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A Question of Gender and Nutrition in Zambia

25 July 2012 No Comment

Christine Hadekel

“We are working in partnership with Zambian organizations and government to plant the seeds for change and a shift in consciousness that will contribute to better health for women and children, and increase gender equality.”

We interviewed Christine Hadekel, Leland Fellow at the Congressional Hunger Center, about her work on a project that is developing an effective and holistic model to address chronic malnutrition (stunting) in Zambia. Her responses are below.

What interested you in the Congressional Hunger Center and work related to nutrition? Can you tell us more about the project you are working with?

I have always been interested in the intersection between nutrition and agriculture, and particularly after working in Malawi on an integrated nutrition and agriculture project, I developed an interest in looking at more holistic solutions to addressing chronic malnutrition and food insecurity. When I found out about a project that was designed to combine health behavior change communication, women’s empowerment, and agricultural diversification, it seemed like something I would want to support, so I applied for a position with the project through the Leland International Hunger Fellows Program run by the Congressional Hunger Center.

RAIN stands for Realigning Agriculture to Improve Nutrition – it’s a project being implemented by Concern Worldwide, an Irish NGO that works in 25 different countries including Zambia. Zambia was selected as the site to try this model. The project is a partnership between Concern and the International Food Policy Research Institute as well as local NGOs and government partners in Zambia, working closely with the Ministries of Health and Agriculture. The project is trying to find an effective model that is sustainable and scalable to address chronic malnutrition among mothers and young children. In Zambia, there is an incredibly high rate of growth stunting – it is 45%. However acute malnutrition is much lower, at about 4%, which means that in Zambia people have enough food to eat, but are not eating the right kinds of food.

Do Zambians have access to the right kinds of food?

It is a problem of both not having access and/or not utilizing the foods correctly. A lot of farmers are just growing maize, for example, and not growing other types of vegetables. And even when a household does have access to micronutrient-rich plants or animal foods, often men have better access  than women. There is also the question of care and hygiene practices – a child may be eating the right foods, but the benefits of good nutrition can be quickly lost through diarrhea and other non-communicable diseases. There are multiple components to the project that help address these issues, including giving seeds and trainings on how to grow diverse foods. Another is changing behavior around food and care, teaching mothers how to cook different foods and in the right quantity and teaching about preventive health care practices.

Who is most affected by chronic malnutrition in Zambia?

Stunting affects children during the first 1000 days of life, from conception up until a child’s second birthday. During that time so much development is happening in the body and brain, and if they don’t get the right nutrition, brain and muscle development is compromised, so later on they perform poorly in school and in jobs. Mothers who are pregnant and breastfeeding them are equally malnourished – they are not eating the right types of food or in sufficient quantities. Women already have such a huge burden in their daily life if you look at the number of responsibilities they have, and when they are not getting an adequate diet it compromises the amount of work they can do. The majority of agricultural labor in Zambia is done by women, and when they are not adequately nourished, they can’t do the labor that is required of them. There’s also a big interplay between maternal malnutrition and HIV & AIDS, where in Zambia the rate is around 14%. Also, most husbands don’t share the cash they receive from the sale of their crops, so women need to grow and sell their own crops to pay for medicine for their children, or for school fees, and so on.

In what ways do men contribute to their households?

Men cultivate cash crops which are then sold and the income is used to purchase household items such as clothing, blankets, etc. They also raise large livestock, so if there’s a funeral or birth or wedding they will contribute an animal for that. Generally though, they tend to spend most of the money they earn on drinking alcohol, which has been a problem in Zambia for the last 20-30 years.

Do you address the issue of money spent on alcohol in the RAIN project trainings?

We address the issue of drinking indirectly by encouraging men to have a role in childcare and the household—because traditionally men don’t have the perception that that’s their role. It’s important to redefine the role of men in households, not only to provide relief for women, but also for the sake of children. For example, when women are menstruating they’re not supposed to cook, so during those times often the oldest child in the house will cook for the family. If the men are aware of what they should be eating, then they can be the ones in charge to cook when their wives are sick or away or menstruating.

You mentioned that men often have more access to micronutrients and animal products than women do. How does the project help to increase women’s access?

Our work is all done through women’s groups. So we work with our partners to provide women with knowledge of what they should be eating, and we also conduct specific gender-focused workshops, through which we work with men, grandmothers, grandfathers, and traditional leaders. Specific gender workshops talk exactly about this: the role of women in food production and consumption, and trying to change these entrenched notions of who should be eating what.

Have you seen a difference since the project began?

Yes, although it has only been a year, we have seen a difference especially in land allocation. Men traditionally have control over land, so if women want to cultivate, they need permission from men and often get less fertile land further from home. Since the project began we have seen a change in that area, where men are giving women land closer to home, and even starting to assist their wives in cultivating. Traditionally, men grow cash crops and women grow crops for home consumption, but through the project we are encouraging men to contribute to growing home crops too.

What kinds of strategies or approaches are employed by the RAIN workshops?

We do a lot of work through the use of drama groups. We train groups in each of the communities we work in, and they come up with a skit and perform it. We try to choose topics that will elicit debate within the community, and then have facilitated discussions afterwards. People are really into it and have been attending! Zambia is a place where many enjoy public speaking, so there’s never a lack of participation. We have formal workshops as well, working with Women for Change based in Zambia, and partnering with them to do gender workshops. In those, facilitators come in and have a topic, and engage with the community for a few hours on that topic. It is designed to be gradual training, beginning with workshops discussing basic concepts of gender and gender roles, and then slowly moving to gender and agriculture, food production, and health. It’s designed to incrementally speak deeper about these issues on nutrition and health. We are also training community health volunteers and local midwives, who support the project because they are all on board with empowering women as caregivers and recognizing that men have a strong role to play in home food production.

Does the project have an end-date or a specific goal it has set out to reach?

It’s a 5-year project, so we will be operating until 2015. RAIN is actually designed as a research project with a randomized control set-up. The purpose of the research is to look at the impact of agriculture alone on nutrition, versus a combined approach of both agriculture and health. The ultimate goal is to assess how much of an impact agriculture can have on nutrition – that’s why we are working with NGOs and the Zambian government, because we want a long-lasting impact and effect, which we think can be achieved with a holistic approach.

Do you have any final thoughts you would like to leave our readers with about your work?

I just want to emphasize that a lot of agriculture and health projects often overlook the gender component, and that’s why we are specifically working with pregnant and lactating women, because they have the most control and influence over determining the overall health of a child. We are providing seeds and agricultural training to those women, but we are still working with traditional leaders and men in general in the community, because we realize there are so many power dynamics that can’t be transformed by educating women alone. We are working in partnership with Zambian organizations and the government to plant the seeds for change and a shift in consciousness that will contribute to better health for women and children, and increase gender equality.

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