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How Women's Nutrition Was Impacted During The Pandemic Induced Lockdown [Exclusive]

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) [1] of the United Nations provide a roadmap to member states to achieve shared, sustainable development without letting go of environmental concerns. Goal 2 is "zero hunger" and Goal 5 is "gender equality". But how can these goals be achieved when half of the world population comprised by women is left behind in their ability to access food?

Food insecurity is a reality around the world. Women in developing countries are the worst affected. According to a Care International report [2], "The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are exposing the existing flaws in food systems, many of which stem from gender inequalities and the unfair treatment of women and girls."

So, how does this affect women in India? Indian women are affected in a much bigger way than we know. An alarmingly high number of women have said that they have eaten less during the lockdown of 2020 triggered by the pandemic.

The Tata-Cornell Institute for Agriculture and Nutrition (TCI) [3] carried out research into areas such as food expenditures, dietary diversity and other nutrition indicators at the national, state and district levels in some Indian states. According to their research, "the drop was due to decreased consumption of foods like meats, eggs, vegetables and fruits, which are rich in micronutrients that are crucial to good health and development".

The national lockdown to prevent the spread of Covid-19 started in March 2020 and ended in May 2020. It became the reason for the disruption of the food supply chain and later for price fluctuations of food items. These problems coupled with loss of jobs and reduced incomes caused households to spend less on food in May 2020 as compared to what they spent in May 2019.

Unfortunately, most of the loss was borne by women. In addition to the research by TCI published in the journal Economia Politica, other studies have also found that during the lockdown period there was a decrease in the quantity as well as the quality of foods consumed by women. Many women reported cooking less quantity of dal, or lentils, or cooking thinner dals. "Women's diets were lacking in diverse foods even before the pandemic, but COVID-19 has further exacerbated the situation," said Soumya Gupta, a research economist at TCI.

It is to be noted that there are several factors associated with gender-based differences in food allocation across the world. Income, bargaining power of women, their social status, their interpersonal relationships, and finally tastes and preferences are some such factors. Uneven food allocation within households is also determined by the role of women within the family system.

Indian women are known to eat after all other members have eaten. According to Care International, "Women and girls are the majority of food producers and food providers for their households, but their contributions are frequently unseen. Too often, women eat last and least."

Closure Of Anganwadi Centres

The unequal treatment of women with regard to food and nutrition was also caused in part due to the closure of India's aanganwadi centers during the lockdown. Anganwadi centres are at the frontline of community healthcare in India. In addition to helping women with childcare and medical care, they also provide take-home rations and hot cooked meals to nursing and expecting mothers. Evidently, this is an important source of nutrition for women and children. The closure of the anganwadis has reportedly affected 72 percent of households.

"Due to the spillover effects of maternal malnutrition, that risk poses a threat not only to women's productivity and well-being, but also that of their children," Gupta noted.

Moving on to another study that focussed on the pandemic's effect on women's well-being in India, a second study conducted by consulting firm Dalberg found that women in low-income households in India not only lost more jobs compared to men but also consumed less food. A tenth of the women the researchers surveyed said that either they ate less or that they ran out of food. The Dalberg report covered the March-October period of 2020.

Swetha Totapally, partner, Dalberg Advisors and the author of the report said, "What we're hearing from grassroots organizations is that the second wave has compounded the effects that we were seeing in the first wave in multiple ways." Women reported more job losses compared to men, a greater burden of unpaid work at home and less rest. The Dalberg survey found that Muslim women, migrant women, single women, separated or divorced women were the worst affected.

Multiple studies have pointed to the unequal burden of the pandemic on women. Taking their findings into account, policymakers should recognize the disproportionate effect of the pandemic on women's nutrition and develop programs to meet the needs of women and other marginalized groups. Women are in need of such safety-net policies, the researchers said.

The researchers also recommended market-oriented reforms, such as the removal of rules that restrict the movement of products between markets and state boundaries, commercialisation of small farms, and investments in infrastructure like refrigerated supply chains. Making policy changes like these can be a step towards closing the gender gap with regard to food and nutrition and help nations proceed towards achieving the SDGs.