Women’s empowerment and nutrition: An evidence review

Mara van den Bold, Agnes R. Quisumbing, Stuart Gillespie  
International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) 

Many development programs that aim to alleviate poverty and improve investments in human capital consider women’s empowerment a key pathway by which to achieve impact and often target women as their main beneficiaries. Despite this, women’s empowerment dimensions are often not rigorously measured and are at times merely assumed. This paper starts by reflecting on the concept and measurement of women’s empowerment and then reviews some of the structural interventions that aim to influence underlying gender norms in society and eradicate gender discrimination. It then proceeds to review the evidence of the impact of three types of interventions—cash transfer programs, agricultural interventions, and microfinance programs—on women’s empowerment, nutrition, or both.

Qualitative evidence on conditional cash transfer (CCT) programs generally points to positive impacts on women’s empowerment, although quantitative research findings are more heterogenous. CCT programs produce mixed results on long-term nutritional status, and very limited evidence exists of their impacts on micronutrient status. The little evidence available on unconditional cash transters (UCT) indicates mixed impacts on women’s empowerment and positive impacts on nutrition; however, recent reviews comparing CCT and UCT programs have found little difference in terms of their effects on stunting and they have found that conditionality is less important than other factors, such as access to healthcare and child age and sex. Evidence of cash transfer program impacts depending on the gender of the transfer recipient or on the conditionality is also mixed, although CCTs with non-health conditionalities seem to have negative impacts on nutritional status. The impacts of programs based on the gender of the transfer recipient show mixed results, but almost no experimental evidence exists of testing gender-differentiated impacts of a single program.

Agricultural interventions—specifically home gardening and dairy projects—show mixed impacts on women’s empowerment measures such as time, workload, and control over income; but they demonstrate very little impact on nutrition. Implementation modalities are shown to determine differential impacts in terms of empowerment and nutrition outcomes. With regard to the impact of microfinance on women’s empowerment, evidence is also mixed, although more recent reviews do not find any impact on women’s empowerment. The impact of microfinance on nutritional status is mixed, with no evidence of impact on micronutrient status. Across all three types of programs (cash transfer programs, agricultural interventions, and microfinance programs), very little evidence exists on pathways of impact, and evidence is often biased toward a particular region.

The paper ends with a discussion of the findings and remaining evidence gaps and an outline of recommendations for research.

Publication date: 
1 Sep, 2013 
Source / Citation: 

van den Bold, Mara, Agnes R. Quisumbing, and Stuart Gillespie. " Women’s empowerment and nutrition: An evidence review," IFPRI Discussion Paper No. 01294, September 2013.