Women in Action

Mealtimes are becoming a family affair in India’s Desert State

An awareness programme underway as part of the Rajasthan Nutrition project by Vaagdhara NGO.   | Photo Credit: Sandeep Saxena

In a small village tucked away near the Rajasthan-Gujarat border, wafts of spice once filled the air as 40-year-old Dubali Damor warmed chapatis and fried spices for her family’s evening meal. Once ready, her husband and children would tuck into plates of steaming fluffy rice and curry whilst she scuttled away into the corner to wait for them to finish. With any luck there would be something left for her to pick at before bedtime.

In Rajasthan, a state hit hardly by climate change and difficult farming conditions, the harmful practice of women like Dubali eating after their husbands and families is a public health issue that must end. According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) one billion people worldwide suffer from malnutrition, with women being the most impacted. In fact, figures show that in India alone 55 percent of women are anaemic and that one in three women of childbearing age is undernourished, with a body index mass (BMI) of less than 18.5kg/m2. Unsurprisingly, female undernourishment can perpetuate an intergenerational cycle of health problems as poorly nourished mothers themselves lack vital nutrients for the development of their unborn babies and are unable to produce nutritious breast milk.

Luckily, Freedom from Hunger India Trust has put into practice a two-year project to tackle the issue of female malnourishment in the region, honing in on the Banswara and Sirohi districts within the state. Implemented in 2015, The Rajasthan Nutrition Project works to educate communities on the importance of ensuring adequate nutrition amongst women, and offers training programmes in agriculture and health. Empowering women to initiate change within their communities, local women are trained to work as nutritional advocates, forming a dedicated network of Annapurnas (gods of food). So far over 1,250 women have been trained directly by The Rajasthan Nutrition Project, who have in turn offered nutritional guidance to a further 8,100 women on. In total, the Annapurnas have spread their message to more than 30,000 individuals across the Banswara and Sirohi regions of Rajasthan.

Surveys carried out show that the seeds sown by the Annapurnas are reaping real results; in rural communities, where patriarchal attitudes run deep, male family members are slowly understanding that when women’s health is made a public priority the entire community benefits. In tribal villages involving men in educational programmes has resulted in families evolving new strategies to source low-cost nutritious food and has overturned the harmful practice of women eating after male family members.

Varsha Joshi, an associate professor at the Institute of Development Studies in Jaipur, argues that taking on such innocuous traditions as the simple act of a women eating separately from their families is key to securing equal rights for women. He commented that when women eat with their families and understand the vital link between food consumption and nutrition, the health of the entire family improves.

Dubali was one of the local women the Annapurnas reached out to. Eating after her family had left her weak and exhausted. “It was a habit for us. I never thought of it as discrimination against women, although I remained hungry several times and my health suffered,” Dubali said. Despite owning and working land, she lacked any real nutritional knowledge and often only cooked two or three types of vegetable throughout the week. Under the guidance of local Annapurna Shobha Rawat, Dubali and several other women from her village of Jalimpura learnt about the relationship between health and food. Women are taught a few basic cooking techniques such as using iron food vessels for cooking and using mixed grain flours to make chapatis. An impressive 53 percent of female heads of households report being food secure after having undergone the training.

In Rajasthan — an area where female illiteracy runs high — Shobha has to think outside of the box to get the Annapurna message across. “One thing that did the trick was a series of pictorial stories comparing two fictional women, Sita and Gita. Women saw who did better with nutritional advice, and were convinced about how to take care of themselves and their children,” she said.

In many villages the presence of the Annapurnas has seen a flourishing of poshanbadis (home gardens). Now armed with elevated confidence and nutritional know-how, women are opting to grow nutritious crops such as luni (purslane) and pui (malabar spinach) which were once sidelined for wheat. The growing of crops by these local women mark real progress in demolishing the boundaries that traditions had built between women, nutrition and agriculture in the region.

For Dubali and Shobha mealtimes have come to represent more than just a chance to eat alongside their loved ones, they now offer a chance for them to solidify their place in the local community.




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Printable version | Jun 16, 2021 3:21:07 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/specials/women-in-action/mealtimes-are-becoming-a-family-affair-in-indias-desert-state/article20944854.ece

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