Nutrition Student Explores Gender Norms, Food Insecurity in Uganda

Although Uganda is one of Africa’s fastest growing economies, many in the country still experience widespread poverty and hunger. The country is one of the focuses of the U.S. government’s global hunger and food security initiative, Feed the Future, and other nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are also working to improve access to safe and nutritious food, especially for women and children who are typically most vulnerable to malnutrition. And one Mason student worked to address these issues through her master’s thesis.

Amialya Durairaj, who graduated with an MS in Nutrition in December 2015, was inspired to explore food insecurity and gender norms in Uganda after a presentation from Bambi Uganda Orphans in her nutrition education class.

“Conche McGarr, the executive director, presented the organization’s work in central Uganda, and I knew immediately that I wanted to volunteer,” Durairaj said.

Durairaj went further than volunteering and decided to focus her master’s thesis on gender-related food taboos and sexual inequalities in Uganda, examining how these gender issues impacted dietary diversity and food security, including access to safe and nutritious food.

She found that while a majority of the study participants were farmers with their own source of income, these women had limited access to markets where they could sell their crops. This resulted in them using “agricultural middlemen,” which buy the product at a low price and sell it for a higher profit at the markets.

“When most people talk about bolstering food security for smallholder farms, they usually only discuss ways increase harvest yields, but that is only half the battle,” Durairaj said. “A significant amount of food gets wasted due to poor storage and preservation practices, which leads women to sell to the middlemen. That, in turn, perpetuates a cycle of poverty.”

In conducting her research. Durairaj discovered trials by the World Food Programme on improved forms of low-cost storage, which she is hoping to help pilot in Bambi Uganda Orphans’ food security programming.

“When I decided to pursue my MS in nutrition, I knew I wanted to do my part to make access to nutritious food a global reality, and I discovered during my first semester in Dr. Constance Gewa’s global nutrition class that nutrition issues in developing countries were often the most pressing,” Durairaj said. “Now, in addition to volunteering, I’m working as a knowledge management specialist for Save the Children, a global health and nutrition NGO, which is a perfect synthesis of my background and education.”