Eliminate Maternal Malnutrition

How dare you complain and question why women have to eat after men. It is up to us whether we want you to eat after men or not to eat at all.

-Bhutan father to daughter

There is a gender gap in malnutrition...

with women accounting for the majority of malnourished adults in the world. According to the Global Burden of Disease, nutritional deficiencies killed 680,000 people in 2013 and are responsible for 50 million years lived with disability. This burden of death and disability is concentrated among women of reproductive age (15 to 49 years) and children under five. 40% (260,000) of deaths and 56% (28 million) of years lived with disability due to nutritional deficiencies are among women and children in these age groups.

A leading cause of these deaths is protein-energy malnutrition which accounts for 90% (226,000) of nutrition deaths among children and 34% (14,000) of nutrition deaths among women of reproductive age. Iron-deficiency anemia is the other major cause of nutrition-related death and disability among women, responsible for 60% (25,000) of all nutrition-related deaths and an enormous 80% (9 million) of years lived with disability among women 15 to 49 years.

Three quarters of nutrition deaths among young women and small children occur in just ten countries - India, Nigeria, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Niger, Mali, Tanzania, Chad, Kenya and Angola - but malnutrition in some form affects almost every country, impeding economic growth and development. According to the Global Nutrition Report, malnutrition costs as much as 11% of Gross National Product (GNP) due to lives lost, less learning in school, less earning in the workplace, and days lost due to illness.

National nutrition strategies should prioritize improving the nutritional status of women of reproductive age, and strengthen women’s capacity to provide nutritious diets for themselves, their children and their families. Specifically, countries should set targets for halving underweight and anemia among women 15 to 49 years by 2020 and for eliminating both by 2030. To achieve these goals, nutrition stakeholders should work together to simultaneously increase the supply of foods and supplements designed to meet the nutritional needs of younger women, with a special focus on iron-folic acid supplements and iron-fortified staple foods, and encourage their use by educating women, by providing cash transfers conditional on their use, by offering them as incentives for other healthy behaviors (e.g. childhood vaccination, prenatal care visits), and by making them available in the places women frequent daily (e.g. schools, workplaces and shops). Special support should be provided to enable breastfeeding in hospitals, homes and workplaces and to support women to transition to cooking methods that do not create the current high levels of household air pollution that are contributing to a massive burden of death and disability.

The United Nations, its agencies and partners should support this focus on the nutritional status of women 15 to 49 years as the key to achieving the new Sustainable Development Goals of ending child malnutrition and addressing the nutritional needs of adolescent girls, pregnant and breastfeeding women. The UN should encourage all development partners with a stake in meeting these goals to increase investments in high-impact interventions with a proven track record of improving women’s own nutritional status and their capacity to reduce childhood malnutrition. New investments should target the largest populations of malnourished women. Full engagement of the private sector is required to achieve these goals as food is a private market transaction in all but the most fragile of humanitarian settings. The UN should also lead the charge in a data revolution to fill the considerable gaps in our knowledge of the nutritional status of women of reproductive age at national and sub-national levels.

Women and children are nutrition priorities

Death and disability from malnutrition are concentrated among young women (15-49 years) and children under 5. #JustActions

The nutrition crisis among the women of India

Half of all Indian women 15 to 49 years (150 million) are anemic and almost half enter pregnancy underweight. #JustActions

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This is the knockdown statistic from the Global Nutrition Report: 1 in 3 people in the world is malnourished in some way which means that the person reading this either is, or is close to someone who is struggling with poor nutrition. Malnutrition, ranging from underweight to obesity, now impacts almost every country in one form or another. There are few development challenges that can make this claim.