In Many Indian Homes, Women Eat After Men. Why This Needs To Change

A two-year project in Rajasthan attempted to break the tradition of prioritising men's needs first. (Representational image)

By Charu Bahri/ IndiaSpend.org

Morthala (Rajasthan): When the women of this village sit down to eat, it is usually after the rest of the family had finished its meal — the men first, the children next and themselves last.

This is a common practice in many households, but among the rural poor it makes women and children — some of the weakest in the world — hungrier and sicklier, sparking a cascade of slow development, eventually implicated in holding back national economic progress.

A two-year-old project in Rajasthan used an unusual strategy to break this pattern among poor tribal communities in Sirohi and Banswara districts. Instead of simply increasing their food supply and access — the standard approach for dealing with malnutrition — it attempted to break the tradition of prioritising men’s needs first.

“We were advised to serve meals only after all the family members are seated so that everyone gets served equally and we discuss food,” said Rukmani, one of the project beneficiaries.

Behind this strategy of the Rajasthan Nutrition Project, launched in 2015, was a baseline survey of 403 women. It revealed that those with a lesser say in running their households were more likely to have less food for their children and were themselves vulnerable to malnutrition.

So, the Rajasthan campaign, executed by Freedom from Hunger India Trust and Grameen Foundation, both non-profit outfits, made women more health- and nutrition-aware and sensitised their husbands to gender equality.

“We chose to address intra-household food consumption disparity — the fact that in one household alone, the women and children could be food insecure while the men are food secure,” said Saraswathi Rao, CEO, Freedom From Hunger India Trust.

Over two years, the project has touched the lives of 30,000 people and among the 403 women who were sampled, more than doubled the number of women and children who always have enough to eat.

Before the intervention, 31 per cent women had reported that their husbands alone decided how much food to serve the family. After being told to make decisions jointly, no more than three per cent of men continued to take this call alone, while the number of couples making joint decisions increased from 12 to 19 per cent. Also, 53 per cent households reported eating more meals together as a family.

The project’s approach is significant in another respect. Economists have long wrestled with a problem often referred to as the India Enigma: Despite greater economic progress child health indicators fare worse than those of sub-Saharan African nations.

So, the solution does not appear to lie in increasing household food supply and access to food — as the government does through the Public Distribution System and Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS), respectively.

Interviews with the 403 women revealed who made household decisions about food, mobility and communication. This, in turn, was found to closely correlate with their own and their children’s food security.

Among the women who reported having greater autonomy, 39 per cent respondents and 42 per cent of their children had enough to eat. Only 12 per cent women with lower levels of autonomy and 17 per cent of their children reported having enough to eat.

The study revealed that any effort designed to improve food security and nutrition had to aim at improving women’s autonomy and decision-making within the household, said Kathleen Stack, Executive Vice President of the Grameen Foundation.

One of the project’s aims was to increase the food available for the sample set of women and children. This was measured by moving them up at least one point on a four-point scale.

Women were also encouraged to use the food distributed to pregnant and lactating women and young children under the ICDS. Some women had not used this service because they did not know of it, others because their families restricted their movements.

“We never knew that the anganwadi provides children (aged 3 to 6 years) a free daily meal, a variety of meals like daliya (porridge) and khichdi (a rice and lentil preparation), and take home rations for infants,” said Meera, leader of a self-help group (SHG) involved in the project.

To improve their family’s nutrient intake, women were advised dietary diversity, especially to eat more fruit and vegetables. This was unthinkable for many of the tribal women, who had no money to buy extra food.

So seeds were sourced from local government agencies and then women were helped to create kitchen gardens; even those with limited water supply started using waste wash water to grow a few vegetables.

Women now reported consuming an average of three additional foods a day. Their intake of green leafy vegetables increased 344 per cent, their consumption of yellow/orange coloured veggies rose 940 per cent and their milk intake rose 70 per cent.

Nutrition tips the women took to implementing included guidelines such as “cook in an iron pot” and “make more nourishing rotis by mixing a couple of grains like wheat, corn and pearl millet instead of using only wheat” and “breastfeed your children in the first hour after birth”.

Among the 403 study participants were 21 pregnant women, an intentional inclusion to gauge how women’s autonomy affected breastfeeding.

When the women were first interviewed, it turned out that those with a say in their household finances were more likely to report exclusively breastfeeding their child for six months. Over the course of the engagement, the percentage of new mothers who breastfed infants within the first hour of birth increased from 47 per cent to 83 per cent.

“We found the methodology effective because it involves the community; making local women a part of the solution always works better than advocacy by an external agent,” Roli Singh, Secretary, Department of Women and Child Development, Rajasthan, told IndiaSpend.

At recent national and state level consultations in Delhi and Jaipur, Arun Panda, (then) Additional Secretary and Mission Director, National Rural Health Mission, released a policy brief and a technical guide based on the Rajasthan project.

“Simple and cost-effective solutions can easily be understood, adopted and sustained,” he said.

Back in Morthala, women’s lives have changed forever. Thanks to a small change in their mealtime routine.

(In arrangement with IndiaSpend.org, a data-driven, non-profit, public interest journalism platform. Charu Bahri is a freelance writer and editor. The views expressed are those of IndiaSpend. Feedback at respond@indiaspend.org. You can read the story here: http://www.indiaspend.com/cover-story/why-indian-women-must-eat-with-their-families-and-how-it-can-change-india-71575)

(This story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)

15 COMMENTS

  1. I would rather be single my entire life than being with a feminist and who seethes hatred. Men, pls concentrate on your studies, career and your parents. Stay out of this trap called marriage. It is financially and emotionally not viable.

  2. Women eating after men is because of various.
    1. Women did the cooking and someone had to serve the food. People never touched food with the left hand. Also because most people ate sitting on the floor, it was not possible to serve oneself.
    2. Men had to eat quickly and go to the fields, forests or wherever they worked. They rarely had a leisurely meal. Women could eat leisurely after the men left.
    3. Men were the sole wage earners in the family and if they could not work for even one day, the whole family would suffer. Therefore it was important that their health and energy levels were safe guarded. They were therefore given the first servings.

    In today’s environment many of the traditional practices can be changed, but it is not necessary to criticize traditional practices because they had a purpose and suited those requirements. .

  3. I agree with this article 100% Men should spend more time in the kitchen, its a great way to de-stress. A great way to socialize and entertain as well. Of course the fact still remains that men are better cooks than women 🙂

  4. Agreed with Raj partially, there is a logic behind every practice introduced by our elders. In present days we have dining tables and we dine touching the food/dishes with the same hand spilling the food leaving on your hand and if fell in the food, treated as defiled food and another logic for that was, there were no refrigerators in olden days and food will spoil if we have to store the food.
    Yes I too agree that in few places, there is a practice where women eat in the same plate/leave left by her husband, which has to be changed.
    Personally I feel days are changed, So we need to change and make life more logical.

  5. Excellent article! Every family member needs to be treated with respect and humanity. Women and children are human beings first and deserve the same courtesy and respect as the men folk in a family.
    It is heartening to note that in many households, the whole family eats together or whoever is hungry gets to eat on time and to their fill regardless of their gender or age. We the younger generation, have to make these changes – to reject outdated, meaningless practices that pass off as tradition, but were actually designed by patriarchal societies to keep women and children in a second class citizen status. These practices benefit only men, and not women and children. A country cannot call itself progressive and economically rising if it’s women and children continue to suffer malnourishment and abuse in the name of tradition.

  6. Raj, your culture is contributing to child malnutrition. These people figured out a way to lessen the burden to children with zero additional cost to an already poor group of people. Perhaps you might consider an alternate way to communicate respect so that children can be healthy. Fair trade?

  7. things have changed in Urban and modern India, probably it’s practice in rural India for women to eat after family. In educated families and unit families , this is not true. I hate my family members to wait for me to eat, especially in the present life styles and job situations when you reach home very late in the night. There might be family members with diabetes , BP and other health issues and need to have timely food, so this is not correct. I ask my family including my spouse to have food at a time a time that’s comfortable to them and not wait for me and this is very humane too. We do not want to progress with times and society.

    • The focus area here is not eating together. Women in traditional homes (happens in cities and educated section as well) are expected to serve food and wait-on as kids and male folk, eat .

      It’s pretty much an art to promptly refill plates with next course as food gets eaten up.

      In my home, this tradition has been reduced to special occasions such as visitors arriving or festival lunch. Else, food is kept in the dining table and everyone eats at a convenient time.

      But in these rural/tribal areas, where food is scarce, women end up sacrificing healthy vegetables and fruits for other family members.They eat leftovers to reduce food wastage.

  8. Person who want to change our every tradition are actually the most serious criminals in our society. They want us to become animal once again. The traditions, which our ancestors developed with lot of logic and knowledge, they want to change it.

    Question is why they want to change? Answer is very simple their parents did not teach our traditions to them, may be they are more engaged in fighting with each other or may be they are not able to carry their marriage or may be they are alcoholic or may be they have many extra marital affairs so they teach their child to oppose every tradition.

    These type of people have problems with our ancestors, our tradition, our language, our color, our food, our clothes everything because their parent teach them that only those people are good who has lot of money no matter from where they earn.

    They love western culture or may be they need to say western culture is good because they don’t know how is their father.

    Let me tell ‘why women are eat after men’ because, by this way they are giving respect. But problem is this, these type of people don’t know about respect. In their view, respect is to say thank you, sorry, excuse me, that’s it. They don’t know how to give respect without saying anything. Even they are opposing one marriage. Logic is very simple, as I told you before their parents are not able to follow this concept so they need to say this one marriage concept is wrong. In their view every person can sleep with as many person as (s)he wants. Similarly as their parents are doing all time in their life.

    If you match the culture among animals and western culture you can find many similarities. like animals, in western culture any person can do intercourse with anybody, they leave their child in next room from very first day (here animals are little bit more cultured), they don’t like clothes and many other similarities you can find.

    Now if you say these type of person to find logic behind women eating after men, what you can expect. They will scratch their head, will think for hours and then they will say it is illogical. This is natural for them. But please those who know his/her father’s name, please do not listen to them. Let them become animal. We are cultured and have some traditions. Follow these traditions and show respect to your ancestors without saying thank you.

  9. This is not true with every Indian family, we as Muslims eat Family meal together since, as kids until we grew up, went to college, working until now we have the same culture. My parents use to wait for me even when I was late from college or function.
    Together we eat even after getting married after having our own kids. This way we develop respect and know day to day issues.
    if my wife or daughters are very hungry and cannot wait I ask to proceed eating lunch however dinner is still together.

  10. Completely agree and I hate this since I was about 5 or 6 yrs. I have always insisted mother and wife to site with all of us not afterwards.
    I this keeps a good bond. Hope that many will start practising.

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