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Food, Income and Household Maintenance

Dec 12, 2008, 4:26 AM

A child or adult suffering from malnutrition is medically perceived as ill, and particularly in a child, malnutrition are much more fundamentally caused by poverty, or man-made and natural calamities.

Except in the case of micro-nutrient deficiency or eating disorders, such conditions cannot be exclusively addressed by medical interventions. Proteins, energy and malnutrition, which affects around 150 million young children in the world, 20 million of them seriously, is virtually unknown or middle class households. A sufficient supply of food in the storeroom is no guarantee that there will be no malnutrition, as with water supply, a great deal depends on usage and behaviour.

However, it is certainly the case that sufficient food in the household is an essential precondition of good family nourishment. Food is the most significant item on any family's budget. Food ranks even above shelter, as is demonstrated by the fact that in such tragedy-prone countries as Ethopia, Mozambique and Somalia, families abandon their homes in times of famine to go to the nearest town or main road in search of something to eat.

Access to land to grow food, or in the case of the landless or poor urban dwellers, the realisation of income by selling labour or trading so as to buy food is the survival priority. In semi-subsistence economies, all members of the family become part of its food-earning workforce almost as soon as they can walk.

In many societies, the breadwinner role, interpreted as provider of basic food, has by no means always or even primarily been male. Half the world's food supply is cultivated by women; in Africa, two thirds. Women rarely own the land they cultivate, but where family technology does not include animal traction or a plough, women are the main cultivators and produce all food for household consumption. Men are in charge of livestock, but this normally represents the family's economic reserves.

In parts of Africa where men grow food crops for cash, women folk may still be expected to provide all the family's consumption needs from the plot set aside for this purpose.

Women folk and girls also grow vegetables and fruits, milk cattle and keep poultry. In the country side, at least in places where women are not secluded, they also barter and sell surpluses from their plots in the market. From the money they earn, they support the household with other necessities. In the towns, they often support the household by trading in food or other items. Women dominate the markets of coastal West Africa, trade 60% of the food in East and Southern African Markets, and are conspicious food stall-holders almost everywhere. But their role in income provision and the economy generally has been deplorably undervalued. Gradually, perceptions are changing.

UNICEF- assisted studies, Nepal and the Phillippines have recently shown that women contribute half of the families income. Strategies to assist women in their food provision role inevitably overlap with strategies for poverty reduction. Generally, poverty alleviation has not been viewed by UNICEF as part of its domain, but female poverty alleviation is increasingly becoming a central focus of its overall nutrition strategy.

According to this strategy, hunger and malnutrition in women and children should be seen as the treatable symptoms of a situation that has immediate underlying and basic causes - all of which need to be addressed. Many of the underlying causes are eliminated by gender analysis, which reveals an unequal distribution of food especially good foods - within the family in favour of males, often based on ignorance and cultural prejudice.