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Women, Poverty And Food Security In India

By Kiran Sharma

10 April, 2012


Poverty has traditionally been defined in income or expenditure terms and can be viewed in relative or absolute terms. Poverty and food security are complex and multidimensional in nature. Poverty leads to under nutrition and food insecurity by limiting poor people's access to food. About three-fourth of India's population living in the rural sector is reeling under abject poverty, illiteracy, ill-health, unemployment, low quality of life and so on. Food insecurity causes poverty, vulnerability and livelihood insecurity, but is at the same time also a result of these conditions. It is widely accepted that poverty is currently the principal root cause of food insecurity at the level of households. It is also clear that in several societies, households are not homogenous entities, since within a household, women and girl children often tend to be relatively more undernourished. Gender constitutes the most profound differentiating division. A gendered analysis of poverty reveals not simply its unequal incidence but also that both cause and effect are deeply gendered. Women face a greater risk of poverty than men. The gender disparity is most visible among female- headed households, notably lone mothers and single pensioners. Food security at the level of each individual is hence important. Millennium Development Goals (MDG) recognizes that hunger and food insecurity are the core afflictions of poor people, and specifically sets out to halve the proportion of extremely poor and hungry people in the world. Amartya Sen added a new dimension to food security and emphasised the “access” to food through what he called ‘entitlements' – a combination of what one can produce, exchange in the market along with state or other socially provided supplies. The 1995 World Food Summit declared, “Food security at the individual, household, regional, national and global levels exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life”. The declaration further recognizes that “poverty eradication is essential to improve access to food”. Food security, as internationally understood, involves physical, economic and social access to a balanced diet, safe drinking water, environmental hygiene and primary health care. Such a definition will involve concurrent attention to the availability of food in the market, the ability to buy needed food and the capability to absorb and utilise the food in the body. Thus, food and non-food factors that is, drinking water, environmental hygiene and primary health care are involved in food security. The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI)'s 2008 Global Hunger Index says that with over 200 million people insecure about their daily bread, Indian scenario is ‘alarming' in terms of hunger and malnutrition. The first ever Indian Hunger Index, released along with the Global Hunger Index, found that not a single state in India fell in the ‘low hunger' or ‘moderate hunger' categories . Madhya Pradesh had the most severe level of hunger in the country, followed by Jharkhand and Bihar. Punjab and Kerala scored the best on the Index. India ranks 66 among 88 countries in the hunger index.

Profiles of the Poor

The composition of the poor has been changing and rural poverty is getting concentrated in the agricultural labour and artisan households and urban poverty in the casual labour households. The share of agricultural labour households, which accounted for 41% of rural poor in 1993-94 increased to 47% in 1999-00. In contrast, the share of self-employed in agriculture among the rural poor dropped from 33% to 28%. Casual labour households accounted for 32% of the urban population living in poverty in 1999-00, increasing from 25% in 1993-94. The increase in its share was due to both the increased dependence of urban households on urban casual labour market as well as higher incidence of poverty among urban casual labour households. It needs to be recognized that increased dependence of rural and urban households on causal labour market exposes the poor to market risks and tends to increase transient poverty, whereby households move in and out of poverty due to fluctuations in the labour market.

Women versus Hunger

In recent years there has been an increasing trend to incorporate the gender dimension in analysis of poverty. The feminization of poverty is a term used to describe the overwhelming representation of women among the poor. “Women tend to be disproportionately represented among the poor… the poorer the family the more likely it is to be headed by a women”. Poverty studies from both developed and developing countries show that woman more than men are subjected to relative as well as absolute poverty. The argument is that poverty and gender at times can be interrelated. The incidence of poverty among females tended to be marginally higher in both rural and urban areas in India. The lower percentage of female persons among the poor despite higher female poverty ratio was due to adverse sex ratio. It should be noted that the above measure of gender poverty ignores intra-household inequalities in consumption. There are other dimensions of poverty such as food insecurity, malnutrition and health associated more with female members. The role of women as producers and providers of food is often overshadowed by their primary role as care-givers. However, in most of the developing countries, including India, large number of women is engaged in agriculture, primarily the production and processing of food. With male-selective migration from rural areas on the increase, women are often left behind to take care of both family and farm on their own. With women-headed households being more prone to poverty, wages being unfavourable to women in general and access to financial, technical and other support services being denied to them, the poor nutritional status of the rural population is common. It is therefore, obvious that women play a vital role in food production and agricultural activities. As Diana Pearce coined the term ‘feminization of poverty' which implies a new phenomenon, “women have always experienced more poverty than men”. The conceptualization of poverty in this way is also helpful from the perspective of understanding and combating women's poverty. Following Atkinson, Stephen Jenkins suggests that a feminist concept of poverty can be described in terms of an 'individual right to a minimum degree of potential economic independence'. Naila Kabeer (2003) argues that household poverty is determined by poor women's highly unequal role in the labour market. Female labour force participation is highest among the poorest households in countries such as India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, where social norms mainly constrain women to very insecure and poorly paid work in the informal sector. India suffers severe deprivations in education and health - especially in the Northern states, where caste, class, and gender inequities are particularly strong. Human development cannot be achieved without taking the role of women into account. Poverty often hits women and women-headed households the hardest, and women have fewer economic and political opportunities to improve their well-being and that of their families.

Policies and Programmes related to Food Security

Food and nutrition security depends upon a complex interplay of macro policy, agricultural policy, food and nutrition policy, access to education, health, potable drinking water, and sanitation, income and employment security, and social security. Food and nutrition security through government interventions in food-based programmes include the Public Distribution System (PDS), the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS), the School's Mid-day Meal Scheme, Food-for-Work (FFW) and Antyodaya Anna Yojana (AAY) etc. The proposed National Food Security Act, 2009 assures that every BPL family in the country shall be entitled to 25 kg of wheat or rice per month at the rate of Rs.3/- per kg. The law is also proposed to be used to bring about systemic reforms in the Public Distribution System (PDS). Apart from the PDS, the two major programmes such as ICDS and Mid-day Meal Scheme aimed at providing nutritional security to pregnant women and lactating mothers, and young pre-school goers and school-goers, respectively. Both programmes are currently being closely monitored by the Supreme Court, which has given specific directions for strengthening them.


The gender aspects of social security assume significance as it is widely recognised that, the position of women is particularly vulnerable to continued poverty and destitution when they attain old age and/or are widowed or divorced. The first group i.e., widows mainly constitute the female-headed households (FHHs). This provides sufficient evidence to indicate that the role of women in ensuring food security at macro level as well as at the level of the household and the individual is a manifold one. It is also apparent that in India, poverty is deeply embedded in social constructs that impact adversely on woman's economic status to society as well as her nutrition and health status, and food security caused from unequal distribution of food at home. Consequently discrimination pattern of food consumption at home is the one cause of malnutrition among women. While much progress has been made on the food production and availability front, adequate nutrition outcomes cannot be assured without unravelling the complexities of the gender food security link. Ensuring equity in women's rights to land, property, capital assets, wages and livelihood opportunities would undoubtedly impact positively on the issue, but underlying the deep inequity in woman's access to nutrition is her own unquestioning acceptance of her status as an unequal member of the family and society. Eventually, gender empowerment alone is likely to be the key to the resolution of the hunger challenge in the country.

Kiran Sharma is a Research Scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Centre for the Study of Social Systems (CSSS), New Delhi.



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