How can data build a truer picture of the gender gap in food insecurity?

A woman prepares the grain for rice processing in Ghana. Photo by: Louis Stippel / USAID / CC BY-NC-ND

WASHINGTON — Getting an accurate picture of the differences in food security between men and women can be hampered by typical household survey methods, experts say.

The most comprehensive data is gathered by national surveys that reach large populations and can provide statistically significant conclusions about whether people have access to sufficient food and how nutritious that supply is. But because that data is often gathered on a household level, it fails to break down the differences between men and women living in the same home. This is an important distinction for having a true measure of food security in relation to gender, according to researcher Nzinga Broussard.

“Other – possibly subtler – forms of discrimination make access to food more difficult for women, even when they have the same income and education levels as men.”

— “The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2019”

While working at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Broussard conducted research examining the differences between food security for men and women.

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“If you use a household measure of food security, you can get a household-level indicator of the household being food secure. But then if you look within that household, you’d have certain household members that were food insecure and vice versa,” Broussard said, who is now with the Global Innovation Fund. “When we’re making statistics based off of a household measure and inferring about individual outcomes, oftentimes the individual outcomes are not accurate based on the household indicators.”

To conduct her analysis, Broussard used Food and Agriculture Organization data gathered as a part of the Gallup World Poll. FAO developed a metric called the Food Insecurity Experience Scale, or FIES, that asks a series of eight questions related to food security. It asks whether a person has enough food to eat, what the quality of the food is, and whether the person has gone an entire day without eating anything, among other questions.

This scale, Broussard said, provides more precise food insecurity data from respondents in the 150-plus nations that Gallup surveys because it allows for comparisons between countries and regions with standardized indicators. The data can be analyzed in terms of demographic information such as age as well as educational status and employment opportunities, which Broussard found were indicators of food security.

Globally, food insecurity is on the rise, with 820 million people going hungry in 2018. More than 2 billion don’t have regular access to safe, sufficient, and nutritious food.

Broussard’s research found a gender gap in food security in every part of the world, with varying degrees of severity. “In the developed countries of the European Union” — where less of the population is generally food insecure, compared with other areas of the globe — Broussard found that “women are 4.7 percentage points more likely than men to experience some form of food insecurity.” In poorer countries in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, where a greater portion of the population faces food insecurity, women were 2 percentage points more likely to be severely food insecure than men.

“What the Gallup World Poll did is it allowed me to use a common metric, a common set of questions, to really explore this topic,” Broussard said. “However, the data is very limited in terms of the other questions that were being asked. There were additional variables that I might have wanted to explore further.”

According to FAO, food security “exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.”

Broussard’s paper found that data gathering can be challenged by people’s perceptions of their own food situation: A wealthier person may have a different idea of adequate food consumption than a poorer person, and men and women can also have different perceptions of what sufficient access to food looks like. This makes it difficult to compare survey responses, the paper said.

More granular data is needed

Before FIES, FAO traditionally measured food security with an indicator referred to as “prevalence of undernourishment.” The more comprehensive FIES metric was not developed specifically to fill gaps in the availability of gender food security data, but rather as a way to collect more precise data on a number of fronts, according to Sara Viviani of FAO’s statistics division. It has the added advantage of being able to be disaggregated by gender, she said.

FAO releases FIES-based results by gender at the regional level, but the agency will be releasing to the United Nations Statistics Division country-specific data by gender, published in the upcoming Sustainable Development Goals Indicator Database, Viviani said, and even more detail is needed to be able to draw useful conclusions about gender gaps at a subnational level.

“With this data at the moment, it’s not possible to do. So maybe this is something that might need a more detailed type of analysis,” Viviani said. “But in terms of global monitoring, for sure it’s … already been possible to show in most of the regions in the world the women are more food insecure than men.”

According to “The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World,” an annual report from FAO, Latin America is the region with the largest difference in food security between men and women. Globally, the report finds that the gender gap is larger in poorer, less-educated, and urban populations. Even when controlling for area of residence, education level, and poverty status, women still have a 10% higher chance of being food insecure than men.

“This finding reveals that other – possibly subtler – forms of discrimination make access to food more difficult for women, even when they have the same income and education levels as men and live in similar areas,” the FAO report said.

Countrywide surveys offer the advantage of gathering data on a wider variety of topics, according to Jessica Heckert, a research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute. But because of that breadth in a single survey, it can be difficult to reach more than “superficial” conclusions about gender or women’s empowerment, she said.

Heckert said there are also advantages and drawbacks to the other type of food security datasets available, which are generated by smaller surveys conducted in a specific area before and after an intervention to measure its success. These surveys can gather gender and food security data much more comprehensively, but they are often confined to measuring a baseline and then an impact of a particular intervention in one geographic area.

“We have a lot of theories around intrahousehold gender dynamics and how that affects both the production of food and the distribution of food within the household,” Heckert said. More data is needed to know if those theories hold true and how policies and programmatic interventions could help improve women’s empowerment, nutrition, and food security outcomes, she added.

IFPRI is working to develop a metric that would provide standardized gender data from surveys conducted by countries themselves. This project, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is known as the Women’s Empowerment Metric for National Survey Systems, or WEMNS. Researchers will work with national statistics offices to pilot a women’s empowerment metric for inclusion in state-run surveys.

“In these large, multipurpose surveys, you get like 10 questions on your topic to do the best that you can,” Heckert said. “Ideally … there will also be uptake of WEMNS through national statistical offices for other surveys that are done. Hopefully, that’s an opportunity to better integrate good women's empowerment metrics with other indicators related to agriculture, related to food security, related to nutrition.”

She said demographic and health surveys still have a tendency to relegate gender disaggregated data to the realm of sexual and reproductive health, which can make it difficult to have proper indicators for other sectors.

“They don’t necessarily get at the gender components we need related to agricultural development, production of food, and distribution of food within the household,” Heckert said. “There’s gender data in there, but it’s not necessarily the gender data that we would find most useful for research questions around food security and nutrition.”

Update, Feb. 7, 2020: This article has been updated to clarify how FAO previously measured food security and the type of data it releases at a regional level.

Devex, with support from our partner UN Women, is exploring how data is being used to inform policy and advocacy to advance gender equality. Gender data is crucial to make every woman and girl count. Visit the Focus on: Gender Data page for more. Disclaimer: the views in this article do not necessarily represent the views of UN Women.

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About the author

  • Teresa Welsh

    Teresa Welsh has reported from more than 10 countries and is currently based in Washington, D.C. Her coverage focuses on Latin America; U.S. foreign assistance policy; fragile states; food systems and nutrition; and refugees and migration. Prior to joining Devex, Teresa worked at McClatchy's Washington Bureau and covered foreign affairs for U.S. News and World Report. She was a reporter in Colombia, where she previously lived teaching English. Teresa earned bachelor of arts degrees in journalism and Latin American studies from the University of Wisconsin.