HomeSocio Legal ColumnUnveiling the Nexus between Gender Discrimination and Food Security

Unveiling the Nexus between Gender Discrimination and Food Security


Food Security, or as should be said, Food Insecurity has often been linked to the lack of access to food rather than lack of food. The terms “access” is of more significance and importance than it is truly given in this context. The annual Human Development Report published by the United Nation Development Programme which is aimed at measuring a country’s development, assesses factors like long and healthy life, access to important resources, a dignified standard of living etc. to reach a conclusion, these factors directly influence the capability of an individual. This approach is mainly inspired by Amartya Sens’s capability approach which states that well-being, social arrangements, or social justice is required to be evaluated in context of capability. 

While Amartya Sen remains the pioneer of the capability approach, there have been many other scholars who have tried to forward their specific interpretation of the theory. One such important embodiment of the capability approach is one by Marth Nussbaum, she offers an interpretation more specific to human rights and moral concerns. She tried to provide a set of capabilities which are indispensable to human development of which one includes “bodily health” which is described as “being able to have good health, including reproductive health; to be adequately nourished; to have adequate shelter”. 

First three years in the life of a child lay the foundation essential in ensuring development of a child to their full potential. Inadequate nutrition in infancy and early childhood is linked directly to increased risk of illness, long-term health issues, malnutrition, impairments in multiple forms, such consequences are irreversible in nature. Hence, adequate nutrition becomes indispensable to overall growth of an individual. 

Malnutrition and gender disparity, both remain crucial issues affecting the population of South Asia. There exists a nexus between the two which suggests malnutrition rates are found to be higher in scenarios where gender discrimination prevails, yet in the same breath it is important to discover how clearly does it exist. Studying this nexus is important and can prove to be helpful in tackling food insecurity which affects the children population of South Asia on a bothersome level. Malnutrition amongst women is a result of a domino effect as it is inter-generational in essence; for instance- an undernourished girl on turning into an adolescent gets married and bears a child, the obvious course this lineage takes is that the child naturally grows into a malnourished adult replicating their mother. To effectively study this chain and eventually break it becomes very crucial to tackle the menace of food insecurity. 

The Four Pillars of Food Security

The four pillars of food security as identified by Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations include availability, access, utilization, and stability.

The first pillar, which is availability, refers to the capacity of nations to secure adequate amounts of food to cater to the nutritional requirements of its people. One of the biggest drawbacks of this pillar remains the lack of attention it gives to the discriminatory practices that prevail and continue to affect the vulnerable population across nations. 

The second pillar i.e., access to food, quintessentially means the capability of individuals and households to be acquired with sufficient resources to produce or buy food. Accessibility does not remain limited to an individual’s ability to buy but also includes the opportunity to avail food aid. This too must be viewed though a feminist lens as we have already seen the amount of discrimination women face when it comes to ownership and opportunities. 

The third pillar of food security is stability, which refers to the consistency with which the food remains available fighting all odds including natural calamities, excessive rains, draughts, changing seasons etc. Fluctuating prices due to climate change affect the poor, women, and children the most adversely as this adds to their already vulnerable stance. A year-round supply of food is necessary to ensure food security in its real sense

The fourth and the final pillar of food security, which is food utilization which states food can be said to be utilized on when an individual’s specific nutritional and dietary needs are fulfilled. Food utilization is a manifestation of what security aims to achieve, that is access to quality food to ensure good health. Malnutrition forms one of the biggest impediments in the development of a nation’s economy as it reduces the overall productivity of an individual. Hence food utilization becomes essential to a country’s overall development. 

Malnutrition in India: Determinants and Causes 

Vicious Cycle from Mother to Child: A Domino Effect 

The first evidence of malnutrition can be traced to the pre-natal stage itself. Malnutrition at a pre-natal stage is one of the main reasons behind underweight babies at birth. The explanation for such a pattern is indeed not a tough nut to crack, it is the low nutritional status prevalent in mothers which gets passed on to her baby. This forms one of the main factors influencing the high rates of malnutrition in the South Asian context. (refer to Annexure 1) In India according to the National Family Health Survey- 4 (2015-2016) a total of 22.9% women were found to have below normal Body Mass Index (<18.5 Kg/m) of which 26.7% women hailed from rural areas.[1] Chronic energy deficiency and protein-energy deficiency is what leads to a low Body Mass Index. The report further reflected the shocking stance of under-five mortality rate at a mighty 50% per 1,000 live births.[2] This efficiently helps us decode the direct and irreversible consequence a mother’s nutritional status on the child’s health. 

While studying the prevalence of anemia amongst children and adults, it was found that a total of 53.1% of women aged 15-49 were found to be anemic whereas 22.7% men aged 15-49 were found to be anemic.[3] These are not just mere statistics but a manifestation of a serious threats. Women are at a natural disadvantage of being anemic for several reasons including menstruation and pregnancy, add to it discrimination prevalent in food practices. Many a times, a woman, especially in poor households, due to limited resources first feeds her husband and sons and then her daughters and herself which often entails consuming inadequate and poor-quality food. 

Sex Preferencing- Exploring the Nexus Between Social and Psychological Aspects of Food Security 

The existence of son-biased psychology has been noticed prominently in the South Asian context due to the prevalent patriarchy. Visible is a pattern of women not questioning the existing norms or rather not being able to due to the presence of a strong male dominance. A conduct of such nature has been termed as “adaptive preferences” by Amartya Sen which essentially means women have adapted the “legitimacy of an unequal order” which has led to women over-looking their own needs and personal interests due to know fault of their own. This had led to detrimental consequences for women as only with self-realization of one’s worth comes the belief to nourish oneself.  Very unknowingly, this acceptance of the existing discrimination has creeped into the daily lives of women sharpening the already deep divide. 

The term “missing women” coined by Amartya Sen in essence explains the prevalence of male preference in our society. As a result of this existing preferential trend some 100 million women have gone missing. Preference in sex is practiced via sex-selective abortions, sex-selective access to nutrition, education, and healthcare etc. 

The high level of sex preference, which means giving more importance to the overall development of males has adverse implications on women on multiple levels. Firstly, preferential treatment in access to food leaves women in a neglected position while men continue to see greater qualitative and quantitative access to food. At the time of birth, a girl is no less nourished than a boy, yet women end up leading a life of undernourishment and are subject to discrimination in every stage of their life. 

Clear evidence from 2 public hospitals in Mumbai suggest that the girls admitted were typically more ill than boys, this could be a possible outcome of neglect exercised towards a girl’s health.

This trend of women being subjected to such level of discrimination has led to women consuming leftovers and eat only when everyone else is done eating, which means the men of the house.[4] According to an International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) study on the distribution of food consumption in rural households in Bangladesh adult women received a lesser portion of preferred food, while their consumption of animal and fish products were equal to that of preschool boys.[5] 

In the Indian context, there exists a yawning gap between the calorie intake of men and women which suggests that women consume as much as 1000 calories lesser the men.[6]  This divide is further deepened by continuous persistence to have a boy child. This behavioral pattern is problematic primarily on two levels, one, since it is not within an individual’s control to create a specific gender, there always remains a possibility of not having a boy child which leads to multiple girl child births, this means more girls to feed and therefore it leads to more malnourished girls who go on to produce malnourished kids later. Secondly, wanting to have more and more boys in the family, further depletes the already non-existent nutrition available to women in the family. Through such practices women unknowingly lead to their own food insecurity, this is where education plays an important role in making a woman more aware of her choices and the consequences thereof. But how free is education from the trap of gender discrimination?

Education in Female and Its Proportionality to Nutrition

Table 1

Graph 1

Table 1 and Graph 1 have been created for representational purpose and with the aim to project the existing gender disparity in the educational context. Stats from surveys conducted over past 25 years have been read and compared to reach a holistic conclusion in understating the prevailing gender disparity in education.

Some of the key observations from Table 1 and Graph 1 are as follows- 

  1. At the outset, it is pertinent to note that while in the year 1991 women illiteracy rate was at an alarming 61% men stood at 36% illiteracy rate. 
  2. Further, it was in the year 2015-16 that women were able to reach an illiteracy rate of 31% which is only 4.4% less than where men stood 25 years back in the year 1991. 
  3. While the progress women have made over past so many years against all odds is applaudable and undisputed, what is appalling is the black line in the graph (refer to Graph 1) which represents the existing gap between men and women illiteracy rate remains almost unchanged. Which basically means, at all point until 2015-16, there was a constant difference of 20 plus per cent between the two genders. Which also means, men have always stayed ahead of women in having access to education. 

Disparity in education is an important factor which concomitantly affects the nutritional status of women. The disproportionality that continues to exist is alarming and forms one of the biggest impediments in a woman’s overall development, especially health. A mother is the chief caregiver and to realize the responsibilities that comes along with being one is extremely vital in securing the future. Education plays a vital role in molding this realization at multiple stages in a woman’s life. At the outset, in all likelihood a girl without education will end up marrying early which will as a result lead to an early childbirth too. 

This can entail unprecedented dangers which can adversely affect the baby’s as well as the mother’s health. Furthermore, a girl with good education would understand the importance of having fewer children, feeding her kids equally without any discrimination, adequate care in infancy and early childhood etc. One of the most crucial outcomes of getting good education would be that a mother would understand the importance of seeking medical health for her and her children. This can help prevent below five mortality rates as the child would be given adequate care at the appropriate time. Further having fewer children will result in smaller household sizes which can help in improved childcare. 

These are some of the ways in which the mother’s educational status will have a direct impact on the child’s overall health and nutritional status. 

In this context, Amartya Sen speaks about the significance of a women’s agency which seems to have been severely restricted in the Indian context. 

Agency as opined by Sen mainly refers to the freedom women can exercise, this freedom exists in multiple manifestations including getting a proper education, being employed outside the home, earning an income of her own, having rights over property etc. Having some sort of mobility which essentially means having the freedom to step out, the right to roam around freely seems like a far cry. In the year 1999, NFHS-2 reported that only 32% of women could go to the market without having to ask for permission and only, 24% women could go out to meet friends without having to seek for permission.[7] Mobility is extremely crucial as it directly affects the women’s access to education, employment opportunities, acquiring important life skills. Women face hurdles at every step in their life whilst trying to achieve rights that essentially prevail as a result of mere existence of a human being, yet women have to achieve them.   

Depriving the Annapurna 

The Hunter, The Gatherer, The Shopper, The Cook

But I have been cooking all day.

Standing over a hot stove

Slaving over a hot stove.


I’ve been shopping for groceries.

Putting them away.

Setting the table.

Cooking the food.

Making this dinner.

Wracking my brains.

I’ve been wracking my brains over this meal.

What to buy.

How much to pay.

I’ve been budgeting.

Looking for sales.

I’ve been feeding this family on $6.00.

Making it do. I’ve been wracking my brains over this meal.

I have been cooking all day.

Shopping for bargains.

Hunting for bargains.

I’ve been hunting all day.

I’ve been up and down hundreds of aisles.


Hunting and gathering and coking this food.

Loading my cart.

Carrying carcasses.

I have been hunting all day.

I have gathered this food from across the land.

I’ve been everywhere.

I’ve been everywhere.

I have made this meal.

I have created this food.

This is my time.

My thought.

What you have on your plate is my blood.

My brains.

I tell you I have been cooking all day.

What do you mean

you don’t want it?

Source: Sondra Segal and Roberta Sklar in their Play Women’s Body and Other Natural Resources, 1987

The situation seems to be the bleakest for rural women as they usually tend to be the main food producers. Women in such areas are drivers of a family’s food security who try to devise multiple innovative ways to ensure food security and sustenance for her family. Yet she is the one who is subject to the worst forms of discrimination which leaves her food insecure. Many a times women’s work on field as a farmer and in the household as a nurturer are both classified under the same tag of “household chores” which discredits her hard work and often is not even given the status of work.

In the South African community, 61% of the agriculturalists were women in the year 2009. The agrarian sector there sees women prominence to such an extent that it will fail in the absence of women from those lands.

Women in Asia and the Sub-Saharan region face all 7 forms of inequalities which directly or indirectly affect her overall wellbeing and development, these inequalities are as follows: –

  1. Mortality inequality 
  2. Natality inequality 
  3. Basic facility inequality 
  4. Special opportunity inequality
  5. Professional inequality 
  6. Ownership inequality 
  7. Household inequality 

Women as Farmers in South Asia: A Comparative Analysis 

Food to be consumed must be grown first. For that, proper demarcation and ownership of property should be present. In this regard, a woman plays in most developing countries and especially the South Asian Region, multiple roles of a caretaker/ procurer and dispenser of food. Yet she is subject to such unprecedented levels of discrimination and is often left food insecure which entails having less or sometimes no access to nutrition, adequate health facilities etc.

Ownership inequality is one of the major contributors of food insecurity amongst women. Women farmers exercise no security over ownership of land which exposes them to further vulnerability. “In largely agrarian economies, arable land is the most valued form of property and productive resource. It is a wealth creating and livelihood-sustaining asset. For a significant majority of rural households, it is the single most important source of security against poverty”. 

The term ‘Asian Enigma’ as coined by leading economists and various think tanks working in the field of food security is looking like an elephant in the room. Most of the poverty alleviation techniques, vocational/livelihood generational programmes and food interventions have been spent in vain.

In countries like India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, et al. the land rights are hugely patriarchal and male dominating, giving the women farmers a few respites. Having said that, the author would also like to highlight the lack of ownership rights and ‘land security’ as enjoyed by women.[8]

Equal laws of inheritance are rare in both Hindu and Islamic laws which are the two most dominating religions of the region.[9] For example, until very recently,[10] in India, even post the so called ‘progressive’ law, women were not guaranteed agriculture land under the Hindu Succession Act, 1956. Similar discriminatory practices in the Shariat law also comes to mind, where the women are denied inheriting the entire property bequeathed by their fathers and are allowed on half the share of the son’s property. 

Bangladesh is another case study where the male elitism/ superiority exists. Here, by following the precedents as laid down under the Muslim personal law, by virtue of you being a woman, you inherit half the share of the brother, one eighth of the property if you are the wife, while you get one sixth of the land if you are the mother. 

Similarly, in Nepal too, the trend of discrimination remains unchanged. In this Himalayan region, even though it has the tallest mountain in the world, the way women are treated is substandard. A mandatory consent of either the son or the husband is required for a wife to buy land here. If you are an unmarried daughter and you want to buy land, go ask your father for permission![11]

Ownership of land is interlinked with food security since even though the South Asian region and in most developing and underdeveloped countries, the male takes care of the business and the produce of the land, there is still a sizable chunk of women toiling hard in agricultural fields as farmers. (fifty percent in Bangladesh, thirty nine percent in Sri Lanka)[12]

Food Security and Feminism: A Time to Change the Paradigm

Hunger and food security related issues require a proper breakdown and addressing inequalities based on race, caste, ethnicity, gender, etc. However, in tackling food security and women related issues, a holistic view from a feminist standpoint is essential. The author believes that where feminism strikes a tremendous chord in making sure that everyone and not just women are treated equally, a new era regarding inequalities vis a vis food security will only embark if we bring the feminist discourse into it. In a push to widen the scope and engulf each walk of life where inequalities exist, feminism and food security are often haywire.

Women’s Contribution to Household Income and Its Link with Food Security

Women are the true makers/dwellers/keepers of a household. The fact that in poor households, it is more often women who bring some sort of income to the family cannot be ignored. A study[13] conducted within six cities in India showed how almost eleven per cent of the total households are totally reliant on women’s income and how women contributed to almost thirty per cent of the total income in one third of the households. 

The situation on either side of the Indian borders is grim, too. In Bangladesh, women’s contribution in a landless household is to the tune of twenty-four percent of the total annual income.[14] In rural Pakistan also, women contribute as much as twenty-five percent of the total annual income.[15] Women tend to spend more of their income on food and other household/nutrition related commodities whereas their male counterparts casually spend their income on things that are of lesser importance. This in turn adds to a woman’s burden to run the house with the little resources she has. In rural setting, where man is closest to his primal instincts, alcoholism, and gambling lure men (mostly), most of the income (sometimes three-fourths of the daily wage earned)[16] is sacrificed in such vile and obnoxious activities. 

Feminist Food Justice: A Clarion Call 

Focusing on political and structural (here, food security and nutrition) inequalities and not just being dogmatic regarding subjectivities and identities, is the only way to extend the scope of intersectionality and our understanding of the concept. This can only be achieved if we make concerted efforts to imbibe the concepts of feminism in food security discourse.

The author is of the view that hunger and food insecurity cannot be read in isolation since a concoction of gender, sexuality, power, structure intersect and converge to give birth to it. By giving a shakeup to our conventional views on feminism, feminist food justice would entail within itself:

  1. Non-Discrimination in food production across varied scales: According to this, giving women proper representation on and off paper would not only make them independent of the crutches of land grabbing and ‘male dominant farming’ but also give a shot in the arm to myopic issues like sexism marring food production and hence insecurity.
  2. Analyzing food that feeds: This would mean a positive approach where the role of women as being the ultimate and the first nutrition provider to the infant (and hence to humanity) is elaborated. A global and a local effort to inspire the populace to believe in the fluidity and not the rigidity of gender roles (like cooking food) will go a long way in this regard.
  3. Focus on providing quality food for all: Perhaps the most important aspect of feminist food justice where the linkage of providing quality food which is gender neutral to the overall enhancement of the ecosystem is created. 

The Ever-Widening Gender Disparity in Nutrition During Covid-19

Antonio Guterres, 9th Secretary General to the United Nations, in one of the U.N. meetings while discussing the impact of Covid-19 on women pointed out towards the existing global trend of women having lesser CFR (case fatality rate) as compared to that of men as women have natural biological survival over men. 

Against the backdrop of this very fact, he emphasized on the importance of gender equality and women’s rights to get through the pandemic. The importance of putting women and girls at the center of efforts to recover from Covid-19 was discussed. Even though a solution of such nature would prove to be efficient in terms of providing employment opportunities, elevating women to important roles and in general setting an example to realize the undefeated potential of women yet there are multiple other factors that need to be considered before jumping right into it. 

Seen in the Indian context, paradoxically, CFR for women in higher than that for men. What affects this deviation from the global trend of women being less prone to getting infected by Covid-19 in India. This difference can be traced to lack of food and nutrition. National Family Health Survey, India, 2015-2016 data reflects that as many as 23% of women had lower than a normal Body Mass Index (BMI) and only 63% have an actual say in decisions regarding their healthcare. From an incredibly early stage, female infants are malnourished, there are instances of gender-bias existing in breastfeeding practices. This pattern of undernutrition has caused adverse effects on the female population and as a result has increased the risk of catching the novel Covid-19. 

This yawning gap that exists between India and other developed countries to such an extent that it is defying biological trends, is worrisome. To fight any form of gender-based discrimination, the first step entails bringing women on an equal pedestal as men in terms of nutrition, resources, opportunities etc. Which means to affect change, policymakers must adopt a gender-focus approach to efficiently deal with such a stark discrimination.


If one were to analyze the position of women across the globe vis-à-vis the Sustainable Development Goals set forth by the United Nations and adopted by all member nations, one will realize the intersectionality of inequalities that persist. First five goals directly affect women which include – no poverty, zero hunger, good health and well-being, quality education and gender equality. On text, an intention to achieve these goals sounds desirable but, we are far from even the acceptance of these goals let alone their practical application. Especially seen in the Asian context which remains the most affected, a trickle up approach must be adopted to understand the issues that exists on the grassroot level rather tan just merely pledging to deal with them. 

Women face inequalities on multiple levels and the continue to live in a scenario where one inequality is often exacerbated by the other and find themselves stuck in a no escape situation. Such overlap of inequalities creates further vulnerabilities for the already vulnerable. To understand the existing inequalities that continue to downturn women it is necessary to read the concurrent forms of oppression that exists in a particular context and the relationship between them. The use of this intersectional lens does not only mean limiting one’s understanding of existing inequalities to the inequality alone, but it also entails understanding inequalities in its historical and geographical context to understand the systematic discrimination that has existed across generations and continues to thrive.

Stated under are a few recommendations that can be adopted to tackle with the menace of gender discrimination and to efficiently achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goal- 

  1. Gender- focus approach in policy making which means having women centric policies to bridge the existing inequality. 
  2. On a close observation of United Nations Development Goals, it is realized that they are all interconnected and interdependent which means, achieving one goal is imperative to achieving the others. Having said that it is important to ensure that no women is deprived of basic nutrition, education, health and well-being, clean water, and sanitation. 
  3. Gender based discrimination must be read in the geographical context to understand its real essence and tackle it effectively. More research needs to be conducted on grassroot level to understand the issue in depth and accordingly mechanisms can be come up with.

[1] Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, ‘National Family Health Survey (NFHS-4) (2015-2016)

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, ‘National Family Health Survey (NFHS-4) (2015-2016)

[4]Amitava Mukherjee, ‘Eight Food Insecurities Faced by Women and Girl Children: Four Steps that Could Make a Difference, with Special Reference to South Asia (An Incomplete Draft)’, Paper for The Regional Conference on Child Poverty and Disparities at the Invitation of UNICEF Regional Office for South Asia, Kathmandu, Nepal, 6–8 May 2009, p. 16.

[5] IFPRI, Women: The Key to Food Security. 

[6]Amitava Mukherjee, ‘Eight Food Insecurities’, 2009.

[7]Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, ‘National Family Health Survey (NFHS-2) (1999)

[8]International Development Research Centre, ‘Gender Inequality and Poverty Eradication: Promoting Household Livelihoods’, (2004).

[9]Basudeb Guha-Khasnobis, Shabd S. Acharya and Benjamin Davis, “Food Insecurity, Vulnerability and Human Rights Failure”, Palgrave Macmillan.

[10]Vineeta Sharma v. Rakesh Sharma, Civil Appeal 32601/2018.

[11]Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women, Press Release-Nepal, 630th and 631st Meetings, (2004).

[12]Human Development in South Asia 2002, Oxford University Press for Mahbub ul Haq Human Development Centre: Oxford, (2002).

[13]National Institute of Urban Affairs, 1998 cited in IDRC 2004

[14]International Development Research Centre, ‘Gender Inequality and Poverty Eradication: Promoting Household Livelihoods’, (2004).

[15]Pakistan National Human Development Report, ‘Poverty, Growth and Governance, UNDP: Karachi’, (2003).

[16]Palagummi Sainath, “Everybody loves a good drought”, Penguin. 

Law Wire Team
Law Wire Team
Law Wire Team attempts to delve into pertinent (and sometimes not immediately pertinent) questions regarding socio-politics, Law and their interesting matrix.

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