Lifting up Women within the U.N. Food Systems Summit

The International Coalition for Advocacy on Nutrition (ICAN) and the Scaling Up Nutrition Civil Society Network (SUN CSN) brought together diverse country leaders and experts for a Food Systems Summit Independent Dialogue last week to inspire action on a frequently invisible threat to health and prosperity – women’s and girl’s poor nutrition status. 

As a prelude to the U.N. Food Systems Summit on September 23 in New York, the Dialogue struck a powerful chord on the many multifaceted dimensions of exclusion that women continue to experience.

When it comes to nutrition, women and children have been hit the hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic. This is partly because women’s and girls’ nutrition is not only a matter of poverty. It is deeply rooted in inequity. Men have lower rates of undernutrition, globally. At the same time, across Africa, 75% of malnourished women do not live in the poorest households.[1]


So, where to begin?

Breaking biases and inequalities

Terri Otieno, a Kenyan U.N. Youth Ambassador for the Food Systems Summit, spoke about the necessity of breaking discriminatory cultural practices and securing salaries for women’s unpaid labor. “Women have to go above and beyond to prove that apart from being a woman, they are much more,” she said. Expanding women’s economic freedom has many and varied implications for policy; for example, it is difficult for women to secure land access, or they often risk losing their rights whenever farming becomes profitable – impeding women’s full agency over their roles in the food system.

In practice, lifting up women and girls means elevating their voices, their experiences, and their needs in every action – from global to local, towards sustainable and equitable food systems.

Addressing nutrition

The Dialogue explored urgent actions and investments. Dr. Saskia Osendarp, Executive Director of the Micronutrient Forum, facilitated a discussion on the importance of ensuring optimal nutrition in the 1,000-day window for women and their babies.

Participants exchanged their experience on smart investments that can power women’s nutrition – ranging from breastfeeding support and multiple micronutrient supplementation during pregnancy and lactation to agro-economic hubs and women’s political leadership.  

Countries like Bangladesh are taking action and paving a path forward by revising national policies that will position women in leadership roles and expand opportunities in labor forces during the pandemic.

Speakers also highlighted that unacceptable high rates of anemia point to persistent inequity when it comes to good nutrition. Globally, more than one in three women are anemic[2], which can be a serious health challenge:

  • Increasing the risk of infections and death,
  • Lowering cognition,
  • Causing extreme fatigue,
  • Resulting in poor pregnancy outcomes,
  • Reducing earnings and
  • Causing lower growth and development for babies and children.

No country is on track to meet the global anemia target of reduction by 50%. As the Standing Together for Nutrition Consortium warns, without immediate action, COVID-19 has the potential to cause an additional 4.8 million maternal anemia cases – which has also been projected to cause $177 million lost economic productivity.[3]


What can be done?

Over the past months, the U.N. Food Systems Summit has generated new momentum to end anemia, including a new alliance and ways of working.   

At the country level, governments are championing gender and nutrition through the Year of Action on Nutrition, which culminates in a pledging moment in the auspices of the Olympics – Nutrition for Growth.

There is much to do and plenty of lessons learned to lift up women and girls over the coming months. The U.N. Food Systems Summit and the December Nutrition for Growth provide impetus for new and existing investments, policies, and programs to proactively and respectfully nurture women, girls, and generations to come.

Author: Anna Kotenko, Advocacy Consultant, MNF
[1] Brown, C; Ravallion, M; de Walle, D; (2019); Most of Africa’s nutritionally deprived women and children are not found in poor households.
[2] Global Nutrition Report, 2020;
[3] Standing Together for Nutrition Consortium, 2020, 

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