What should an Indian know about Jharkhand

Hunger and Equality from the Perspective of Indian Women

Country case study
October 2009

When women reach their potential, they make a significant contribution to food security and the well-being of their families.

Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)

Goal 1 Eliminate extreme poverty and hunger

Goal 2 Ensure primary education for all children

Goal 3 Promote gender equality and empower women

Goal 4 Lower child mortality

Goal 5 Improving maternal health

Goal 6 Fight HIV / AIDS, malaria and other diseases

Goal 7 Ensure ecological sustainability

Goal 8 Build a global partnership for development

"We have changed our attitude" "

Hunger is related to gender inequality in many countries. This becomes vividly visible in the example of Sarwan, a village in India in which Welthungerhilfe has been working since 2005. It is one of the aid organization's 15 Millennium Villages worldwide, in which the population wants to achieve one or more Millennium Development Goals by 2010 (see right).

The residents decide for themselves which goals have priority in their own village. Local developments are observed and discussed annually through household surveys and workshops with selected representatives from various groups in the village. In this so-called monitoring of the Millennium Development Goals, progress and problems are put to the test as follows: On the one hand, data such as changes in household income or the schooling rate of girls are collected. On the other hand, the village communities rate their development steps so far on a scale from excellent to very bad (see below). As a result, those affected keep becoming aware of how and why their living conditions are changing. This form of awareness-raising not only enables village communities to adjust the previous setting of priorities, but also allows project measures to be regularly improved - entirely in the spirit of helping people to help themselves.

Annotation: Development goals of the MDG monitoring: Food security: Improved health conditions and cost-effective health system, dependence on rain-fed agriculture, seasonality of precipitation. Equal rights: equal access to education for boys and girls, equal workload for women and men, influence of women on decisions in Gram Sabha. Maternal health: improved nutrition for pregnant women, use of public hospitals and medicines, access to safe drinking water.

Betiya Soren,
Unofficially employed mother, Sarwan

Anita Hembram,
Unofficially employed mother, Sarwan

Sonamuni Murmu,
Unofficially employed mother, Sarwan

Gita Devi,
Unofficially employed mother, Sarwan

Burma Devi,
Unofficially employed mother, Sarwan

These data and evaluations also provide insights into the connection between hunger and a lack of equality. The perspective of the local people plays the decisive role: It becomes clear that improving the social position of women is an important factor for more food security.

Food security means that people have unhindered physical, social and economic access to adequate and balanced nutrition at all times in order to lead an active and healthy life (FAO, World Food Summit, 1996). In rural India, women play a central role on the aforementioned levels of food security - availability, access and use:

Equality increases the availability of food at household level

In rural areas in the Indian state of Jharkhand (value according to the India State Hunger Index 1 28.67; hunger situation very serious), around half of all men and women work on small-scale family farms; 41 percent of women and 27 percent of men work as wage laborers in agriculture. Much agricultural work that was done by men a few years ago is now being done by women as men are moving to better paid wage work. This "feminization of agriculture" can be seen across India.

However, this development is only hesitantly taken into account in policy-making, and the potential of women in agriculture is correspondingly reluctant to be promoted. Experience and studies suggest that equal access to education and agricultural resources can increase productivity by ten to 20 percent (see page 21, 3rd paragraph). This aspect plays an important role in the Millennium Village of Sarwan: women are supported in improving agricultural cultivation methods and receive training for this. They also have the opportunity to buy better seeds and tools through self-help credit groups.

Betiya Soren from Sarwan has learned in group work to use her land more efficiently:

We recently received irrigation systems and group meetings with information on improved cultivation methods. We are now growing vegetables on our land that we eat every day.

Anita Hembram, on the other hand, not only grows more vegetables for her own use, but also improves her income:

We women worked as farm workers, but various meetings in the village have changed our attitude. I didn't grow anything before, but I've been growing vegetables for us since last year. If we produce a surplus, I also sell the vegetables in the local market. Occasionally, that gives me extra income.

However, the social status of women does not automatically improve when they play a more prominent role in agricultural production. Rather, there is a risk that taking on additional tasks will only increase their workload, but not significantly change the standard of living. In order to improve the income and nutrition situation, it is therefore of central importance that women have access to resources: in other words, to loans, to land and to agricultural means of production.

Sonamuni Murmu has learned how important it is to be able to take responsibility:

My husband used to make money for the family and I was mostly doing housework. But now I spend time in my own field. My husband helps me send the children to school and sometimes with the housework. I couldn't make any decisions and had to accept my husband's ideas. But now we both decide what to do for our families. Now let's think about how we can improve our cultivation to strengthen our livelihoods.

So far, women have rarely owned land. Even more important than the right to property, however, is that women can also dispose of their produce in the field. Only then does the income earned in agriculture strengthen women in making decisions at household level themselves. In addition to these economic aspects, the organization of women in self-help groups outside of their own families is particularly important. There they have room for discussion and new learning experiences. Gita Devi found out how helpful self-help groups are:

For me, the self-help groups were the best work done by the organization because they are important for empowering women. We discuss women's rights and we get a lot of new ideas. We also learn how to work together in group activities.

Equal access to knowledge and resources can thus contribute to increasing the food security of households. With appropriate mobilization at village level in the form of training, information events, etc. there may be a change in the role of women in the community. Once this process has been initiated, a dynamic can emerge: the increased self-confidence generates economic innovation among women, which in turn contributes to greater food security.

The positive effect of the measures described - including advanced training in agricultural cultivation methods, development of microcredit systems for women - can be promoted or limited by outside influences: In India, above all by negative influences of cultural or traditional regulations for women. At the same time, for example, the law passed by the Indian government in 2005 - the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act - is helpful. It can also create new employment opportunities for women in rural regions. The right to equal pay for equal work is enshrined in law and is now being implemented by state employers, but also by non-governmental organizations. Various educational programs also work towards gender equality outside of the project. Burma Devi emphasizes:

We used to be told that girls can't do anything but work in the kitchen. Accordingly, our husband pushed through his decision regarding the education of girls. But now, due to various government and development programs - such as the Sarwan Millennium Village Initiative - the situation is changing. The men are starting to work with us in educating girls. We send our girls to school.

MDG monitoring

The monitoring of the 15 Millennium Villages of Welthungerhilfe consists of a quantitative and a qualitative part. In the quantitative part, data are collected in the villages once a year using questionnaires. These cover most of the 48 indicators used by the United Nations to officially review the Millennium Development Goals. For example, one indicator for the goal of “ensuring ecological sustainability” (MDG 7) is the proportion of people who have access to clean drinking water. There are also questions about income, child mortality or school enrollment. The standardized results can be used to measure changes in each Millennium Village and to compare the development of the villages with one another.

In the qualitative part, a workshop is held once a year with a representative selected part of the village population, the “Participatory Impact Assessment”. Every social group is represented, such as dignitaries, young people, women, farmers, representatives of poor families. The participants gradually determine which changes in the village community they want to use to measure the Millennium Development Goals. The discussion is based on nine key topics based on the eight UN Millennium Development Goals: namely poverty, hunger, education, gender, child mortality, maternal mortality, serious diseases, the environment and natural resources and external conditions for development. For each key topic, the participants define three development goals that are relevant for the village and that they want to achieve in five years: On the subject of hunger, for example, access to sufficient seeds or the availability of draft animals to cultivate the fields. In addition, an assessment is made of the progress made in achieving the goals in connection with Welthungerhilfe's project measures in the Millennium Villages. In this way, it is possible to observe how, for example, the construction of a well affects the achievement of individual Millennium Development Goals.

Equality improves the use and utilization of food

Even if there is enough food within the family, this does not say anything about whether all family members can eat properly. In India, for example, it is traditionally customary for women to eat only when all other family members are full. If food is scarce, it means that there is almost nothing left for women. The availability of food does not guarantee adequate access to food for women. Sonamuni Murmu has long suffered from this tradition:

A few years ago I put my saucepan on the stove and waited. When my husband brought something, I made it. I didn't have three full meals a day and ate what my children left over.

Incorrect eating habits can also be due to a lack of knowledge and thus a lack of education. Men are just as affected here as women. In the Indian context, however, women are considered to be the key people in the family's eating habits. They are traditionally entrusted with the task of preparing food. Gita Devi describes it this way:

I received training on improved farming practices and we spoke in meetings about the importance of eating vegetables. I started to plant different things. Now we have a wider variety of foods such as vegetables, legumes and sometimes fish. Before we only ate rice with salt and potatoes, but now we eat whole meals.

A lack of education favors the adherence to traditionally or culturally determined harmful “beliefs”: Indian women, for example, gain an average of only five kilograms during pregnancy; the international average is ten kilograms. The background to this is, among other things, the idea that a pregnant woman should not eat too rich meals, because otherwise the child will be particularly big and heavy and the birth difficult.

But good nutritional advice that includes all relevant stakeholders (local health service providers, authorities, mayors, village administrators, radio stations, etc.) can change harmful habits, as Anita Hembram confirms:

I vaccinated my children and I also took iron pills when I was pregnant, but before that we were scared to take them.

The statement by Burma Devi makes it clear that "beliefs" are particularly difficult to change if the new knowledge calls into question the basic distribution of roles and is thus an expression of a shift in the balance of power:

Since our priority is to feed the husband first and then the children, I sometimes had little or nothing to eat for myself. Such practices are still common, but now we are cooking a sufficient amount of food.

Malnourished mothers not only have fatal consequences for themselves, but also for their children: Hunger is "hereditary" because malnourished mothers give birth to malnourished children. In Jharkhand state, 57.1 percent of children under the age of five are malnourished.

The opinion of Birma Devi points out that this cycle can only finally be overcome if women are given comprehensive support in internalizing and realizing their status as members of the family and society with equal rights.


Photo: Joerg Boethling / Welthungerhilfe, 2009; Meeting of the women's self-help group and women's savings bank in the Millennium Village of Sarwan, Jharkhand. Hide

In summary, the example of Sarwan shows that overcoming hunger is particularly promising when women are members of society with equal rights (and thus also authorized to make decisions) at both the household and the political level. The probability of success increases further if all three levels of food security - availability, access and use - are addressed. Finally, development-friendly political framework conditions that work towards equality for women also make a significant contribution to overcoming hunger.


We thank the Welthungerhilfe partner organization Center for World Solidarity, the Jharkhand Resource Center and the Pravah team for their support with this article. We would also like to thank the women from Sarwan, who are very committed to the Millennium Village Sarwan project and who were ready to provide information about their living conditions.


  1. Menon P., Deolalikar, Bhaskar. 2009. India State Hunger Index - Comparison of Hunger Across States. IFPRI / Welthungerhilfe / UC Riverside. Washington D.C., Bonn, Riverside.