Nutrition as the foundation to human rights
To recover better from the COVID-19 pandemic we must build resilience by recognizing the interdependence of nutrition and human rights, breaking down siloes and cultivating smart, innovative and multisectoral responses.
Posted on December 10, 2020
Each year on December 10th the world celebrates the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This year, the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and the efforts made to mitigate them make this date especially important. Exacerbation of existing systemic inequalities have illustrated the interconnected and interdependence of our world and our human rights. Understanding the links between nutrition and human rights is critical for the world to deal with the aftermath of the pandemic and come out stronger.
Nutrition and human rights
Nutrition is the foundation of a life of equality, dignity and human rights, indivisibly linked to the realization of an adequate standard of living, the highest attainable standard of health, and educational attainment and women’s empowerment at every stage of life.
Freedom from hunger and malnutrition is recognized as crucial for the enjoyment of all human rights. Access to nutritionally adequate and safe food, particularly for women, children and adolescent girls is a core component of an adequate standard of living. Nutrition is also one of many underlying social-economic determinants of the right to the highest attainable standard of health. Globally, over 1.5 billion people cannot afford a diet that meets the required levels of essential nutrients making them at risk of suffering from malnutrition. This limits the ability of these individuals to reach their full potential by preventing the brain from developing fully, the body from growing properly, and the immune system from working effectively. The consequences of this are life-long and generational, affecting the social, economic and cultural wellbeing of individuals, their family and their community.
Nutrition and education
Increasing the chance for all children to reach their fullest potential starts with access to good nutrition for pregnant people and children under five. This sets children up for success in their education, where learning disparities between low- and high-income households begins. Studies have shown that hunger can impair the immune system, increase morbidity, impair cognition, and lead to malnutrition, which affects children’s education by increasing absenteeism, grade repetition, or drop-out rates.
Good nutrition enhances cognition and school performance, improves lifetime earnings and productivity, and ultimately breaks the cycle of poverty. Well-nourished adolescent girls are more likely to stay in school, succeed in their studies and delay their first pregnancy. Well-nourished women have safer pregnancies and deliver healthier babies. Well-nourished infants and children are healthier with stronger immune systems, which strengthens their ability to resist infection and disease.
As the world deals with an unprecedented global health crisis, an even more devastating malnutrition crisis is taking hold. This new crisis is the result of overwhelmed health systems, fear of COVID-19 transmission when seeking health services, reduced purchasing power for nutritious food, and interrupted supply chains. These crises are putting women, children and adolescent girls at greatest risk, as they are prevented from accessing critical nutrients for an adequate standard of health and an adequate standard of living.
The human rights framework provides a roadmap for governments that can help ensure freedom from hunger and malnutrition. At a minimum, social protection programs provide an opportunity for governments to reach the most vulnerable populations with much-needed nutrients that improve health and strengthen the immune systems of individuals and nations. Well-designed and well-implemented programs set out basic social guarantees to essential services such as health care, basic income security, or education, and have the power to augment human capital and productivity, reduce inequalities and build resilience. What is key is ensuring that the programs and systems are acceptable, for nutrient and perceived non-nutrient-based values, have accessible social programs, available functioning systems, and ensure access to appropriate dietary needs of everyone, particularly for women, children and adolescents.
To recover better from the COVID-19 pandemic we must build resilience by recognizing the interdependence of nutrition and human rights, breaking down silos and cultivating smart, innovative and multisectoral responses.
United Nations, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 25,1948; United Nations, International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Article 11.1, 1966; Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, General Comment 12, para 4 & 5, 1999.
United Nations, International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Article 14, 1966.
United Nations, International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Article 11.2; Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, General Comment 12, 1999.
United Nations, International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Article 11.2; Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, General Comment 12, para 1, 1999.
United Nations, International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Article 11.1; Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, General Comment 12, para 14, 1999.
United Nations, International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Article 12; Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, General Comment 14, para 4 and 43, 2000.
FAO, IFAD, UNICEF, WFP and WHO. 2020. The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2020. Transforming food systems for affordable healthy diets. Rome, FAO. https://doi.org/10.4060/ca9692en
Bundy, D. et al., ‘Re-Imagining School Feeding: A High-Return Investment in Human Capital and Local Economies’ Child and Adolescent Health and Development, Volume 8, 2018.