Child and maternal dietary quality and its relationship with women’s empowerment in agriculture in rural Timor-Leste

Student thesis: Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) - CDU

Abstract

Poor quality diets and malnutrition are pressing global problems, particularly affecting rural women and children in low-and middle-income countries (LMIC). In Timor-Leste, child and maternal adequate dietary intake is a serious challenge compounded by seasonal food insecurity. Women’s empowerment is an underlying determinant of nutrition, however, this social construct is often not examined through a gender relations lens.

This PhD research investigates child and maternal dietary quality and its relationship with women’s empowerment in agriculture among smallholders in rural Timor-Leste. The research was guided by three aims: (A1) to examine the dietary quality and food security of children 6–59 months old and their mothers; (A2) to investigate the relationship between measures of empowerment in agriculture and household food production on child and maternal dietary diversity; and (A3) to explore household gender relations and decision-makingon livestock production and animal-source foods (ASF) acquisitionand consumption.

The research was conducted among 200 households in four villages in Baucau and Viqueque districts between 2017-18. A mixed-methods methodology was applied in an explanatory sequential design. Two quantitative studies, Phase 1, examined longitudinal 24-hr dietary recalls and their cross-sectional relationship with indicators from the Abbreviated Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index (A-WEAI). A qualitative-dominant study, Phase2, thematically analysed 33 semi-structured interviews, complemented with A-WEAI responses.

The findings showed that maternal dietary indicators and secondary schooling were associated with children's dietary quality outcomes, yet women's diets were outstandingly poor. Seasonality predicted the intake of ASF, and mothers displayed preferential ASF allocation patterns to children (A1). Moreover, A-WEAI metrics were positively associated with maternaldietary diversity, while the associations were more modest among children. Producing a wider variety of crops and animals was a correlate of children’s diets. The results found small gender gaps in production decisions, assets ownership, and income control (A2). However, despite reports of joint ownership and decisions on livestock sale and ASF purchases, interviews identified husbands as the final decision-makers. Women’s unequal bargaining position seemed influenced by social norms and household concernsover rice security (A3).

This investigation was undertaken among smallholders with limited access to material resources, and where the agency of Timorese women in agriculture emerged as a significant factor in the achievement of dietary quality outcomes,in turn, vital for their children. While A-WEAI measures found high empowerment levels and positive associations withdietary indicators, qualitative interviews revealed how women’s ability to access ASF was limited by asymmetric decision-making power. Therefore, mixed-methods seem useful, and arguably necessary, to understand the contextual significance of empowerment processes regarding nutrition.

Gender-and nutrition-sensitive policies and programmes in rural Timor-Leste and other LMIC may help improvechild and maternal dietary quality by supporting women’s empowerment and secondary education, promoting households’ access to nutrient-rich foods, and integrating a gender relations lens in their design to allow nuanced understandings of how gender influences food security and nutrition.
Date of AwardFeb 2022
Original languageEnglish
SupervisorNatasha Stacey (Supervisor) & Julie Brimblecombe (Supervisor)

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