International Women's Day

Let’s get women’s nutrition right for a balanced world

This year’s International Women’s Day celebrates balance. It’s a call to action for a more gender-balanced world. We need more gender-balanced boardrooms; boards; governments; media coverage; sports. But this got me thinking.

Are we getting ahead of ourselves, when we can get some of the basics right – like our diets? As a nutritionist, I know that all too often it is women who don’t get the right balance of nutrition. Until recently, few countries had enough data to estimate the prevalence of zinc deficiency.

But now we have research which shows that in Kenya, a massive 80 percent of women of reproductive age and pre-school children suffer from zinc deficiency. This underscores a more urgent need:

zinc deficiency is part of a broader, more sinister trend – the silent onslaught of ‘hidden hunger’. One-third of the world’s population continues to suffer from hidden hunger or micronutrient deficiency – caused by a lack of essential vitamins and minerals, even if people have enough calories to eat.

Zinc deficiency is a global problem, particularly in low-income and middle-income countries –and in Kenya, we are not getting enough of it. Yet zinc is especially important during periods of rapid growth and for the immune system – particularly for women. The consequences of zinc deficiency in humans include poor pregnancy outcomes, stunted physical growth, increased susceptibility to infection, and poor neurobehavioral development.

As we celebrate the International Women’s Day, the least we can do is provide equal access to the nutrients needed not only for a healthy and productive life but for a healthier and more productive economy. Proper nutrition in early life is the foundation for long-term health and plays a significant role in maternal and child health – as well as in our economies.

The Kenyan government’s ‘Big Four’ agenda aims to accelerate economic growth, transform lives by creating jobs, improving food security and nutrition, lowering living costs, reducing poverty and inequality by 2022. It’s a tall order. Yet this promise will only be delivered if the whole population – not half of it – are involved in its realisation.

The major weakness of interventions employed in the past, like issuing supplements or fortifying food – is that poor households where maternal and child micronutrient deficiencies are the most prevalent and severe – can’t afford or don’t source food from markets where these solutions are available.

It’s time that we all started to think outside the box. At the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture, we have shown that iron-rich beans – bred conventionally – can prevent anaemia and improve cognitive function in young women in Rwanda. What can be done for zinc deficiency?

We could test if zinc-enriched fertilisers for cow feed can bring zinc-enriched milk to women and children among poorer households. These are the sort of solutions we need to validate and scale up.

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