Photo: M. Santoso
We all believe in the inherent importance of women’s empowerment, but as a reader of this blog, you also likely believe in the role of women’s empowerment in ensuring good child nutrition. If so, you would probably be as surprised as we were to find out that our systematic review of the literature on this relationship was inconclusive. It definitely made us pause and wonder how that could be.
Yet it seemed to be the case: after reviewing 62 studies and finding 200 unique indicators of women’s empowerment tested in 1316 associations with various child nutrition outcomes, we found that about 83 percent of those associations were neither statistically nor biologically significant. The findings are concerning, since they seem to indicate there is no underlying relationship between women’s empowerment and child nutrition.
During our analysis, however, we also noticed some crucial methodological weaknesses in the available evidence. Below are some suggestions to address these weaknesses before we can conclude that the role of women’s empowerment is unimportant for child nutrition outcomes.
+1 (Also) study men. Only 2 out of the 62 studies considered men’s engagement in childcare as an indicator, which means the literature is missing a very important pathway between gender equity and child nutrition. For example, increasing available healthy foods for children in the household can be achieved by increasing women’s ability to decide which food to buy or by encouraging men to buy healthy foods. Similarly, increasing parental time spent in childcare can be achieved by engaging men in childcare or by having them help more with household chores. After all, having men involved in tasks previously coded as ‘for women’ is an important aspect of gender equity.
So far, the evidence between women’s empowerment and child nutrition has been limited and inconclusive. We believe all eight of these points can contribute to ensuring more useful findings in this burgeoning field, and better design programs that support both women’s empowerment for healthier mothers and children.
Marianne Santoso is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Anthropology at Northwestern University. She also manages the Singida Nutrition and Agroecology Project, a nutrition-sensitive agroecological intervention in Singida, Tanzania.
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