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Good nutrition – our bets are on the girls

Posted: 23 May 2016
In our guest Blog, Ms Gerda Verburg, Scaling Up Nutrition Movement Coordinator, reflects on the recent Women Deliver Conference and shares her insights on efforts to promote improved nutrition through the empowerment of girls.

Copenhagen has just hosted some of the most exciting and rewarding discussions for the future of women and development. At the Women Deliver Conference, an impressive list of leaders were joined by over 5,000 participants to explore ways of making the Sustainable Development Goals that were agreed by all United Nation Member States in September 2015 matter most for girls and women. I was fortunate to attend this event as one of my first activities as the incoming Coordinator of the Scaling Up Nutrition or SUN Movement, a collection of 57 countries leading their own national nutrition revolutions with unified support from the United Nations system, civil society, donor countries and the business community.

In the lead up to the Women Deliver Conference, nutrition champions from Senegal, Sierra Leone, Tajikistan, Malawi and Zimbabwe have recently led an inspiring process of sharing and reflecting on lessons for our latest SUN Movement In Practice Brief entitled Empowering Girls and Women for Improved Nutrition: Building a Sisterhood of Success (insert hyperlink to brief). I has the opportunity to launch this collective wisdom in Copenhagen and now share a few insights from what we’ve learned along the way.

Experts agree that improving nutrition during the critical 1,000 day window of a women’s pregnancy through to her child’s second birthday is one of the best investments we can make. In fact, every dollar invested in improving nutrition in this period yields a return of $16 in better health and economic productivity. I think we would all agree it sounds like a pretty attractive investment. But where exactly do we need to put our money? For us in the SUN Movement, our bets are on the girls.

Today, approximately 159 million children under the age of five are chronically malnourished and 55 million are acutely malnourished. While global data sets do not disaggregate by sex, we know that girls are all too often more vulnerable as they are the last to eat, the last to go to school and the last to have a say in important life decisions like when to get married and when to start a family. We also know that poor nutrition during adolescence will not only affect adult body size, but may also affect the nutritional status of any children born to mothers who were malnourished during adolescence. This is particularly important for the estimated 10 million girls under the age of 18 who get married each year and the 16 million adolescent girls who give birth each year.

How girls are treated matters for nutrition. Not surprisingly, higher levels of gender discrimination are associated with higher levels of both acute and chronic undernutrition. At the same time, improvements in women’s status have been shown to account for around 12% of global reductions in the proportion of children who are underweight, and improvements in women’s enrolment in secondary education account for 43% of global reductions in the proportion of children who are underweight.

And nutrition matters for empowering girls. Improving the nutrition status of girls, adolescents, and women increases their ability to perform well at school and to become empowered in the workforce and the wider society. In short, we in the SUN Movement know that the virtuous circle of good nutrition and better futures starts with the girl child. We understand that progress in improving nutrition will only be possible if girls and women are leading the charge. So how does this work? While every country is shaping its own set of solutions, some lessons are emerging from the SUN Movement.

First, women need to be at the decision-making table with adequate support and space for their voices to be heard. From state houses, parliaments and ministries to local authorities, communities and households, women need equal access to opportunities, training and information in order to contribute to the process of devising solutions to the nutrition-based challenges they face. For this reason, education and women’s knowledge of nutrition is critical. This requires investments to send and keep girls in school but also in building knowledge related to infant and young child feeding, literacy and vocational skills.

The stories of SUN countries make it abundantly clear that a community-centered approach that ignites the power of sisterhood is essential. Women are very often best placed to decide how resources are used at home to improve nutrition. Supporting them to reach out to other women in their communities to share their experience, knowledge and aspirations is vital. But we mustn’t only look to the women - men must champion and actively engage in women’s empowerment. From presidents, to chiefs to husbands, fathers and brothers, men must actively engage in ensuring that every member of their families can enjoy good nutrition.

It was my privilege in Copenhagen to share the lessons of SUN countries as they work to empower girls and women to improve nutrition. We in the SUN Movement know that we cannot end malnutrition in all its forms without ensuring women are in the driving seat. In fact, we know this is essential for all of the Sustainable Development Goals. Our bets are on the girls, we hope you’ll join us.

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