Equal access to food and nutrition is one of the core human rights. Yet, in several cultures across the world, women do not have equal access to food. There are strange taboos, norms and gender discrimination in access and consumption of food in many countries. Poverty as well as discriminatory social and religious customs are the only reasons behind more women being hungry and malnourished than men.
In most of countries in Africa and Asia, women usually eat after feeding the entire family. When there is a scarcity of food, women usually eat leftover food or a disproportionately lower quantity of food. In many cultures, especially in rural areas, women are not supposed to eat in front of anybody. Typically women eat after feeding each family member and like to sacrifice the best food for their husbands and children! Eating last and eating least are considered an expression of love and respect, and is still widely practiced in all joint families in rural and urban populations.
In most poverty-stricken societies with a huge gender gap, boys and girls usually do not have the same diet. Boys end up receiving more nutritious and desired food from a young age.
In communities throughout Africa, permanent taboos are also placed on female members. From infancy, the female child is given a low-nutrition diet. She is weaned at a much earlier age than the male infant, and throughout her life, a girl is deprived of high-protein food such as animal meat, eggs, fish, and milk. As a result, the intake of nutrients by the female population is lower than that of the male population.
In India, girls fast or sacrifice food from a very young age, hoping to get married or to get a good husband. Women fast several days each year for the health and well beings of their husbands, and children (typically and traditionally only for sons). There are several religious rituals and customs expecting Hindu women to fast from dawn to dusk, sometimes even without a drop of water, praying for the long lives of their husbands, sons, or brothers. I am not aware of any observances, where husbands fast for their wives, or fathers for their daughters! Husbands are traditionally considered and treated as “semi-God”. The male family members are entitled to the most nutritious and desired food in each family.
Temporary taboos applicable only at certain times in the life of an individual also affect women disproportionately. Most communities throughout Africa have food taboos for pregnant women. Often these taboos exclude the consumption of nutrients essential for the expectant mother and fetus.
In Nepal, menstruating women are barred from consuming milk, yogurt, butter, meat, and other nutritious foods, for fear that their impurity will cause cows to become ill. The typical diet during menstruation is dry foods, salt, and rice.
Widows, in the Hindu religion, were traditionally treated as social outcasts and were prohibited from eating several nutritious and high-protein foods like meat, fish, etc for the rest of their lives. Husbands, on the other hand, don’t have to follow any such restrictions and are allowed to marry after their wives’ death.
Women are responsible for producing, storing, cleaning, and cooking food for consumption. Eight out of ten agricultural workers in Africa are women and in Asia six out of ten are women. Women have a crucial role in ensuring the health and nutrition of their children. Women are pivotal in addressing hunger, malnutrition, and poverty, especially in developing countries. Yet, It is estimated that 60 percent of the world’s chronically hungry people are women and girls! The unequal pattern of food distribution between genders within the household from childhood through adulthood has long-term nutritional and health implications for women and girls. Anemia, caused by poor nutrition and deficiencies of iron and other micro-nutrients, affects 42 percent of all pregnant women globally and contributes to maternal mortality and low birth weight.
Read about menstruation exile practice in Nepal.