In countries where the majority of undernourished people are smallholder farmers, there has been interest in agricultural interventions to improve nutritional outcomes. Addressing gender inequality, however, is a key mechanism by which agriculture can improve nutrition, since women often play a crucial role in farming, food processing and child care, but have limited decision-making and control over agricultural resources. This study examines the approaches by which gender equity in agrarian, resource-poor settings can be improved using a case study in Malawi.
A quasi-experimental design with qualitative methods was used to examine the effects of a participatory intervention on gender relations. Thirty married couple households in 19 villages with children under the age of 5 years were interviewed before and then after the intervention. An additional 7 interviews were conducted with key informants, and participant observation was carried out before, during the intervention and afterwards in the communities. The interviews were recorded and transcribed, and analysed qualitatively for key themes, concepts and contradictions.
Several barriers were identified that undermine the quality of child care practices, many linked to gender constructions and norms. The dominant concepts of masculinity created shame and embarrassment if men deviated from these norms, by cooking or caring for their children. The study provided evidence that participatory education supported new masculinities through public performances that encouraged men to take on these new roles. Invoking men's family responsibilities, encouraging new social norms alongside providing new information about different healthy recipes were all pathways by which men developed new 'emergent' masculinities in which they were more involved in cooking and child care. The transformational approach, intergenerational and intra-gendered events, a focus on agriculture and food security, alongside involving male leaders were some of the reasons that respondents named for changed gender norms.
Participatory education that explicitly addresses hegemonic masculinities related to child nutrition, such as women's roles in child care, can begin to change dominant gender norms. Involving male leaders, participatory methods and integrating agriculture and food security concerns with nutrition appear to be key components in the context of agrarian communities.