Women are an economic force to be reckoned with

In this guest people and planet blog post, Marzena Zukowska from Ashoka explores the links between women, economics and health...

In 2010, USAID created a brilliant infographic for its 50th anniversary, illustrating why investing in women is a big win for economics (and should be a top priority for all aid agencies).

For health and economics in the developing world, the statistics were telling:

When women have the same amount of land as men, there is over a 10 per cent increase in crop yields.

Current approaches to preventing mother-to-child HIV transmission are 98 per cent effective.

The challenge, however, is harnessing the economic potential that exists when working at the crossroads of health and agriculture, because often issues like HIV/AIDS make it all the harder for mothers and families to feed to their children.

Ashoka Fellow Julie Carney is finding that in Rwanda, where chronic malnutrition still affects 43 per cent of children under five and the agriculture sector still accounts for more than 80 per cent of export revenue, working across sectors is not a choice its a necessity. By both demystifying nutritional concepts and equipping mothers with the knowledge and resources to produce their own nutrient-rich food, Carney is putting women front and center as the economic drivers within their communities.

She was inspired by conversations with health service providers and with mothers in the community, who would not understand why their children were continually malnourished, and what they could do about it, Carney said.

The numbers speak for themselves: when women producers have control over their household income, a childs nutrition is bound to improve 11 times over on average.

The Gardens for Health model combines advocacy, direct services, and training to completely change the landscape of rural healthcare across sub-Saharan African, starting with the Gasabo District of Rwanda. Healthcare centers are equipped to provide additional services to mothers that go beyond direct medical support, such as education, psychosocial support, and agricultural extensions.

For me, the aha moment was realizing that the current paradigm of food aid and short-term food handouts did not have to be the status quo, Carney said. By giving family seeds instead of prescriptions for more Plumpynut, for example, we could get at the root causes of malnutrition.

The disconnect of past approaches for treating malnutrition has revolved around nutrients and sustainability. Short-term food handouts emphasize bulk and calories, not necessarily bioavailable nutrients, or ones that the human body can readily absorb and benefit from. Moreover, anything short-term has an ephemeral quality to it, reinforcing a paradigm of dependency instead of self-sufficiency and prevention.

The bottom-line is that good nutrition is complex.

Doctors were frustrated, because they would handout a prescription to help families, and would then go home to the same conditions that cause malnutrition, and theyd be back in the health system again, Carney said.

Gardens for Health strives to create nutrient and food security right in the backyards of some of the most vulnerable farming families. Without actually handing out seeds, health providers and physicians direct mothers, who are faced with the burden of malnutrition, to the Gardens for Health program where they receive personalized attention to help them design a sustainable home garden rooted in their own living conditions and realities.

Moreover, program also offers consultations and works with families to address issues that implicitly affect malnutrition, such as gender-based violence, mental health, HIV/AIDS, and family planning.

Beyond these direct services, Gardens for Heath engages in policy-level advocacy work to bridge the gap between two sectors that have been, in the past, treated as separate by development and aid organizations. The program is part of the Ministry of Health (MOH) technical working group on nutrition and the Ministry of Agriculture (MINAGRI) technical working group on agriculture, where it is continually advocating for the integration of agriculture and food security into the treatment of malnutrition.

In the past three years, Gardens for Health has trained over 208 community health works at the community level. Enrolling more than 360 families in the program, the organization has given over 1,440 children an opportunity to grow and thrive.

Whats next on the agenda for initiative? Building smart networks of partners, who can spread the materials, methodology, and broad relevance of the approach. Right now, were trying to figure out how we can work with companies that are sourcing food, like coffee beans, to get resources that go beyond the traditional grant-based system, Carney said.

By drawing unlikely parallels, the scope of Gardens for Health has the potential to go beyond the current districts where it operates, and spread even beyond the borders of Rwanda.

Do you want to learn more? Check out Ashokas Nutrients for All Initiative. Keep the conversation going on Twitter with #nutrients4all, and check out our Facebook page.

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