Darna L. Dufour

Weatherhead Resident Scholar


Impacts of Urban Poverty on Women's Health and Nutrition: A Case Study

The woman balancing a basket of avocados on her head is a street vender in Cali, Colombia. She lives in a squatter settlement on the edge of the city, and she had a fight with her neighbor yesterday. This afternoon she discovered that all her money had been stolen, the equivalent of six US dollars. Would she make enough money at the market to feed her five children today? Or would they all go hungry tonight?

What do women living in poverty do when money to buy food runs short? Darna Dufour's book project, "Impacts of Urban Poverty on Women's Health and Nutrition," considers this question along with many others, presenting a holistic view of the biological and cultural dimensions of poverty in a developing country. Reporting the results of a five-year study of the nutritional intake and energy expenditure of women living in squatter settlements in Cali undertaken by Dufour and two colleagues, the book places her fieldwork in the context of a growing interest in urban populations in developing countries. "The rapid urbanization of developing countries is one of the most dramatic demographic phenomena of our time, but its impact on human biology is not well understood," said Dufour.

The book's central theme is the diet and nutritional status of the women studied—the coping strategies they used during periods of economic constraint, their level of physical activity, and their strategies for times of low food availability. Dufour's fieldwork in Cali revealed the paradoxical nutritional pattern of obesity in the midst of extreme poverty, a pattern also being noticed in Venezuelan cities. Following such urban obesity among the poor, Dufour says, could be "a tsunami of diabetes" and other chronic diseases.

A second theme is the life histories of the women, highlighting their role in the dynamic process of urbanization in Colombia. "Some of the women we studied were the pioneers who originally 'squatted' on the land and virtually built their homes from nothing. They are the food venders, domestic servants, and neighborhood child care providers, as well as the mothers and homemakers. This is a sector of the economy beyond the reach of the labor laws that define acceptable working conditions and minimum salary."

A third theme focuses on the work the women did to earn a living, the reasons they chose one type of work over another, the conditions they endured, the economics of their work, and the place of their work in the larger urban economy. Dufour's study will be the first to document physical activity patterns in urban settings. Finally, the book summarizes what the authors learned about the biological and cultural dimension of impoverishment.

These findings, Dufour hopes, will be used by policy-makers to implement changes—from immediate steps such as fortifying grain products to extended strategies helping the urban poor join the economy of the nation—in order to improve the living conditions of the avocado vender and the women she represents.

Dufour's residency allowed her the time to assimilate the immense amount of statistical and quantitative data involved in her study. After immersing herself in the numbers for a year, Dufour looks forward to integrating into her work the case studies and stories of individual women. Her fieldwork was funded by the National Institute for Health.

Affiliation at time of award:
Professor of Anthropology, University of Colorado

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