How and why Indian women are made to go hungry

Underpaid and unpaid work -- in India, on average, 66% of women's work is unpaid, compared to 12% of men’s work even as they invest 90 per cent of their income back into the families as compared to just 40 % by men, has rendered Indian women more acutely prone to hunger, malnutrition and anaemia
Image Courtesy: Outlook

In the 2022 Global Hunger Index, India ranked 107th out of 121 countries, presenting a dismal status of the country’s hunger situation. According to the National Family Health Survey 2019-21 (NFHS-5), 35.5% of children under 5 were stunted, meaning they had less height for their age, and 19.3% were wasting, meaning they had less weight for their height. At the same time, 32.1% of children under the age of five were found to be underweight, meaning they weighed less for their age. Despite slight increases in these figures over the 2015-16 survey, India still has a long way to go to meet the Sustainable Development Goal-2 of eradicating hunger and all kinds of malnutrition by 2030.

Although the hunger crisis in India has been a source of concern for policymakers for some time, it is pertinent to note that the government has opted to curtail its budgetary provisions for food and nutrition in the Union Budget 2023.[1] [2]

For example, the Food Subsidy programme, which ensures the distribution of food grains at subsidised prices through the Targeted Public Distribution System, has been reduced by more than 30%. At the same time, Mission Saksham Anganwadi and POSHAN 2.0, a nutrition support programme, was allocated INR 20,554 crore, a meagre increase of around INR 290 crore over the revised estimates of the previous year’s budget. Further, the PM-Poshan scheme, earlier known as the Mid Day Meal programme, received an allocation of INR 11,600 crore, a fall of INR 1,200 crore compared to the revised estimates for 2022-23.

Hunger is a devastating reality that affects millions of people globally, yet it does not affect everyone equally. Studies have shown that a staggering 60% of those experiencing food insecurity are women, and the situation in India is particularly alarming. The NFHS-5 reveals that 57% of women in India suffer from anaemia, a condition strongly associated with inadequate nourishment, insufficient dietary intake, and inadequate healthcare access. This figure is more than twice the corresponding rate for men, which stands at 25%. Furthermore, anaemia prevalence has increased among women in the 15-49 age group, with the increase standing at 3.9 percentage points since NFHS-4. Additionally, a quarter of Indian women of reproductive age have a body mass index (BMI) of less than 18.5 kg/m2, indicating undernutrition.

Gender inequality contributes significantly to hunger, malnutrition, and related illnesses that disproportionately affect women and girls in India. Discrimination against women in India accords them limited access to critical resources such as education, land, and credit, curtailing their ability to generate income and provide for themselves.

Women are more likely than men to live in extreme poverty in India because of underpaid and unpaid work. Globally, women take on 3 times as much unpaid work as men and earn less than men. In India, on average, 66% of women’s work is unpaid, compared to 12% of men’s work. Additionally, women invest 90% of their income back into their families compared to just 40% for men, leaving them little to no savings and pushing them towards food insecurity and resultant hunger.

Despite occupying valuable positions as farmers, business owners, and entrepreneurs, women are often deprived of the rights and resources that men receive. For example, women constitute over 42% of agricultural labour in India, yet they own less than 2% of farmland. The amendment to the Hindu Succession Act in 2005 provided daughters with equal rights to inherit property as sons. Despite this, only 43% of women in India own land or a house. In rural areas, the lack of assets, particularly land, can increase women’s dependence and vulnerability, leading to limited access to food.

Gender-based violence is also a critical issue that often limits women’s access to the public sphere in India. When women are subjected to violence, it can have far-reaching consequences, including restricting their ability to work outside the home, seek education or healthcare, and participate in social and community activities. This can lead to a cycle of poverty and vulnerability that exacerbates the issue of hunger and malnutrition.

Women who experience gender-based violence may be trapped in abusive relationships, further increasing their dependence on their partners for food and other basic needs. In such cases, leaving an abusive relationship could mean a loss of income or resources, which could have disastrous consequences for their and their children’s well-being.

Over the years, women’s participation in household decision-making has increased but is still ruled by patriarchal norms. Sexist cultural and traditional norms perpetuate gender inequality in India, leading to an uneven distribution of resources within households, especially food. Women’s lower status within families and society, combined with the perception of women’s domestic labour having lesser worth, often leads to a situation where women are left vulnerable to hunger and malnutrition.

Women often receive the least amount of food and are left to eat last. The husband and children are given priority and eat first, with male children who attend school receiving the highest priority. In fact, women are expected to consume smaller portions than men or eat leftovers after others in the family have eaten, despite spending 85 – 90% of their time on household food preparation.

Dalit and Adivasi women are among the worst victims of this hunger crisis. Studies show that the incidence of anaemia among Dalit and tribal women stands at 56% and 59%, respectively, which surpasses the national average of 53%. Rising hunger levels hit marginalised communities the most, with many households being forced to reduce the number of meals and items in their meals. The situation is further exacerbated by the decreasing access to forests, a prime source of nutrition for tribal women. This not only affects them but also has intergenerational effects, leading to malnourished children and perpetuating the cycle of poverty.

It is important to note that malnutrition and hunger are complex issues that require a multi-dimensional approach. To address the problem of lower food and nutrition security among women, the social, economic, and political variables that contribute to and perpetuate gender inequality must be addressed. One effective solution is to increase women’s income, which can significantly enhance their household food consumption, nutrition, and health. Studies have shown that women contribute more to household income than men, both in absolute and proportional terms, by using less income for personal use.

The issue of gendered hunger in India is not only a gender issue but also an issue of caste and tribal marginality. Therefore, interventions should address not only the immediate causes of hunger but also the underlying structural and systemic factors that perpetuate inequalities. This includes improving access to land, forest, and other natural resources crucial for the livelihoods and food security of marginalised communities.

Lastly, it is crucial to establish capacity development plans that impart technical, managerial, and monitoring skills to all stakeholders to ensure equitable and sustainable development in urban and rural contexts. Such plans can strengthen community resilience and enable the active involvement of women and marginalised communities in decision-making processes that profoundly impact their lives and well-being.

(The authors are researchers at Social Policy Research Foundation (SPRF). Headquartered in New Delhi, SPRF is a policy think tank seeking to make public policy research holistic and accessible)



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