and receive the best food.

As a result, women experience reduced access to high-value foods, such as fruits and vegetables that are not often enough to meet the requirement of the minimum intake of 400 gms per day.

Adding to this is the problem of access and control over land and natural resources, which although important for generating income and livelihood, are rarely available to women. In fact, women’s property rights are often restricted in law and practices. Besides, male-dominated social structures seriously limit women’s access to job opportunities, financial services, and education, making them more vulnerable to poverty and hunger.

COVID-19 Risks: Multiplying Inequities

Given the inequalities and inequities that already surround the state of food security and nutrition at a global level—the food security crisis, which is emerging as a result of COVID-19—is likely to have worse consequences for women than men.

Anecdotal evidence reveals that in order to deal with the effects of the pandemic—including reduced production, disrupted markets, lockdowns and road blockages—people adopt coping strategies such as buying less food, switching to less nutritious products and reducing the number of meals eaten on a daily basis.

However, owing to the patriarchal norms and practices that underpin gender inequalities within households, it is the women and girls who are among the first ones to experience reductions in the quality and quantity of their food intake in such situations.

Additionally, in comparison to men, women—the majority of who are employed in the informal sector—are at a greater risk of job suspensions, leaving them with reduced disposable income and financial freedom. These economic repercussions combined with increasing price volatility, might push women in positions where they are no longer able to afford fresh food items, especially protein rich dairy, meat and fish products that are already costly and are getting much more expensive.

When Food Is Scarce, Women Might Be At Higher Risk Of Violence

Meanwhile, disruptions of food supply chains and rising prices have grave consequences, especially for pregnant women, who are at the receiving end of several nutrition-related problems aggravated by the pandemic. A shortage of fruits, vegetables, meat, fish and eggs, etc would compromise the supply of nutrients to pregnant women and new mothers, thereby intensifying under-nutrition and lower immunity, increasing their risk of contracting the virus.

Then there is also the problem of escalating gender-based violence.

When food is scarce, increased food insecurity coupled with greater tensions in the household may place women at heightened risk of domestic violence, directly affecting their empowerment and overall well-being.

The World Food Program states that by the end of 2020, 265 million people are likely to face starvation.

And at a time when there is increasing competition for resources between the health emergency and food assistance, women, who are already at the centre stage of malnutrition and hunger, will suffer the most.

There is thus, an urgent need to establish a sustainable food system, which ensures access and affordability of nutritious food at all times, preventing hunger, while at the same time preserving and stewarding the natural resource base for all vulnerable groups, especially the women.

(Akanksha Khullar is Researcher, Centre for Internal and Regional Security (IReS) at Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed in this article are that of the writer’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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