How women suffer the worst effects of malnutrition in South Africa

Poverty, inequality and the lack of access to land are issues that drive the continued malnutrition of women in South Africa, especially since women tend to put their families needs before their own.

According to the General Household Survey of 2012, 25% of women-headed households cut meal portions and skip meals while 8% less of male-headed households do the same. 21% of women-headed households are likely to have insufficient food, which is more common than in male-headed households, only 15.8% of them are at risk.

In an interview with The Daily Vox, Rashmi Mistry, the head of GROW Campaign for Oxfam said that in South Africa, women are responsible for looking after the household and putting food on the table. “When money is tight or crops fail, it is more often women who have the burden of finding some way to feed the family,” she said.

But it is not just food women are responsible for. “What is even more precarious is if women also have to cope with family members who need additional care, such as the elderly and sick, because precious resources need to be spent on medicines,” Mistry said. 

Inequality doesn’t just affect the health of women, according to South African Demographic and Health Survey (2016). A mother’s education and wealth quintile are both inversely related to stunting levels. The study showed that stunting among children under the age of five generally decreases with increasing wealth quintiles, from 36% among children in the lowest wealth quintile, to 24% among those in the middle wealth quintile, and to 13% of children in the highest wealth quintile.

According to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, another issue faced by women who produce food is that their yields are between 20% and 30% lower than men. This is due to lack of access to productive resources and services.

Women not only have a lack of access to sufficient food production, they also have a lack of access to nutritious food. A Lancet report released in 2014 showed how 68% of South African women over the age of 20 are overweight, and of this 42 % were obese.

Mistry said Oxfam found when people are living in poverty they simply cannot afford nutritious food and have ‘bad access to good food and good access to bad food’.  

“When people are living in poverty they cannot afford to eat nutritious food and often fall back on cheap and mass-produced foods that are heavy in starches that can lead to malnutrition, as well as obesity and associated health problems,” she said.

Mistry said patriarchy can play a role in the access to food in the home, as it is still seen as the women’s role to feed the family in some households and cultures. “Growing food, preparing food, even buying food is something that some men will not contribute to, even when a woman has little time due to work, household chores and caring for the family.  This can lead to added stress within the household,” she said.

Oxfam found in its Hidden Hunger report that women find coping mechanisms to deal with the shortage of food. “Whether that is borrowing from neighbours, finding small jobs over and above their existing daily work, making food go further. But when there simply isn’t much food to go around women tend to ensure their children and family are fed first which mean they themselves manage with smaller portions or without any food,” Mistry said. “When food is short it leads to increased tension and stress in the household, and I have heard from a number of women how this can lead to domestic violence.”

According to Mistry, gender equality is key to eradicating hunger. “ Women need to have better access to the means of production (land, finance, seeds etc) and a living income to improve the households food security,” she said.

Featured image via Wikimedia Commons