and has introduced schemes to improve access to food and nutrition. A project in rural Uttar Pradesh, northeast India, reveals, however, that gendered patterns in the distribution of food within households often lie beyond the scope of its interventions, so deeply are they ingrained within local culture and tradition.
Women in the region, particularly poor women, are expected to take on sole (unpaid) responsibility for managing their families’ nutritional and other needs – in addition to tending crops and other duties. Even if men wish to share domestic activities, they often hesitate to take on what is seen as ‘women’s work’.
Despite women’s role in enabling food security, they often neglect their own nutritional needs. There is often an unspoken rule, reinforced through cultural and religious norms, that the male breadwinner eats first. Children, especially sons, eat next, while women and girls eat last, by which time there may be very little or no food left. Even during pregnancy, special care is not always taken to ensure women receive enough food, despite family counselling on the importance of eating nutritious food and getting enough rest during this vulnerable time. This is also true in many other parts of rural India.
A flashcard ‘man eating, woman waiting’ was used by facilitators to discuss differences in household food distribution for men and women, and to encourage eating together so that all get an equal share. Designed by SAHYOG and CARE.
Such cultural practices are being challenged through a project, ‘Inner Spaces Outer Faces Initiative’ run by Care International and the International Centre for Research on Women. The project aims to integrate discussions on gender and sexuality and cultural food practices into a maternal health programme. ‘Inner spaces’ refers to the beliefs and attitudes of staff and service providers that need to be in line with their ‘outer faces’ – the overall programme goals such as meeting primary healthcare and educational needs – if positive change is to happen. A public health adviser may advise women to eat three meals a day, for example, or encourage men to eat with their wives. The health adviser can help ensure a more gender equitable distribution of food within households and contribute to overall health improvements.
The project provides capacity building for local health and education service providers, including reflective sessions where participants are encouraged to challenge their beliefs relating to gender roles and responsibilities. Those showing a willingness to challenge and change their own cultural values can then act as advocates for change in the communities where they work.
Project leaders find discussing issues around food availability and intake a useful entry point for discussing gender inequalities within their own families and communities, whereas their professional training has not prepared them to do this. They are able to engage households and communities in discussing the importance of cooking and eating together, feeding children together, and of men and women sharing responsibilities in the kitchen. The project highlights the importance of involving men in discussions of gender roles.
Key to the success of this project has been the efforts to understand and address local cultural issues around food in sensitive ways that challenge gender norms. Involving both men and women in discussions about food security and gender is important, as is the facilitators’ willingness to challenge their own gender beliefs and practices.
Care India, Uttar Pradesh
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- Gender inequality, mothers' health, and unequal distribution of food: experience from a CARE project in India
- Suniti Neogy / Routledge Taylor and Francis Group, 2010
- This article features the project Inner Spaces Outer Faces Imitative (ISOFI) which aims to improve maternal and new born health outcomes in rural Uttar Pradesh, primarily by challenging gender norms which prevent equal distribution of...
- Engendering Change
- Film by CARE, 2010