Women's Role in Dietary Diversity
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When it comes to household nutrition, mothers matter. 

That is the takeaway message from a new working paper from IFPRI’s Ethiopia Strategy Support Program (ESSP). Using the Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index (WEAI), the paper examines the impact that female empowerment – specifically, access to and control over household income and resources and role in household and agricultural decision-making –  has on women’s and children’s dietary diversity and nutritional status in rural Ethiopia.

It is generally understood that greater women’s empowerment within the household leads to improved nutrition. Research has shown that when mothers have greater control over household resources than other household members, including fathers, they tend to allocate more of those resources toward welfare-improving priorities, such as nutritious food and health care. In addition, the more control a woman has over her own time, the more likely she is to spend that time on procuring special foods for her family and on taking proper care of sick children.

The WEAI contains two sub-indices on women’s empowerment in agriculture and gender parity in empowerment in the household.  These can be aggregated and reported at the country or regional level and based on individual-level data on men and women within the same households. The ESSP study utilizes the first sub-index, to measure women’s empowerment through engagement in the agricultural sector including decisions regarding agricultural production, access to and decision-making power regarding productive resources, control over the use of income, leadership in the community, and time use.

Using primary data from a 2013 Feed the Future baseline survey comprising 7,011 households in five regions of the country, the study examines basic demographic information, household consumption and expenditure, women’s empowerment indicators, women’s dietary diversity and anthropometry, child anthropometry and infant and young child feeding, employment, agricultural productivity, and input use. The authors use the WEAI indicators to calculate women’s empowerment as a continuous measure for the selected domains; these measurements became the empowerment indicators used in the analysis of the impact of empowerment on woman and child dietary diversity. In the models, the authors try to account for relationships between production, external shocks, and household differences that could influence dietary diversity. 

The authors identified leadership (i.e., membership in an economic or community group) as the domain that most contributes to women’s disempowerment, followed by time use, household resources, and agricultural production. These latter domains (time use, household resources, and production) are further broken down into workload, access to and decision-making ability regarding the use of credit, and autonomy in agricultural production.

The results found that all of the women’s empowerment indicators are positively and significantly related to children’s dietary diversity. In other words, the more women are empowered within their households, the better the diet diversity of their children will be; the most important factors seemed to be autonomy in and diversity of agricultural production and mothers’ education.  The women’s empowerment indicators also have a significant positive relationship to women’s dietary diversity, with the most significant domains being group membership, amount of time spent on paid and unpaid activities, decision-making ability regarding household income, and autonomy in agricultural production decisions.

However, the paper finds that the linkages between women’s status and household nutrition are complex. For example, women who have more ability to engage in commercial agriculture or non-farm income-generating activities may in fact have less time to care for their children. Similarly, in households and societies in which household resources are pooled and men and women work together, women’s decision-making power will not impact the household’s health status in the same way.

These findings suggest that women’s disempowerment, through a lack of control over household resources, time, knowledge, and community networks, poses a major challenge to improving nutritional outcomes in Ethiopia. By empowering women in general and by encouraging their engagement in agricultural, educational, and economic activities in particular, the Ethiopian government can make a positive and significant impact on women’s and children’s nutrition throughout the country.

Written by Sara Gustafson, IFPRI

Photo credit:Lindsay Mgbor / DFID