Countries where women's literacy rates and access to education are significantly worse than men's tend to have higher levels of hunger, according to the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).
"Wherever women are not empowered you see high levels of hunger," Suresh Babu, a senior research fellow with IFPRI, told IRIN.
The institute’s 2009 Global Hunger Index (GHI) calls for policy action on gender empowerment, social protection and governance to improve food security.
The index lists 121 countries using a scale of one (no hunger) to 100, describing values under 4.9 as "low hunger", between 10 and 19.9 as "a serious problem" and values of 30 or greater as "extremely alarming."
It quantifies hunger according to the availability of food per capita in terms of calories required per day, weight of children under five, and the proportion of children dying before age five.
"Gender equality is a key factor in solving the problem of hunger. The more women are educated, the more likely they are to take children to hospital," noted Babu.
For example, Chad, where 13 percent of women are literate against 41 percent for men, has a GHI of 31.3.
Botswana, by contrast, which provides universal access to 10 years of basic schooling and has greatly reduced gender disparity at all education levels, has an index of 12.1.
"We hope that the GHI will not only generate discussion but also stimulate action... to overcome extreme vulnerability and gender inequality, which are extremely [closely] connected," said Constanze von Oppeln, food security policy officer with the German NGO, Welthungerhilfe.
Alarming levels of hunger
According to IFPRI, "equalizing men’s and women’s status would reduce the number of malnourished children by 13.4 million in South Asia and by 1.7 million in sub-Saharan Africa".
Twenty-nine countries in Africa and South Asia have alarming or extremely alarming levels of hunger; nine out of 10 of the worst are in sub-Saharan Africa.
Africa also has the highest proportion of undernourished people (76 and 68 percent of the population in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Eritrea, respectively) and the world’s highest child mortality rate.
Burundi had the highest prevalence of underweight children at 35 percent, followed by Ethiopia and Eritrea, at 34.6 and 34.5 percent. The worst overall performer was the DRC, with a hunger index of 39.1, a considerable decline from the 25.5 in 1990.
"The DRC is doing so badly that it is pulling the rest of the continent down," said Babu. "Because of instability, the DRC is not able to invest in and reach rural areas where food can be grown."
South Asia’s progress
Comparing Africa and South Asia, he noted that while South Asia had made remarkable progress in increasing food production, it performed worse than Africa in under-five health. South Asia's GHI is 23.0 compared with sub-Saharan Africa’s 22.1.
"The causes of food insecurity in the two regions are different. In South Asia, the low nutritional, educational, and social status of women contributes to a high prevalence of underweight… children under five.
"In sub-Saharan Africa, low government effectiveness, conflict, political instability, and high rates of HIV and AIDS lead to high child mortality and a high proportion of people who cannot meet their calorie requirements."
IFPRI recommended investment in social safety net programmes such as school feeding, improved nutrition for pregnant and lactating mothers and direct cash transfers.
In the long term, Babu said, good governance was key. "Governance is not just about corruption but worrying about those who will be affected by hunger," he added.
"The challenges [of hunger] are not new. What is surprising is the lack of action from governments."
See: Global Hunger Index map
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions