New ICRW Project Aims to Empower Women, Improve Nutrition in Africa

Article Date

16 October 2014

Article Author

By Gillian Gaynair

Media Contact

Anne McPherson

Vice President, Global Communications email [email protected]

The International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) has partnered with Helen Keller International (HKI) to integrate and ultimately institutionalize a variety of gender considerations into a longstanding HKI food production and nutrition program previously implemented in Asia and now being launched in Africa.

The project, “Creating Homestead Agriculture for Nutrition and Gender Equity,” or CHANGE, builds upon HKI’s flagship Homestead Food Production (HFP) program. Since 1988, HFP has helped communities in Asia establish local food production systems by strengthening smallholder farmers’ capacity to successfully raise poultry and livestock on their farms and plant gardens that yield nutritious fruits and vegetables year-round. The program also includes a set of interventions that aim to not only address micronutrient deficiencies but also bolster child and infant growth by promoting breastfeeding and such enhanced nutrition-related behaviors as dietary diversity and appropriate feeding practices for children older than six months, among other goals.

Now HKI is striving to further adapt its successful model to rural areas in Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, and Tanzania as well as in Senegal’s capital, Dakar. In CHANGE, HKI is shifting its HFP model from an approach that has simply targeted women to one that aims to be transformative for women, by addressing potential underlying causes of under-nutrition, such as unequal gender relations and control over resources within households and communities. With that, a priority of the three-year pilot project is to “institutionalize gender with tools, methodologies, and empowerment indicators” in the diverse African context, said Clara Bastardes Tort, gender specialist for ICRW in Dakar.

“Our work aims to better understand how women manage their environments and how they work and negotiate with men to provide food to their families. What opportunities and unique obstacles do they face, and what kind of impact do gender and social norms have?” Bastardes explained. “Empowering women will be a key ingredient in CHANGE, all with an eye to improving maternal and child health and nutrition.”

Specifically, the CHANGE program aims to increase women’s income, improve their control over productive resources, and strengthen their ability to make decisions related to agriculture, family nutrition, and health care. “Our approach is also focused on understanding gender dynamics within a household and, ideally, transforming often imbalanced power relations so that men and women make these decisions together,” Bastardes said. “In this process, we see men as partners who can participate in a positive way to influence nutrition outcomes for their children and families.”

Understanding household dynamics

Bastardes and other ICRW experts are in the process of conducting a baseline study in rural Côte d’Ivoire and Dakar to better understand the underlying cultural issues, gender norms, and division of labor within households that can influence a family’s nutrition, especially maternal and child nutrition. ICRW gender specialists will also evaluate how couples make decisions and who controls resources within a household, among other behaviors. The results of this study will inform future assessments of the CHANGE program’s impact on participating women and families in these countries. ICRW will train HKI program staff and researchers in how to conduct such assessments, as well. Meanwhile, in Burkina Faso and Tanzania, ICRW will conduct a qualitative study of many of the same issues, which will complement quantitative findings to be delivered by the International Food Policy Research Institute, another HKI partner involved in the CHANGE program’s expansion into Africa.

In addition to its evaluation work, ICRW is adapting the “Nurturing Connections” toolkit, which was developed for a HKI homestead food production and nutrition initiative implemented in northwest Bangladesh through December 2013. The toolkit focuses on building communications skills within communities, particularly around gender norms, equality and decision making, to create an enabling environment for more equitable and effective division of labor and use of resources and eventually, for improved nutrition.  The adaptation process will involve making the toolkit more suitable to the diverse African context and will incorporate content specifically around homestead food production and water, health and sanitation.

ICRW staff will lead the toolkit’s implementation and evaluate its impact in rural Côte d’Ivoire and Dakar. “By the end of the CHANGE project, we’ll have a very good toolkit already tested and improved for new HFP projects in Africa,” Bastardes said.

Throughout, ICRW will work in a participatory fashion, involving women participants – and men – as well as a variety of partners, from nongovernmental organizations to health workers and extension agents.

A persistent gender gap

While there are many underlying causes of child malnutrition, it is generally the result of insufficient household food security, inadequate maternal and childcare and inadequate health services, according to UNICEF. Household food insecurity, in particular, is a major cause of malnutrition in many sub-Saharan nations, where families do not have access to sufficient food, either in quality or quantity, on a year-round basis.

In Burkina Faso, Tanzania, and Côte d’Ivoire, agriculture is a primary source of income for many in rural communities. However, rising food prices and dismal harvests continue to challenge the stability of poor families, where women “are a very important part of food producers in the field,” Bastardes said. “In fact, in sub-Saharan Africa, women make up on average 50 percent of the agricultural workforce – the world’s highest share.”

But a gap persists in terms of the resources and opportunities women have to maximize their production compared with men. Closing this gender gap, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, would lead to an estimated 20 to 30 percent average increase globally in farm yields. This in turn would result in a potential 100 to 150 million undernourished people gaining better access to food.

Meanwhile, in Dakar, with its crowded houses and neighborhoods and higher costs, the challenges are different. Although Senegal has made significant progress in improving children’s health through effective immunization campaigns, distribution of deworming medication, promotion of vitamin A intake, and provision of malaria services, experts say there is room for greater improvement. That’s why HKI is targeting urban populations around Dakar; by encouraging women to establish small vegetable and fruit gardens and raise chickens in spaces around their homes or on rooftops, the program helps ensure that children receive more – and more nutritious – food.

As part of ICRW’s effort to strengthen HKI’s capacity to understand and integrate gender considerations into its programming, Bastardes said it will be key to comprehend the variety of roles women have within a household – wife, caregiver, agricultural worker, mother – and what level of control they have in those responsibilities. It’s also critical to understand societal expectations of women and men, and how those may play out in relation to women’s access to opportunities.

“If we don’t understand gender relations and social norms,” Bastardes said, “we cannot work to improve women’s situation or to empower women.”

Gillian Gaynair owns Mallett Avenue Media, a Washington, D.C. firm specializing in content that shows how nonprofits, foundations and corporations effect change in the U.S. and globally.