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It pays to invest in poor girls and women – the returns are greater

Rwanda has shown that improved nutrition lifts individuals, families, communities and economies.


In far too many countries, being born poor and female still means a life of inequality, oppression, poverty, even an early death. The 20 toughest countries in which to be born a girl are among the poorest, a recent report by the One Campaign, an advocacy group aimed at fighting poverty, found. Of these, 16 are in Africa.

Women in sub-Saharan Africa have a one in 36 chance of dying in pregnancy or childbirth. In comparison, women in a developed country have a one in 4?900 chance of doing so, according to World Health Organisation (WHO) research on trends in maternal mortality between 1990 and 2015. A child born in Nigeria is 41 times more likely to die before their fifth birthday than a child born in Norway.

Women make up half the current population living in poverty and are the most vulnerable to falling into and staying in poverty.

But living in poverty does not have to mean the worst for girls: some very poor countries have beaten the odds.  Rwanda, for example, appears in 75th place on the list, between Georgia and Nicaragua. But the potential for women to thrive in Rwanda is much higher than in Mali, which is third on the list, despite the gross domestic product (GDP) per capita of the two countries being comparable. According to the World Bank, Mali’s GDP per capita is $704 and Rwanda’s is $695.

Several factors contribute to the ability of women and girls in Rwanda to thrive, including access to education and financial services. Another significant, yet often overlooked factor, is nutrition, a major determinant of whether women and girls will have a fair chance in life.

2012 study published in the journal Paediatric and Perinatal Epidemiology showed that if a pregnant woman does not have the right nutrition, her children are born with life chances that are already cut short: their bodies often will not develop to their full potential and, crucially, neither will their brains.

Without proper nutrition, children are more likely to suffer from stunting, the effects of which will follow them throughout their lives. Malnutrition is linked to 45% of all child deaths under the age of five, according to the WHO.

It is this silent and, in the case of mental development, invisible effect that robs families, communities and economies of their potential. Investments in nutrition are efficient, contributing to better health, education and economic growth in the world’s poorest places. Along with dirty water and no electricity, poor nutrition is part of the infrastructure on which extreme poverty festers. Improving nutrition and ending extreme poverty are inextricably linked.

The good news is that investing in girls and women has been shown to lift families and communities out of poverty more quickly than investing in men, research from the International Monetary Fund shows.

The United Nations standing committee on nutrition notes that malnutrition in all its forms is a burden not only on national health systems but also on the social, cultural and economic systems of a country, and is the greatest impediment to the fulfilment of human potential. Investments towards nutrition make economic sense because it reduces health care costs; it improves human productivity and economic growth and promotes education, intellectual capacity and social development not only for the present generation but also for future generations.

African countries have been hit hard by many crises, including the financial crash, the Ebola epidemic, droughts and the increase of food prices. These contribute to increasing levels of malnutrition among the most vulnerable people, with pregnant women and children being hit the hardest. Investment in nutrition is important for the continent.

Yet those living in the poorest part of the world receive shockingly little investment from world leaders, who spend less than 1% of development assistance on basic nutrition, the UN committee says.

The World Health Assembly in May and Nutrition for Growth Summit in June provide opportunities for world leaders to commit to fighting extreme poverty and to boost spending in areas of crucial importance such as to women and girls where every child gets the nourishment she needs to grow up healthy and reach her full potential, every pregnant mother has access to the nutrients she needs to survive her pregnancy and sustain her unborn child, and every new mother is educated about the importance of breastfeeding.

This could save the lives of millions in the developing world and improve economies.

Funds directed towards the right policies, such as promotion of breastfeeding, adolescent and preconception nutrition, and dietary diversification, offer the chance to invest in better opportunities and outcomes for girls and women.

Yannick Tshimanga works as a communications officer for ONE Africa.

Yannick Tshimanga works as a communications officer for ONE Africa.