Our Sustainable Futures campaign explores the values of Doctors Worldwide - integrity, collaboration, and clinical excellence - and how they are embedded in all of the work we do to ensure long-term, sustainable solutions to healthcare challenges. Today, Tharika, our Project and Comms Support Officer, shares an opinion piece exploring the relationship between women’s health, wellbeing, and nutrition.
Recently, I was diagnosed with PCOS, a hormonal disturbance that affects a significant number of women of reproductive age. My doctor informed me that there is no cure for PCOS, and managing it involves making lifestyle changes, particularly adopting a healthy diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables, healthy proteins, and carbs. PCOS not only causes infertility issues but also creates irregular menstrual cycles, alongside a various number of other health issues. While I am privileged enough to access fresh produce and maintain a healthy diet, it struck me how inaccessible this lifestyle is for women that are part of the 2.4 billion experiencing moderate to severe food insecurity, including those suffering from hunger worldwide.
In fact, in two-thirds of countries around the world, women are more likely than men to face food insecurity due to gender inequality, limited access to resources, and cultural norms (UN WOMEN). Food insecurity, as defined by experts, exists when people don't have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food in order to meet their dietary needs and preferences for a healthy life. One of the most significant impacts of chronic hunger is malnutrition, where the body lacks essential nutrients such as proteins, vitamins, and minerals; weakening the immune system, and increasing susceptibility to infections and diseases. Illnesses which in themselves also cause further loss of weight, nausea, and lack of appetite creating a downward spiral of ill-health. Another enormous contributor to ill-health is anemia often caused by dietary iron deficiencies which is also more prevalent among women facing food insecurity, especially in low- and middle-income countries. Anaemia leads to symptoms such as fatigue, shortness of breath, poor mental health and reduced physical work capacity–it also usually is a sign of poor nutrition and health and is again a factor predisposing to worse outcomes when for example, an infection occurs. (WHO).
Furthermore, food insecurity adversely affects women's reproductive health, as lack of proper nutrition can lead to menstrual irregularities, difficulties in conceiving, and complications during pregnancy, increasing the risk of maternal and infant mortality. Through my work at Doctors Worldwide, I have witnessed firsthand this critical link, especially among pregnant and lactating women in low and middle-income countries. What I had not realised previously was how the lack of access to proper nutrition during pregnancy can result in adverse outcomes for both the mother and her child. For instance, malnourished pregnant women are more likely to give birth to underweight babies, which has been shown to have long-term health implications for the child.
One of the stories I remember vividly is that of Soniya, a single mother who had been abandoned by her husband and was pregnant with her 6th child. Soniya was unable to run her fruit-selling business due to her pregnancy, which restricted the money she then had for food. As a result, not only was her one-year-old child already malnourished during her last trimester, but her newborn baby also became malnourished after birth. Luckily, our team in Rwanda came across the family and were able to register both of her malnourished children to our Nutrition Programme, which provides milk and food packs to mothers and children who either suffer from malnutrition or simply lack access to the necessary nutrition for them to lead happy and healthy lives.
Soniya’s story highlights the importance of food security for vulnerable women and children, who, without access to adequate nutrition, are otherwise unable to confidently plan for the future due to their unstable health. However, access to good quality food is becoming more of a challenge due to factors like climate change and global political tensions, resulting in food prices reaching record highs (Reuters, 2022)(The World Bank, 2022). Moreover, for those in deeply vulnerable financial situations, survival trumps ‘wellbeing’; accessing any type of food becomes a priority over seeking more nutritious meals; whatever is affordable must be eaten, everything else - often the foods we take for granted - are a luxury.
How can you help?
The reality of food insecurity affecting billions of people (especially women and children) worldwide clearly emphasises the urgent need for equitable solutions to bridge the gap and ensure that all individuals have the opportunity to lead healthy lives. Efforts to alleviate poverty and reduce inequalities can enhance food security and improve overall health outcomes. Organisations like Doctors Worldwide, therefore, play a crucial role in implementing food support programs and supporting holistic care - such as our Palliative Care (end-of-life care) Programme which not only provides the necessary medical care a patient may need, but also food, shelter, and support for their dependants such as education support for children - as a part of our wider efforts to implement sustainable healthcare systems.
Acknowledging the profound impact of food insecurity & access to nutrition on health and well-being helps foster empathy and create a collective responsibility to act. Through individual actions combined with collaboration, education, and policy changes, we can then start to build a more inclusive world, where nutritious food is accessible to everyone. In addition, the role we play in terms of climate action will ensure the sustainable recovery of our food systems, which will make sure that everyone receives the nutrition they need.
As an individual, your support towards organisations like Doctors Worldwide is vital, alongside actions like reducing household food waste, taking part in food drives, and engaging in sustainable consumption. Our combined aim will ensure that everyone receives the nutrition they need, alongside a sustainable recovery of our food systems.
Donate to our Life Saving Fund today or any project of your choice and help us provide healthcare and nutrition to those who are most in need, so they can build healthier and happier futures.