Gender inequality, mothers' health, and unequal distribution of food: experience from a CARE project in India

Gender inequality, mothers' health, and unequal distribution of food: experience from a CARE project in India

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 food. The project is supported by CARE India in partnership with the International Centre for Research on Women (ICRW) and the article focuses on the second phase of the project from 2007 – 2010. 

Data collected during the project shows that community knowledge about nutritious food for pregnant women was adequate but that this knowledge was not often being applied. Women's health and well-being whilst pregnant is seen to be negatively affected by gender norms and traditions, such as:

  • Women are expected to eat least and last, even when pregnant
  • Restrictions on women's mobility means they often can't access free food schemes
  • Physical work is expected of pregnant women, often more than usual, as it is believed this will make the delivery of the baby easier
  • The stigma attached to giving birth to a girl can result in women not receiving proper post-natal care

The ISOFI project aimed to unpack and transform personal beliefs and attitudes around gender and sexuality issues in order to affect change in communities. The first step involved gender training for staff who were encouraged to reflect on their own experiences and attitudes. From these sessions staff developed practical and conceptual tools to address gender issues in community training and counselling sessions. This resulted in an innovative package of interventions to address gender inequity and food distribution at different levels, such as:
  • 'Couples meet' – where young couples are invited to meet at a public setting, allowing the women to leave the house in a publically sanctioned way. Gender norms and stereotypes are challenged during these meetings through games, exercises and discussions and the value of changing some aspects of gender behaviour – for example  men helping out with chores and women eating with their families rather than alone after everyone else has eaten -  is discussed. The fact that the issues are openly raised in this way acts as to sanction the need for change. in these forums.
  • 'Support groups and household counselling' around the well-being of pregnant women. Following these sessions some women reported positive experiences of partners helping to cook and clean. Sharing experiences of 'positive deviance' from norms can help others to be inspired and to try out new behaviour.