There is truth in the old African proverb that, ‘if you educate a man, you educate an individual, but if you educate a woman, you educate a nation’. The wisdom inherent in this maxim cannot be downplayed; it has stood as the main source of motivation to most efforts aimed at addressing the high degree of gender disparity in most of sub-Saharan Africa. The growth of the narrative of women’s abilities has continued to nibble at the continent’s dominant paradigm – patriarchy. After several studies, the jury has now decided, and the verdict is that women are better with financial resources than their male counterparts. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), women’s economic participation and their ownership and control of productive assets speeds up development, helps overcome poverty, reduces inequalities, and improves health and nutrition.
This emerging narrative of women’s capabilities runs the risk of being dismissed by sceptics and traditionalists intent on maintaining the status quo. This is because the continent has continued to grapple with the challenge of malnutrition, despite most women having been relegated to household chores that include looking after children and nutrition since time immemorial. However, to avoid losing the gains registered on the gender equality front, there is need to establish approaches that guarantee the accrual of benefits from the empowerment of women.
According to the Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis (FANRPAN), the empowerment or changing of the circumstances for women should not be done in isolation from men. Drawing from lessons from the network’s ‘Agriculture to Nutrition’ (ATONU) project, it is important to note that the empowerment of women is an outcome of several actions that include the deliberate and active engagement of men. This approach is not common or ‘top of the list’ for most development practitioners, but it must be noted that in a predominantly patriarchal African setting, men have the final say on decisions that concern resource utilization and the family, women included. Traditionally, whilst women have been accorded ‘some’ means of production to enable them to deliver on household chores, such male benevolence has not amounted to meaningful empowerment.
Basing on the outcomes of the ATONU project, opportunities exist to unlock the immense value that women can contribute by influencing men to create enabling environments that allow women to thrive. In the project, the empowerment of women was not considered as the ultimate goal, but a means to an end – achieving dietary diversity at household level. According to the formative research on gender dynamics and women empowerment conducted at project inception, women had limited decision-making power. This was a result of various factors, including cultural prejudices such as those barring women from owning land; making decisions on agricultural production; the utilization of income, and others. The formative research helped to locate ‘men’ as the pivot to all culture-centred issues, prejudices and barriers to the empowerment of women, thus enabling project planners to strategize. There was need for a strategy that broadened the original project focus from just targeting women, to including men as an integral part of the efforts to empower women. Project planners had to establish sustainable ways of engaging men, with a view to nudging them to empower their female counterparts, and thereby impacting household dietary diversity.
Instead of the original focus restricted to women, the ATONU project introduced dedicated sessions for men and largely male local community leaders. Through these exclusive sessions, the project deepened the engagements and generated a sense of urgency by sharing the general status of nutrition in the village. Armed with a more profound appreciation of the men’s concerns, fears and reservations, the project designed and delivered targeted training and briefings that focused on the food consumption situation, infant feeding practices, and the general level of knowledge on nutrition. Men were also sensitized on the impact of poor nutrition on women and children, highlighting the vicious cycle of malnutrition in the family. Further, through targeted exercises such as the ‘Workload Dialogue Tool’, men were able to establish that the prevailing low dietary diversity in their homes was partly a result of the lack of time for most women to prepare different foods due to the drudgery that characterized their lives. This training enabled most of the men to empathize with their wives and infant children, resulting in most pledging to change after analyzing the skewed distribution of chores in the domestic setting. Once exposed to the complementary role that women could play in the family, most men were ready to cast away their fears and concerns that empowering their wives would erode their traditional positions of power accorded by patriarchy.
To consolidate its approach, the project proceeded to hold combined sessions for the male and female groups. This allowed for practitioners to align the content and knowledge that the men and women had acquired in the different processes. The amalgamation of the male and female groups was achieved through the introduction of joint activities that helped to build harmonious existence and collaboration. For example, couples were trained on financial planning and budgeting, thus creating meaningful space for participation and contribution by women.
During the course of project implementation, it was observed that men from Ethiopian and Tanzanian villages that were participating in the ATONU project started assuming active roles of supporting their wives, including undertaking some household chores traditionally believed to be for women. Men were observed to be taking leading roles in the establishment of backyard vegetable gardens, the construction of energy saving stoves, childcare and support, and allowing their wives to contribute to decisions on the use of household income. In Tanzania, the trend pointed to an increase in male participation in household chores and an increase in women’s rest time.