Research Links Food Insecurity & Reproductive Justice, Fueling Hope for Change

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Food poverty is a barrier and a ‘pressing matter’ to reproductive justice globally, new research led by Lancaster University has found.

And marginalised people – particularly those who experience multiple forms of marginalisation – are more likely to experience both food insecurity and reproductive coercion and injustices.

Food insecurity – also referred to as food poverty – involves difficulties accessing enough safe and nutritious food to support a healthy life.

Previous research has shown the negative consequences of food insecurity for health and nutrition, children’s cognitive development and concentration in school, social exclusion, and other harmful biological and social phenomena.

However, as recent research by researchers at Lancaster University, Simon Fraser University in British Columbia and York University in Toronto has shown, food insecurity is also a pressing matter for reproductive justice.

Developed and led by Black feminist activists and scholars in the United States, and rooted in international human rights law, reproductive justice is a movement that asserts that all people have a human right to have a child, to not have a child, and to parent children with dignity in safe and healthy environments.

Although all human beings inherently have these rights, not everyone is able to realise their rights due to structural barriers, such as racism, sexism, homophobia, and ableism.

In their new research in the International Journal of Sexual Health, Dr Jasmine Fledderjohann, of Lancaster University, Dr Sophie Patterson, of both Lancaster University and Simon Fraser University, and activist and PhD student Maureen Owino, York University, Toronto, give a detailed overview of how and why food insecurity can be a barrier to reproductive justice.

Key examples include:

  • Food insecurity can lead to undernutrition. This can infringe on the right to have a child by negatively impacting pregnancy outcomes, and also clearly restricts the right to parent with dignity and safe and healthy environments Because good nutrition is essential for not only children’s physical health and development, but also for their broader social well-being and mental health.
  • People who experience food insecurity may rely on transactional or commercial sex to acquire food and other resources. This can potentially create a power imbalance in sexual relationships, which can increase the risks of sexually transmitted infections, which are linked to infertility, and the risk of unwanted pregnancy. This threatens both the right to have a child and the right to not have a child.
  • Where commercial sex is criminalised, this situation can also put people at risk of imprisonment which restricts access to adequate reproductive healthcare, but it also is highly damaging to relationships, including those between parents and children. Imprisoned people can also experience great difficulty accessing employment and housing when they are released from prison. The authors explain that incarceration is a tremendous barrier to the right to parent with dignity in a safe and healthy environment.
  • Food insecurity is closely tied to financial strain, and can place people in a difficult decision of having to decide whether to spend their income on food or on accessing reproductive healthcare. It can increase the risk of intimate partner violence, and make it more difficult to leave a violent situation. Difficulties accessing reproductive healthcare and exposure to intimate partner violence are social problems which cut across the rights outlined in the reproductive justice movement.

The research team emphasises these are just a few key examples of how food insecurity matters for reproductive justice. Not everyone is at equal risk of food insecurity, and not everyone experiences food insecurity as a barrier to reproductive justice in the same way. Around the world people who are marginalised face the greatest risks.

Lead author of the study and leader of the Food Security for Equitable Futures research team, Dr Fledderjohann, says: “We know food insecurity can have very far-reaching negative implications, but too often the implications for sexual and reproductive health and rights are overlooked.

“One of the things that is very powerful about the reproductive justice framework is that it centres the experiences of marginalised people, whose experiences are needs are frequently and systematically ignored.

“As we discuss in our paper, marginalised people – particularly those who experience multiple forms of marginalisation – are more likely to experience both food insecurity and reproductive coercion and injustices. We hope that our research will highlight these interconnections and lead not only to new research on how food insecurity and reproductive justice are linked, but also, importantly, to social change.”

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