Making policies work

GREAT insights Magazine

No sustainable improvements in nutrition unless women and girls are empowered as agents of change

May 2017

Verburg, G., Torres, C. No sustainable improvements in nutrition unless women and girls are empowered as agents of change. GREAT Insights Magazine, Volume 6, Issue 2. May/June 2017.

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ECDPM’s Carmen Torres talks to Gerda Verburg, SUN Movement Coordinator and Assistant UN Secretary-General.


The Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) Movement’s vision is to end all forms of malnutrition by 2030, based on the principle that every woman, man, girl and boy has a right to food and good nutrition. Considering the abundance of international policy frameworks and initiatives that seek to address gender equalities in our food systems, putting the rhetoric into practice should not be so hard. SUN member countries like Malawi and Senegal are proving this, and the efforts of partnerships with business, civil society, donors and the UN system are paving the way to progress.

Carmen Torres: What are the objectives of the Scaling up Nutrition (SUN) Movement and the challenges to achieve them, especially regarding gender inequality?

Gerda Verburg: The Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) Movement’s vision is to end all forms of malnutrition by 2030, based on the principle that every woman, man, girl and boy has a right to food and good nutrition. Our strategy and roadmap for 2016-2020 is built around the notion that both under and overnutrition (obesity, non-communicable diseases, etc.) need to be tackled, often in parallel, and that every country – in the global South and North alike – has a nutrition problem. Today, we have 59 countries in the driver’s seat of our Movement, which was founded in 2010.

Our remit is to ensure that countries make strides towards meeting the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), besides Goal 2 on eliminating hunger and achieving food security and improved nutrition, as nutrition is a maker and marker for all the SDGs – with women and girls at the centre of all action.

From a gender perspective – and given the inclusive nature of the 2030 Agenda – this means that all of us must roll up our sleeves and move from inspiration to actual impact to ensure equity and equality-driven action. Whereas on many levels the world has made great strides in reducing undernutrition over the past decades, this progress has largely been uneven across regions, population groups and genders. Women and girls are often the last to eat the food they have prepared and drink the water they have fetched. Investing in mothers is not just the right thing to do, but the smart thing to do as good nutrition in the 1,000 days between a woman’s pregnancy and her child’s second birthday sets the foundation for all days that follow.

As we speak, SUN Countries are about to embark on their annual joint assessments, a mutual accountability exercise where all sectors and stakeholders at the country level assess where they stand and how they are faring in ensuring sustained progress and that no one is left behind in the nutrition puzzle. The Movement has committed to scale up its work to address the fact that there will be no sustainable improvements in nutrition unless women and girls are empowered as agents of change. This means that we are looking at staffing, substance and structure of nutrition communities in the 59 countries where we work, to make sure they, in turn, have an equitable improvement in the nutrition status of everyone; that they adopt policies that reduce nutritional inequalities and improvements in education – with the spotlight on women and girls – and eliminate discriminatory laws and practices. A key element will also be to make sure that representatives from all communities in decision-making processes are involved, which will bring the right people to the table.

CT: What can important international policy frameworks and initiatives like the upcoming G7 Taormina initiative, the Nutrition 4 Growth (N4G) initiative, the Decade of Action on Nutrition and the Paris Agreement concretely do to effectively address gender inequalities in our food systems for better nutrition?

GV: Considering the abundance of international policy frameworks and initiatives that seek to address gender equalities in our food systems, putting the rhetoric into practice should not be so hard. After all, these frameworks and initiatives provide the perfect backdrop for all countries and stakeholders to take the baton and sprint – not just run – on their course to make sure food systems work for everyone. For true change to happen we need to be more consequent, every day, in everything. This is what we do with actors that make up the SUN Movement, from its Lead Group to its Country Network. It isn’t enough to just say that women and girls need to be empowered – this is the time to deliver; each actor needs to act. Our strong invitation is “lead from where you are, be credible”.

Looking at the G7, for instance, this powerful group has made great headway in its approach to gender equality – albeit often in the health realm – since the 1990s, with the 2015 Schloss Elmau Summit generating an unprecedented 29 commitments on gender-related issues, with indicators and targets, including stepping up actions to empower women in food systems and value chains. The Ise-Shima Summit Leaders’ Declaration of last year takes it one step further by integrating gender equality throughout its final Communique, which bodes well for the upcoming G7 Summit in Sicily. What I would love to see in Taormina is a stronger focus on the links between gender equality and decision-making. Tangible results in women’s empowerment in migration, refugee and humanitarian policies and action are needed, as the nutrition of migrant women and girls as well as the role they play in peace and resilience-building are often overlooked and undervalued.

We know that by educating adolescent girls and outlawing child marriage, fewer children will be born undernourished to become wasted and stunted, which makes putting women and girls at the centre of all nutrition action the more important – also as the main caregivers and those that most frequently prepare their families’ food. We need concretely to ensure that women and girls have more equitable access to financing, land, services, and legal protection, to name a few. And for this, it is up to countries to walk the talk and put the right policies in place and invest, as needed. There is no need to complicate it. I would like to applaud the governments of this world who, in practice, put gender equality at the heart of all action, at home and abroad.

It can’t, however, just be up to governments to take this action further. Business has a key role to play – not just in terms of investments, but also in ensuring that women are a part of every decision-making process – in the boardroom, in every office and everywhere in between. Put in place female-friendly and family-driven human resource policies like breastfeeding facilities and family leave structures. Business also has a key role to work with governments to make the requirement for equal pay for work of equal value crystal clear in any country they may be operating in. We all know that well-nourished and happy workers are productive workers, so aim high and go for it, I say!

CT: Can you share with us a SUN compelling story of change, successfully empowering women within the food system for better nutrition, which could be replicated and scaled-up?

GV: I can give you two great stories of change from SUN Countries Malawi and Senegal – both signatories of the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP) – that have successfully empowered women within the food system for better nutrition, which I hope will inspire others and perhaps be replicated and scaled up. These stories make it abundantly clear that a community-centred approach that ignites the power of sisterhood is essential. Women are very often best placed to decide how resources are used at home to improve nutrition. Supporting them to reach out to other women in their communities to share their experience, knowledge and aspirations is vital.

But we mustn’t only look to the women – men should champion and actively engage in women’s empowerment. From presidents to chiefs to husbands, fathers and brothers, men must actively engage in ensuring that every member of their families can enjoy good nutrition. In our work with nutrition champions in the SUN Movement, we stress the importance of leading from where you are, which also rings true of how men can lead on the empowerment of women, focusing on a prosperous society for all.

In Malawi, President Peter Mutharika has spoken up and out for the empowerment of women and girls by eliminating child marriage and by advocating for higher education, not just in Malawi but across sub-Saharan Africa, making women’s empowerment the business of everyone in the country. As we know, child marriage and lack of higher education opportunities for adolescents have detrimental effects on the nutritional status of children and women themselves. As a champion of the global UN Women ‘He for She’ campaign, President Mutharika has made sure that the entire cabinet, ministers and permanent secretaries are on board and committed to furthering women and girls, a commitment that has been met by local level traditional authorities, who work tirelessly within their communities to realise the rights of the girl child. By putting in place training for traditional authorities on gender-related laws such as the Gender Equality Act and the Marriage, Divorce and Family Relations Act, village Chiefs have developed their own declaration used to mobilise the community and households, themselves, to put their money where their mouth is and support women’s empowerment, end gender-based violence and support girls’ education. These laws are now enforced all over Malawi through the integration with community bylaws. Religious leaders have been key to ensure also a shift in mindset takes place, which has resulted in, for instance, Senior Chief Inkoso Kachindamoto annulling over 300 child marriages since the new Marriage Act – which sets the minimum age for marriage at 18 years – came into force in 2015.

The work does not stop there, however. Malawi has also been a frontrunner in ensuring all ministries are trained in developing gender-responsive budgets, which is also a key area of work of the Ministry of Finance, as gatekeepers of the financing framework over funds allocated towards gender equality by each ministry. What Malawi has shown us is exciting: policies, legal frameworks and financing should be conducive to help the girl child to complete her education cycle. All levels of society from the government to the village-level need to be on board for tangible and sustainable results. Mother-to-mother support groups can be essential to re-admit girls who have dropped out of school as a result of teen pregnancies. Re-admission programmes need to be scaled up for those girls already married or pregnant; and putting in place scholarships is a tremendous help in preventing girls from dropping out of school in the first place.

Now, across the Continent in Senegal, the early involvement of women in the fight against malnutrition at the community level is driving the success of the National Scaling up Nutrition (SUN) Programme, which relies on 18 community-based implementing structures to roll out its activities targeting pregnant and lactating women, as well as children under five years. What has been found is that, by building on the structures and relationships that exist within communities, women’s participation in activities and uptake of services and interventions that are required for improving nutrition are most likely to increase.

For example, Touba – the country’s second most densely populated city – offers a compelling story of change as existing religious community structures provide a platform for empowering women as implementers of essential actions to improve nutrition. In Touba (and most of Senegal) religious and political powers are strongly interconnected. Founded in 1987, Wilaya is a community-based structure that has grown to include over 40 dahiras – or Mouride religious associations established in urban areas to provide a space for communication and mutual support – in Touba. Since its founding, Wilaya has acted as a forum through which women played leadership roles in implementing hygiene actions and awareness-raising campaigns for health issues. The engagement of religious and community leaders, including the General Caliph of Mourides, as nutrition champions has been essential to Wilaya’s success. These leaders have all been sensitised on the importance of nutrition and trained to help raise awareness within their communities. Nutrition champions have also helped to foster collaboration amongst local administrative, religious, and health stakeholders, such as sub-prefect officials, presidents of the rural council, village chiefs, district medical officers, and heads of local medical centres.

Empowering women on nutrition has resulted in the consolidation of strong community dynamics and engagement, the establishment of ‘family attics’ (Saxum Njaboot) for cereal storage and preservation in every nutrition community centre, and the strengthening of women’s leadership roles – as management committees of the nutrition community centres are chaired by women.

The success of Wilaya in Touba demonstrates that the Government of Senegal’s approach works, and shows that replicating this success requires a smart recipe, including: political ownership, a mapping of existing women’s associations, identifying influential women leaders, informing decision-makers on the National Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) Programme objectives, establishing management committees whose members are drawn from community-based associations, providing training to actors and community stakeholders involved in efforts to address malnutrition, and elaborating an action plan as well as a monitoring and evaluation process. These are lessons we can all learn from.

CT: From your experience with the SUN Networks, what are the key challenges for stakeholders to join forces to fight gender inequalities and malnutrition? What are the strategies of the SUN Movement to leverage gender-biased power imbalances in the food systems for better nutrition? In particular, how can The Netherlands contribute to the SUN Movement, for example via the FoodFirst coalition or the ‘Dutch diamond’ approach?

GV: I view our four SUN Networks – comprising business, civil society, donors and the UN system, as our main strength to forge bonds and partnerships for country-level action and to ensure women are empowered, everywhere, to combat both under and overnutrition, the latter being an increasingly urgent phenomenon in almost every country around the world.

Looking at the companies that signed up to the Nutrition for Growth Compact in 2013 and form part of the Movement, the SUN Business Network is stepping up its work by looking at corporate social responsibility actions towards streamlining this into the business case. Businesses do have responsibilities, towards their shareholders and workers, but also towards women, men, society and the planet, alike, to ensure that global challenges like gender-biased power imbalances in the food system are addressed. As the recently launched report entitled “Better Business, Better World” by the Business & Sustainable Development Commission stresses, achieving the single goal of gender equality (SDG 5) could contribute up to US$ 28 trillion to global GDP by 2025, according to one estimate, making the overall ‘prize’ enormous, indeed.

The Netherlands can in many ways contribute to and inspire the Movement, and I say this not only because I am Dutch. First, the Netherlands deliver by being a frontrunner in food system thinking – across the value chain – that looks beyond just agricultural development. They champion multi-stakeholder and multi-sectoral action – or the Dutch Diamond Approach – which is at the core of the SUN Movement’s strategy. Nutrition is also frequently discussed in public and private spaces, with the fight against malnutrition and obesity frequently coming up as priority areas within the country. We have nutrition champions at all levels who help push this agenda along. Furthermore, the Dutch are quite vocal – and more importantly active and reliable partners – in the fight for good nutrition in multilateral fora, such as the European Union, which has committed to prevent seven million girls and boys from being stunted by 2025. Which makes me think that maybe, just maybe, the Netherlands could be the first Northern country to join the SUN Movement to work shoulder to shoulder with other countries to prevent and fight obesity and related diseases. One can but hope.


This article was published in GREAT Insights Volume 6, Issue 2 (May/June 2017).

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