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RIEL alumna

Dr Gianna Bonis-Profumo

Dr Gianna Bonis-Profumo head and shoulders with green leafy background

Research project title

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


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-making on livestock production and animal-source foods (ASF) acquisition and 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, Phase 2, 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 maternal dietary 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 concerns over 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 with dietary 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 improve child 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.

Research interests

Gianna’s broad research interest are in food security, nutrition, and gender. Her work focuses on research in development, exploring food systems resilience and gender in agriculture issues, as well as dietary practices and nutrition-sensitive agriculture in low- and middle-income countries. She is passionate about food and nutrition security, and, through her work, aims to support rural women, indigenous peoples, and smallholder farmers to ensure nutritious foods are accessible and affordable year-round. She has recently joined WorldFish as a Post-Doctoral Fellow in Timor-Leste in a project looking at nutrition-sensitive and inclusive approaches to fisheries management systems.

Gianna holds a BA in Political Sciences (Universitat Pompeu Fabra, 2007), a Postgraduate Diploma in Management of Non-For-Profit Organisations (Universitat Ramon Llull, 2009), a MA in Development Studies from the anthropology department (University of Sydney, 2015), and a multidisciplinary Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Development Studies, Public Health Nutrition and Gender Studies (Charles Darwin University, 2021). She has worked as a researcher, independent consultant, and development practitioner in Spain, Australia, and Southeast Asia with a focus on Timor-Leste.

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