We have seen or heard about the trend where, the bread bearer (man) of the family comes home from work, he is served food along with the children by the bread maker (wife or mother) of the family and she herself would eat after they are done. Now there are two scenarios in this situation, households which are food secure and others who are not. A study conducted among women from tribal communities in southwestern district of Sirohi and eastern district of Banswara in Rajasthan, revealed that in food secure families, everything is fine as everyone is getting proper diet, but in case of food insecure families, who have limited food stock, only men are food secure and shoves women and children into further hunger and malnutrition.
This unfair access of food to women and children is a result of practice of placing men’s needs above the rest of family’s, as they are the only one who plays a major role in decision making concerning their households and mobility. Albeit, it’s a common practice and nobody knows when or where or how this process started, but like every other totem of patriarchy, it is deeply en-rooted in people’s psyche.
‘I go to work. I provide food for family. So, i should be the one to eat first.’ A common reply from most men who are asked about this practice. There are many bred-in-the-bone causes of ‘women eating last’ practice. One of them is high rates of neo-natal mortality. Women in poor households are undernourished as they literally scrap the bottom of barrel. They start pregnancy under-weight and gain a little weight during pregnancy. This leads to low birth weight babies and less successful breastfeeding. The first two years of life are most important for child’s physical and cognitive growth, but women’s under-nourishment contributes substantially to India’s high rate of child stunting.
Apart from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh too have this issue and have repercussions as those found in India. A study done on Chinese society in 2015 implicates that during tough times, when there is shortage of food, men and elders are served food first and women often might not get enough food. This trend has been seen across African, Asian and Latin American countries and is often termed as “cultural thing”. Even if men get late from work, women have to wait, no matter how hungry they are.
A fascinating discovery of facts by few researchers suggest that patriarchy’s origin could be in food. A research paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) by a team of archeologists implies that the baby steps of male dominance could have set at the end of Neolithic age and through Bronze age. Few human body bones from Neolithic and Bronze age were examined. The bone chemistry indicates that male and female diets were similar during Neolithic period. Also during early farming, men and women had equal share in work and food. But through Bronze age, men continued to have millets and meat but women shifted to wheat. Women’s bones from Bronze age shows an indicator of childhood malnutrition. The balance of power tipped just as wheat was introduced, as well as other commodities such as cattle and bronze. Men seeking control over new resources, accumulating wealth and taking control of novel foods and wares, may have set the table for a culture of female subordination.
Our society, which is dyed-in-the-wool patriarchal, pressures us to make gendered food choices. We are constantly bombarded with advertising and social messaging telling us that eating like a bird and dining on salad is feminine while taking large portions of meat is manly and women should eat in a particular way to remain skinny and attractive. Some people may find this ingrained belief outdated, but research shows they persist for many of us and possess a serious threat to men’s and women’s health. Men and women have biological differences, so our health habits should depend on science rather than social attitudes.
Rajasthan government launched Rajasthan Nutrition Project (RNP) to address the issue of food security within individual households in rural areas by introducing the idea of “family meals“. The project was first executed in tribal areas where open defecation and child marriage was prevalent, literacy rate was very low, high neonatal mortality and women still veil themselves when men are present. Such an area was Ambapara village where the concept of “family meals” was revolutionary. The project coordinators created plates to demonstrate the quantity of food each family member was getting, to make men understand that women and children are not getting enough food. It was not only men who needed persuasion, women also believed in the same tradition. At the end of two year campaign, after reaching to 30000 households, a survey was conducted and the results were cheerful. There was a positive change in the nutrition levels of women and children. The impact of campaign was not only limited to nutrition improvement, it brought a positive change in the role of women in their own families than just a mere bread maker. This campaign made a world of difference to women’s well being and their position in the society.
We need more campaigns like RNP across the country and world, so that we can overcome these stereotypes and move forward to a more open and equal society where women, without hesitating, can ask for an extra bread in her own house.
As Mother Teresa quoted “I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.” So with the viewpoint of casting my stone, I dedicate this article to all women out there who are striving daily to get what they really deserve.
Happy International Women’s Day.