Gender Roles in Food and Health

This is a revision and study page on gender roles in food and health. It develops the problem of gender bias at the society level that impacts women in countries at different stages of development. It develops a number of illustrative example to explore the issues.


  Gender roles related to food and health, including food production/acquisition and disparities in health

Females in comparison to males have higher survival rates at all age groups even prenatal survival. The main accepted explanation for this concerns their genetical and physiological superiority to males. Due to their importance for reproduction they have evolved to be healthier and less susceptible to morbidity. As a consequence, female life expectancy is higher in all countries at all stages of development. This demographic trend is present despite a significant gender bias in favour of males in both food and health.

The following graph shows the Health Adjusted Life Expectancy for Canada. It shows that women live longer than men. It also reveals that women live more years in a poor sate of health. This is most pronounced after the age of 65. Shorter male life expectancy is partly responsible for this. Over a life time women make better lifestyle choices and are more risk averse. A dominant gender role for women is caring and so women develop a closer relationship with health practitioners for both their children and themselves. Women as principle carers also adopt a caring role towards their male partners, which may reduce poor health in males It is well documented that married men live longer than single men. However, the difference in health years across gender is also explained by a gender bias that favours health care for men over women.

Gender Bias in Health Care

In 2017 President Donald Trump proposed to axe maternal care provision in his health bill. The bill was rejected but this alarming attempt cut health care for women during their most acute need for health care suggests a worrying development.  Gender plays a significant role in a range of situations that either create or exacerbate causes of disability for women. In the pharmaceutical industry for example, there is a simple bias, in terms of dosage recommendations. Recommended quantities are biased in favour of men. In addition, hormonal health remains under researched. Other female health concerns such as migraines, the menopause and post natal depression go under researched too. Historically, medical research has been biased to white male health concerns and largely conducted by white males.

A study in Canada found that physicians were more likely to recommend total knee arthroplasty for male patients when both men and women present with similar levels of disability, meaning that women will experience disability for a longer period before surgery. This is partly due to a gender culture where men are more ascertive than women as well as a predominant attitude that men are physical and active and so must require a knee transplant.

Another example is in the benefit gained from social support. Spouses provide a large amount of social support, which for men has led to a 40% lower risk of death. However, there have been no demonstrated benefits for women from spousal social support. In general, women tend to put off caring for their own health in order to look after the health of their families, resulting in long-term negative health consequences and associated disability.

Women in LICs face significant gaps in health care provision, firstly because of under development and poor health capacity but also because of a careless neglect of maternal care provision. In many LICs maternal deaths also go unreported highlighting its lack of significance to authorities. For example in Chad 1 in every 15 women will die due to complications in birth.

In addition, to a bias in health care provision, women also face other societal pressures that indirectly impact their health. Gender roles, in particular regard to patriarchy, impacts women. Lack of access to land rights and daily food needs hits women hardest and so women are more likely to suffer malnutrition. Reproductive rights are also a major health issue. Teenage and age-disparate partnerships impacts on girls' health through longer fertility periods and teenage pregnancy. The continued practise of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in 29 countries despite it being forbidden by law has a devastating physical and emotional impact on girls. In Europe, law changes in Poland over women' rights to abortion will have profound physical and mental health impacts on Polish women.

Finally, women face shocking levels of stigma and marginalisation in some societies. Infertility and ill health can lead to women becoming outcasts. Stigma in India  for example associated with TB remains a massive problem as the following example suggests.

'Tulika couldn't have asked for more, till she was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Almost overnight, her in-laws turned hostile towards her and her husband started to stay away. The final shock was when her husband filed for divorce because Tulika had TB and could infect everybody else with this "life threatening disease" '.

Experts say half the patients of pulmonary TB can infect others. However, the 6-8 month long DOTS treatment can cure the patient completely. DOTS is the most effective treatment for tuberculosis in the world today. Studies conducted on the socio-economic impact of TB have shown that more than 100,000 women in India have been rejected by their families.

The following gallery is based on campaigns that aim to raise awareness of the problem


Gender Bias in Food

Gender bias with food is even more evident than it is with health. In LICs and in particular rural regions, women have less decision-making power in households. They have less opportunities for income-generating activities in the market and this has a direct impact on the quality of nutrition in their diets. An analysis of poverty measures in rural Ghana and Bangladesh showed that more persons in female-headed households are below the poverty line.

In many rural regions of sub-Saharan Africa males are the primary decision makers within extended families and polygamy in some countries is quite common. In this arrangement most women are allotted a small plot of land and from this they are responsible for providing food for themselves and their children. In a study based in Burkina Faso, women in polygamous households were considerably more food insecure in comparison with their equals in monogamous households.

Across many regions of the world women face discrimination in terms of access to credit and land tenure. Many inheritance laws favour the husband of the wife or even their son. In this circumstance widows and divorced women become outcasts, not only shunned by family members but also the community. These women are suddenly thrown into poverty and are at greatest risk of food insecurity. Divorced women around the world are often the victims of circumstance and suffer short term poverty.

One successful project that targeted divorced and widowed women was through tassa construction in Keloma, Niger. Here women were taught how to construct tassa basins to recover degraded fields. The women worked as a cooperative and supported each other and their fields became very productive; more productive than the conventional fields farmed by male villagers. In this example the only thing that protected the women from having their fields confiscated was the prestige that the project had brought to the area and so in the short term these women could hold on to their land. These women face the prospect in the long term of having their productive fields confiscated by males.

During the Niger famine in 2005 there were alarming reports of women and children going hungry in rural villages when grains were available and stood in storage. In this example, the head of household was often away in search of work in the city or in Nigeria and the cultural taboo of women opening the storages prevented them from accessing food.

Customs and culture often dictate gender roles and the resulting privileges and life options. This especially favours men. There have been many studies that show that in times of food stress, families discriminate in favour of males. Due to

Tassa pits in Niger

patriarchy and the caring role of women it is expected that wives first choose to go without meals ahead of their husbands and children and if food stress is worse, they choose to buffer the diets of boys ahead of girls. A study found that in Ethiopia girls were more likely to be food insecure than boys.

A study in rural Bangladesh showed that malnutrition is more prevalent in girls than boys. The research used Harvard weight-for-age standard, which found that 14.4% of girls were classified as severely malnourished in comparison with only 5.1% of boys.

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