Transforming How We Advocate for Women’s Nutrition

1,000 Days was born in 2010 out of ground-breaking scientific evidence that found there was a brief but powerful window of opportunity from a woman’s pregnancy to a child’s 2nd birthday to enhance the development and long-term health of individuals and societies. The research showed that investing in proven, cost-effective nutrition interventions in that first 1,000 days can lead to lower child and maternal mortality and healthier moms and babies.

Our organization set out to raise awareness of these findings and focus on improving policies and increasing much-needed resources for nutrition in the 1,000-day window. Research continues to prove that early investments in nutrition provide the foundation for children to develop to their full potential, setting them up for later success in school and the workforce, and reducing a child’s predisposition to obesity and other illnesses later in life.

But here’s something we’ve noticed over the years: at times, the nutrition community has so ardently celebrated the amazing potential impact of investments in the first 1,000 days that discussions of a woman’s nutrition have tended to narrowly focus on the impact her nutrition has on her newborn child. A woman plays an incredibly important and indisputable role in the health and development of her child – but all too often, a woman’s own right to long-term health and nutrition is overlooked.

Nutrition as a step toward gender equality

Women and girls often struggle to access adequate nutrition due to their status in a society.  In fact, they represent 60% of all undernourished people in the world and a recent analysis by UN Women found that two thirds of countries report higher rates of food insecurity for women compared to men. On top of that, women and adolescent girls have special nutritional needs tied to their reproductive health and menstruation. Today, it is estimated that more than one billion women and girls do not have access to the adequate nutrition and healthy diets they need to survive and thrive.

This inequity has deep consequences because investing in a woman’s nutrition not only helps her deliver a healthy baby, it is a basic right for women everywhere to lead healthy and productive lives and in turn, these investments support gender equality. We know that the right nutrition is part of the fight for gender equality because of the impact it has in three key areas—her health, her education and her ability to earn an income:

  • Her health: Proper nutrition during the 1,000-day window can have a significant impact on the health and well-being of a woman. This is especially pertinent during and after pregnancy, a critical period in women’s lives, especially since maternal mortality is still a leading cause of death in low resource settings. Additionally, breastfeeding, which nutrition programming helps promote, protect, and support, is associated with lower risk of heart disease – the leading cause of death among women in the U.S. – as well as breast cancer, ovarian cancer and Type-2 diabetes later in life. There are also benefits beyond the 1000-day window. Women who are well nourished are less susceptible to infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis, and have a lower prevalence of diet-related non-communicable diseases such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
  • Her education: An education is key for girls seeking a better future, and one of the most critical investments in a gender equal world. Each year of schooling increases a woman’s earnings by as much as 10-20%, moving many women towards achieving financial independence and closing the gender-based earning gap. While gender disparities in school enrollment have multiple causes, malnutrition and food insecurity can also play a role. In low income countries, the promise of at least one meal provided at school can motivate parents to choose to prioritize education over staying home to work or care for other family members. Further, well-nourished girls are more likely to perform better in school and reach higher levels of education. In India, for example, girls who received school meals showed a 30% higher chance of completing primary school.
  • Her earning potential: And finally, improving nutrition helps increase women’s earning potential. It is well-known that children who are well-nourished in the 1000-day window are more likely to learn better in school and have higher paying jobs – earning 25% more than those without proper nutrients early in life. Proper nutrition can also have an outsized effect on adult women. Eliminating anemia alone could increase adult productivity by up to 17%, helping break the cycle of poverty and malnutrition for the next generation.

We must do more

Many of these returns from nutrition investments on health, education, and earning potential are not unique to women. Good nutrition is fundamental to every person’s ability to live a healthy, productive life. But it is time we acknowledge that gender equality itself is further advanced when women and girls get the nutrition they need, and that a woman’s all-too-often diminished role in society negatively impacts her ability to be well-nourished. We need programs and policies that support all the ways that nutrition helps women achieve what they want – whether it’s a healthy body, high marks in school, or a high-powered career. The focus on women’s nutritional needs has been predominantly oriented towards ensuring that she can provide the best health outcomes for her child, but ensuring women have access to proper nutrition can do even more – it can help her grow her power. We need to start focusing more attention on ensuring that women have access to the right nutrition at every stage of a woman’s life if we want to make a meaningful impact on gender equality.