It is self-evident that food shortages are not healthy, but up to now nobody had looked if all children in a family suffer equally, or if there are gender differences. In most studies into the effects of food insecurity, parents were questioned, not their children. Scientists of Jimma University (Ethiopia), assisted by American and Flemish scientists, during five years followed two thousand teenagers in as many households, in urban as well as rural communities.
In food insecurity an average of three girls out of ten reported having been ill during the previous month; against two boys out of ten. In food insecure households, girls were twice more likely to report suffering from illness. The girls even reported seven times more often difficulties with activities due to poor health, or feeling tired.
In situations of food insecurity, aid workers should take this into account, the authors say.
In fact, girls should be healthier. Biologically spoken, they are tougher; as teenager they smoke less and show less risk seeking behaviour than boys. But cultural discrimination makes that girls suffer more from situations of shortage.
The teenagers and their family were questioned during the hunger season (the rainy season) and during spring, when there is less food insecurity. The scientists noted, among other things, how much and how varied they ate, their length and weight. They asked for tiredness and lack of energy in the previous month; for problems with activities for school, work or household due to poor health; if they had been ill during the previous month. A quarter of the girls and 16% of the boys were food insecure.
The scientists adjusted for dietary diversity, BMI, place of residence, cooking place (sleeping room, living room, separate kitchen) distance to a garbage disposal site, presence of animals in house, to isolate the effect of gender on illness. Even then, the girls reported seven times as much low energy; and 7.4 times more often problems with activities.
The difference between boys and girls was more intense in rural areas than in cities.
It is known that women rate their health always poorer than men, and that they more often report health problems, being more cautious of their health than men. But in this case that cannot be an explanation, because when they were food secure, boys and girls reported no differences.
In many cultures, sons are more valued than daughters. Previous research in the Philippines, Ethiopia, Nepal, India and Guatemala showed that sons receive more and better food. But in Ethiopia at any rate this discrimination only leads to health problems when there is not enough food available.
The researchers conclude that aid workers who provide people with more or better food, need to give extra attention to girls when dealing with food insecurity. They suggest a good way to reduce gender disparities is to remove resource constraints.
This might be somewhat easier than shifting population-level norms around gender.
Source: African News (Amsterdam, The Netherlands)