Institute Insights: March 2020


UN Women/Pornvit Visitoran

From the Director

Welcome to Institute Insights’ issue on gender and hunger. This month is Women’s History Month in the United States, and the world celebrated International Women’s Day on Sunday, March 8.

I began to write this letter just as the United States was widely acknowledging the need for swift action to contain, as far as is possible, the COVID-19 pandemic. One of the very few bits of good news is that there is growing awareness that many lower-wage workers must continue to work when they are sick because their employers do not offer paid sick leave. Congress has taken up measures to expand paid sick leave, and some companies have said they will offer it to people affected by the pandemic. Both would benefit women disproportionately since they are the majority of workers in the country’s lowest-paid professions. These steps could help anti-hunger advocates generate more political will to make paid sick leave a feature of all employment.  This is an essential work support, as explored in detail in Bread for the World Institute’s 2018 Hunger Report, The Jobs Challenge.

In this issue, we revisit the major themes of Bread for the World Institute’s 2015 Hunger Report, When Women Flourish ... We Can End Hunger.  The report identified three broad action areas to advance gender equity and enable the world to end hunger and malnutrition: bargaining power, the care gap, and collective voice.

Groups and individuals who work on international development issues, including Bread for the World Institute, devote a lot of thought and attention to women. Many of the reasons for such a focus have to do with women’s roles as food producers, food shoppers, food preparers, and family caregivers, not to mention the only people who can bring new life into the world. The evidence shows that women are more likely to invest any extra income in better health and education for their families, especially children. All of this means that it is sometimes more accurate to say that the focus is on mothers, particularly mothers of children not yet grown, than on women in general.

Given how important women are to ending hunger and malnutrition, it can be easy to slide into instrumentalism. As you might expect, this involves seeing women primarily as “instruments” to achieve goals (for example, reducing child stunting or strengthening community resilience), rather than primarily as individual human beings with their own interests, goals, values, and agency. Women and girls have been marginalized in most societies and historical eras, so the goal of ending hunger and malnutrition—and the broader aim of improving human well-being through the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)—can only be achieved by incorporating a gender equity lens into all efforts.

This year is the 25th anniversary of the Beijing conference on women and the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. The need to take stock of progress and bridge the remaining gaps inspired this year’s International Women’s Day theme, "I am Generation Equality: Realizing Women’s Rights,” and the Generation Equality campaign, which “brings together people of every gender, age, ethnicity, race, religion, and country, to drive actions that will create the gender-equal world we all deserve.” Some priority issues of the campaign include ending gender-based violence; securing economic justice; promoting and protecting the right to bodily autonomy; and taking feminist action for climate justice.

Happy Women’s History Month. We hope that the coming year brings faster progress on women’s rights as human rights.

Asma Lateef is director of Bread for the World Institute

Asma Lateef is director of Bread for the World Institute.

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Child marriage is an egregious violation of every child’s right to reach her or his full potential. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) enshrine a target to eliminate this practice by 2030. © UNICEF/UN016308/Gilbertson VII Photo

Legal Protections Strengthen Bargaining Power: The Case of Child Marriage

By Michele Learner

Bargaining power is a broad term for a broad but straightforward idea: gender equity calls for both women and men to have some degree of power and decision-making authority in issues that affect their own lives and the well-being of their families.

While it is true that legal rights and protections are of very limited use if few people are aware of them and there is little or no enforcement, legal requirements are often a prerequisite for lasting improvements in practice. It took women in the United States decades of steadfast action to win the right to vote. Only men were voting on whether to “give” women this fundamental democratic liberty, and they did not fail to realize that women’s suffrage could, sooner or later, pose a genuine threat to their own power and privilege.

A century later, women have at last achieved full suffrage rights in nearly every country and limited voting rights in the few “holdout” countries. Suffrage is absolutely essential to strengthening women’s bargaining power in the family and society.

Laws that are on the books but not upheld are nonetheless potential unrealized sources of bargaining power. Case in point: child marriage, classed as a human rights abuse because of its severe, long-lasting effects on children’s health, education, earning power, autonomy, and ability to advocate on behalf of themselves and their children. The high rate of child marriage remains a major barrier to gender equity, building a stronger economy through a more educated workforce, reducing maternal mortality, and other goals.

In most countries, under most circumstances, children under the age of 18 are not allowed to marry. Yet according to UNICEF’s June 2019 report, an estimated 12 million girls younger than 18 are married every year. In the developing world, one in nine girls is a wife the day she turns 15.

A complex combination of factors lies behind most child marriages. They may include extreme poverty that drives some parents to reduce the number of dependents at home; a desire to cement connections between extended families, connections viewed as more important than individual girls; long-held beliefs that women are weaker, less intelligent, or have very narrow roles; and/or lack of understanding of the extent of the damage caused by child marriage.

There have been successes, however. Legal suits to establish, reaffirm, or enforce the rights of girls and young women continue to be filed in every world region. In October 2019, the High Court of Appeals in Tanzania upheld a landmark 2016 ruling that establishing a lower minimum age of marriage for girls than for boys is unconstitutional. The minimum age of marriage had been 14 for girls and 18 for boys. The court rejected the appeal by the government of Tanzania, which argued that the disparity in minimum ages is a compromise “to accommodate customary, traditional, and religious values on marriage.” Also in 2019, the Court of Justice established by a regional body, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), ruled that the government of Sierra Leone could not discriminate against girls who were pregnant by barring them from school. Both cases received support from the human rights organization Equality Now.

Little by little, these efforts are succeeding. UNICEF reported in 2018 that over the preceding decade, 25 million child marriages that would otherwise have taken place had been prevented. South Asia, particularly India, is leading the way, with a girl’s risk of marriage before age 18 dropping from nearly 50 percent to 30 percent. Ethiopia, which once had one of the highest child marriage rates in Africa, reduced its rate by a third over 10 years.  

Over the years, Bread for the World Institute has frequently written about the connections between child marriage and hunger. All of our comments have been focused on developing countries. Ironically, it turns out that the United States has its own child marriage problem. It’s a problem that’s difficult to quantify. A number of states do not even collect data on the number of minors who marry, but a study based on available state data, not all recent and not including several states, found that between 2000 and 2010, well over 200,000 children were married in the United States. A few were as young as 11.

As in many developing countries, the problem in the United States appears to stem from a lack of effective legislation. Only two states, Delaware and New Jersey, currently prohibit child marriage. Several states have no minimum age of marriage at all, while the rest provide for “exceptions.” Often, these allow 16- and 17-year-olds to marry with the consent of their parents, while even younger children may marry with the approval of a judge.

While most parents, here in the United States as in other parts of the world, have the best interests of their children at heart, the law does not require any effort to determine a parent’s motives for approving a marriage, nor is anyone required to ask the child whether she or he wants to be married. Forcing someone into marriage is not technically a crime in the United States. Shamefully, marriage laws in some states provide a loophole for men who could otherwise be charged with statutory rape, by exempting men who are married to the children in question.

As with child brides elsewhere, U.S. girls who are married are more likely to drop out of school and more likely to live in poverty, both as teenagers and later. Girls who marry because they are pregnant are less likely to return to school than pregnant girls who do not marry. The health and sometimes the lives of married girls who become pregnant are at higher risk because they are both more likely to have a second baby within 24 months of the first, and to have five or more children in their lifetimes. They are more frequently victims of domestic violence.

A number of American women who were married as children have become strong advocates for legal reform. The group Unchained at Last was founded by a survivor of child marriage.  Members lobby at the state and federal levels, raise public awareness, organize demonstrations, and assist children trapped in marriages. Efforts to help individuals, however, are complicated by the very fact that they are legal minors. Generally, minors cannot leave home without permission without being reported and, if found, returned home as runaways. They cannot enter into legal contracts, including those that authorize an attorney to represent them in a divorce. Domestic violence shelters are not allowed to accept them, and activists may be breaking the law if they “enable a runaway.”

Unchained at Last and its allies have made progress in changing laws. The two states that prohibit child marriage enacted their laws recently (Delaware in May 2018 and New Jersey in June 2018), hopefully generating momentum to fuel faster progress. Other states have introduced bills that failed to pass or have proposed bills that do not go far enough—but as Bread for the World activists know, when it comes to getting legislation enacted, persistence very often pays off.

Michele Learner is associate editor with Bread for the World Institute.

Traditionally, women in the Turkana community in Kenya have not been asked to engage in decision-making nor to speak their mind. Curt Carnemark/World Bank

The Care Gap: Reducing Women’s Burden of Unpaid Work

By Tanuja Rastogi

The 2015 Hunger Report, When Women Flourish ... We Can End Hunger, also examined the impacts of the hours of household work and child care that women are generally expected to perform in addition to farming or paid work. This is sometimes known as “reproductive work” since it is composed of the tasks necessary to maintain a home and family, including fetching water and/or firewood, processing and cooking food, cleaning, sewing, caring for children and people who are ill or injured, and so forth.

The time consumed by unpaid labor reduces women’s ability to earn incomes outside the home. This, in turn, affects the extent to which they are able to manage or participate in decision-making about household finances.

In many low-resource contexts around the world, social norms and gender inequality that underpin unbalanced divisions of labor between women and men are particularly harmful when women are pregnant. With many hours of daily work to complete, often requiring strenuous physical exertion, women may have little time or autonomy to seek prenatal care, or to rest if advised by health workers to do so. They may not have accurate information about why it is critical to have the proper nutrients during pregnancy, or they may understand the special needs of pregnancy but lack the resources to act on this knowledge. Once the baby arrives, the demands of work, paid and unpaid, may prevent a new mother from breastfeeding exclusively. Particularly in low-income families, breastfeeding is a proven way of increasing infant survival rates.

Good nutrition during pregnancy, particularly avoiding becoming or remaining anemic, increases the odds of a safe delivery without life-threatening complications. In addition, there is increasing evidence that a pregnant woman’s nutritional status shapes her child’s long-term health. Women who are pregnant or may become pregnant need to gain access to the right nutrients as soon as possible to reduce the risks of childhood stunting and infant mortality. Pregnancy is an important part of the critical 1,000-day window for human nutrition.

What happens during pregnancy and in the first two years of life can establish a foundation for lifelong good health. But despite some progress at the global level, it remains far too common for the 1,000 days to be marked instead by irreversible damage to a child’s physical and cognitive development (stunting) or, worse, death. Currently about one in four children younger than 5 is stunted, and about 2.4 million young children die every year of preventable malnutrition-related causes.

Progress on reducing women’s unequal burden of unpaid work and the problems associated with it, particularly during pregnancy, has been far too slow. However, community-based nutrition programs have proven to be effective in supporting healthy pregnancies, good birth outcomes, and well-nourished children.

Another approach to women’s lack of time for paid work is to make available affordable and reliable child care. For example, Kidogo is a novel social enterprise that provides hundreds of low-income mothers in Kenya with child care—while also providing business opportunities to childcare providers.

Through comprehensive training programs, female entrepreneurs called “mamapreneurs” manage their own Kidogo childcare centers that prioritize quality early education and proper health, nutrition, and hygiene practices. The program is helping mothers earn income and has also improved the nutritional status of the children who participate, with a reduction of 7 percent in stunting.

Ultimately, achieving gender equity requires reducing and more fairly sharing the burden of unpaid work. As the Hunger Report points out, public services such as affordable child care and clean water sources near people’s homes are contributing to progress, albeit slowly, but another part of the solution is still largely lacking: men’s increased responsibility and participation in maintaining their homes and caring for their families.

Tanuja Rastogi is senior global nutrition policy advisor with Bread for the World Institute.

Umushyikirano 2013, Rwanda Parliament, 6-7 Dec 2013. Rwanda Government

Collective Voice: Seats at the Table for Women

By Jordan Teague

Women make up essentially half of the world’s population, but hold an average of only 25 percent of positions in national parliaments around the world. In the United States, women are just 24 percent of the 116th Congress. While both of these are the highest on record, they are clearly far from equal. Bread for the World argues that more women in political leadership positions would significantly advance the cause of ending hunger in the United States and around the world.

You don’t need me to tell you the importance and value of women and their contributions, but since March is Women’s History Month and March 8 was International Women’s Day, I’ll happily oblige. It’s widely recognized that women have a collaborative leadership style, and their conflict resolution skills are sorely needed in our world today. Development practitioners agree that a household budget in the hands of a woman is typically spent to improve the health and well-being of all family members. Why wouldn’t the same be true when women are in charge of countries?

In 2015, Bread for the World wrote about how when women flourish, we can end hunger. We reported extensively on countries that reserve shares of seats in parliaments for women – more than 80 do so. In 2003, Rwanda set a quota of 30 percent for women in elected positions. By 2019, 61.3 percent of seats in Rwanda’s parliament were held by women—the world’s first female-majority legislature.

Why does it matter whether women are represented in positions of decision-making? As the 2015 Hunger Report explains, Rwanda’s parliament now analyzes each piece of legislation according to its fairness to men and women. Just one example of how this is making a difference is that Rwanda now has laws that grant inheritance and land rights equally to men and women. Though establishing equality before the law has other components as well, the enactment of this group of laws jump-starts the ability of women to own the land that they farm—a hugely important factor in improving agricultural production and food security.

Since 2015, other countries have made progress on women’s representation in politics. In October 2018, Ethiopia elected its first female president in modern history, Sahle-Work Zewde. At the same time, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed appointed women to half of the ministerial roles in the Ethiopian Cabinet, including key positions such as the Minister of Defense and the Minister of Peace. The representation of women in Ethiopia’s parliament is nearing 40 percent. As Fitsum Arega, the prime minister’s chief of staff, said, “The appointment of a female head of state not only sets the standard for the future but also normalizes women as decision-makers in public life.”

The 2015 Hunger Report made several recommendations that are still important in moving toward gender equity and the end of hunger. One was to make it easier for women to run for public office at all levels of government, and another was to build a generation of women leaders in government and civil society. I believe the two are mutually reinforcing. When young women see other women in positions of decision-making and political power, they grow up believing that this is not only possible but normal. Let’s make it so.

Jordan Teague is senior international policy advisor with Bread for the World Institute.

Frances Perkins, 1938 November 23. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, photograph by Harris & Ewing, [reproduction number, LC-DIG-hec-25438]

Collective Voice: The Example of Frances Perkins Is More Important Than Ever

By Todd Post

It’s a maxim of political leaders of every stripe that the best anti-poverty program—and by extension, the best anti-hunger program—is employment. At Bread for the World Institute, we’d generally agree with that statement with the very important caveat that it must be good employment, not just any employment or job. As experience shows and research corroborates, not all jobs in the United States lift households out of poverty or make them food secure.

Workplace policies are constantly evolving. Many of the norms we may take for granted—such as minimum wages and child labor laws—didn’t come easily. Frances Perkins, Secretary of Labor from 1932 to 1944 under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was a courageous and influential reformer in government. She was not only the first female labor secretary, but the first female cabinet member.

Perkins was a committed social justice activist who pressed Roosevelt to make the New Deal a better deal for more American workers. New Deal labor reforms weren’t perfect; the biggest failing was that people of color were largely excluded, pawns in a cynical maneuver designed to secure congressional support for the president’s progressive legislative proposals.

Despite the slow progress on civil rights during Roosevelt’s tenure in the White House, Perkins earned praise from the Urban League for her efforts to ensure that black men were accepted as participants in the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). During the Great Depression, the CCC provided jobs to unemployed, unmarried men on environmental projects that ranged from planting and maintaining trails to fighting fires. As the African American newspaper The Chicago Defender notified its readers, “You ought to be thankful to President Delano Roosevelt for appointing Mrs. Frances Perkins as his Secretary of Labor … She is for you, she stands on your issues, and by the same token you ought to be for her.”

As a woman, Perkins was an easy target for her political enemies, who assaulted everything from her loyalties to her intelligence. She was labeled a Communist sympathizer and portrayed as a “soft-minded” woman. In 1939, members of Congress tried unsuccessfully to impeach her because, five years earlier, she had refused to deport an Australian longshoreman for leading a successful labor strike in San Francisco. Roosevelt knew when he hired her that she had some “baggage”—a husband who suffered repeated mental breakdowns, very likely due to what we know today as bipolar disorder.

Perkins had served under Roosevelt while he was governor of New York, as chairwoman of the state’s Industrial Commission, so he knew of her toughness when he offered her the position of Labor Secretary. Tenacity was essential. In the 1930s, women had only had the right to vote for a handful of years, and Perkins was about to become the point person for the most profound changes in worker rights in U.S. history.

She told Roosevelt point blank that she expected him to commit to the most progressive labor agenda the country had ever seen. Just as a start, her priorities included unemployment insurance, a minimum wage, a 40-hour work week, old-age insurance, and the abolition of child labor.

Neither her warnings nor her demands caused Roosevelt to reconsider his offer for her to lead the Department of Labor. Whether he thought he knew Perkins or not, he may not have realized she had been studying him for some time. From the beginning of her career in government, she kept a file she called “Notes on the Male Mind,” which she used to strategize and prepare for political battles she had every intention of winning. Perhaps as part of her strategy, Perkins was also known for her reserved manner in public. She was reticent in the company of the competitive men in Washington, not putting herself forward.

Her biographers all point to the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in Greenwich Village, NY, the most notorious industrial fire in U.S. history, as a defining experience in her life. Dozens of factory workers, mostly women and girls, perished in the fire or jumped to their death from the top floors of the building. At the time, Perkins was 10 years out of college and working in New York City for a charitable organization, lobbying to end child labor. She witnessed the tragedy from the street, surrounded by throngs of similarly horrified people. She was aware of the appalling conditions in many of the city factories. The direct cause of many of the Triangle fire deaths was that the doors had been locked to prevent workers from leaving the building without being searched as suspected thieves.

Following the fire, Perkins resolved to enter government, convinced that reform had to be driven by leadership within the public sector. She rose quickly to senior status as progressive politicians recognized her passion and commitment.

Perkins’ most enduring accomplishments are enshrined in the Fair Labor Standards Act, the legislation that provided most of the labor improvements she had told Roosevelt were priorities.

I hesitate to think about what Frances Perkins, who died in 1965, would say about the state of the U.S. labor market today. She championed the cause of organized labor, and New Deal reforms led to a surge in union membership. But legislation enacted in the intervening decades has decimated the union movement. The FLSA is still in effect, but it was never intended to be more than the first step of a work in a work in progress. Workers cannot take progress for granted, but Frances Perkins is one of many outstanding examples of greater collective voice for women—as an essential element of gender equity and as a benefit to the entire society.

Todd Post is senior researcher, writer, and editor with Bread for the World Institute.

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