Gender roles affect everyone, everywhere, but they are most pronounced in countries with highly traditional cultures. In many societies, men decide which foods to buy and how much, and this role makes them primary decision makers in relation to family nutrition (Ambikapathi et al., 2021; Engle, 1997; Otieno et al., 2016). Many societies cast men as breadwinners and women as homemakers and mothers. This story is so common, yet its impacts on nutrition are not fully understood.
Attempts by nutrition programs to overcome such restrictive norms often focus on women and young children and exclude men (Ampt et al., 2015). This tunnel vision can drive a situation whereby men, in their roles as household heads, act as gatekeepers to their family’s nutrition yet lack adequate nutritional knowledge to make good decisions. In this way, the gatekeeper becomes a roadblock for improving the nutrition of women and children.
Research on Food Allocation
To understand more about the gendered roles related to engaging men in household nutrition, researchers conducted focus group discussions in 2020 in Rwanda’s western and southern provinces. The purpose was to understand men’s preferences about engaging in childhood nutrition, such as providing more milk, and women’s preferences on how they would want men to be engaged. The research also explored barriers and enablers to men’s engagement.
As in many traditional cultures, in Rwanda men consider it their responsibility to provide food for their families, primarily through giving their wives money to buy food. One man explained that “a man provides money to buy healthy foods. This ensures that children and breastfeeding women are well fed, children grow up healthy, and breastfeeding women have enough milk for their young children.” When asked who decides whether or not to buy nutrient-rich animal-source foods, the majority of men and women said that such decisions were taken jointly between husband and wife, but that men are the final decision-makers.
Eating meat is a more complicated story. Some women allocate more meat to their husbands because men provide the money for it and because giving meat indicates respect. For young children, women indicated that they prioritize them during food scarcity through reserving eggs and milk. One mother said: “When eggs are few, I prepare them for the young children, and I give them a lot of milk since they need to grow.”
Many men and women across the focus groups considered men’s engagement in child nutrition as critical for ensuring children are well-fed. Women argued that men need to understand why nutritious food is important in order to pay for it. The study uncovered a link between community perceptions of the health of household members and men’s status in a community. Men respondents explained that they receive honor and praise at the community level when their families are healthy. They are respected by others, and men avoid conflict with local leaders who are tasked with the role of ensuring that men take good care of their families.
Who Does the Cooking?
Women agreed that their husbands are considered important people in society when they take good care of their families, and a healthy family is considered a positive example in the community. However, men and women mentioned that some cultural norms hinder men from engaging in meal preparation activities.
Men who are actively involved in household duties like cooking can be stigmatized and seen to be under the control of their wives. One man stated, “When community members see a man and a woman understanding and supporting each other in household chores, they usually say that the man has lost household headship. This discourages men from supporting their wives in preparing meals or engaging in activities commonly known to be done by women.”
So how can men better support household nutrition? Many women want men to learn how to prepare healthy meals, suggesting men should be encouraged to attend kitchen cooking demonstrations. Women also express a desire for men to understand basic food hygiene practices (and men agreed), for instance, by ensuring children wash their hands before eating and serving children boiled rather than raw milk.
The study results indicate that cultural norms about “appropriate masculine and feminine behaviour” strongly affect intra-household nutrition. Men are primarily responsible for providing money to purchase food and women to buy and prepare food. However, consumption of animal-source foods is low. Men may not provide sufficient monies for purchasing them, or they may sell foods they produce rather than allocating them to their families.
Women generally feel disempowered because men dominate the decision-making process. Yet, men who seek to enact more gender-equitable behaviors can be scorned at the community level. Nevertheless, men respondents are strongly interested in being trained on nutrition through village leadership, and in male spaces. A key action that arose from discussions with men around this interest was the development of a pilot program using “Model Fathers” who were trained on the rudiments of healthy eating with a focus on women and children. They shared this nutritional knowledge with other fathers in their communities and it appeared highly successful. This pilot effort will be expanded in the near future to include other countries.A father in Rwanda provides milk for his children. (October 2021 in Nyabihu; credit: Jean-Claude Bizimana
Ambikapathi, R., Passarelli, S., Madzorera, I., Canavan, C. R., Noor, R. A., Abdelmenan, S., Tewahido, D., Tadesse, A. W., Sibanda, L., Sibanda, S., Munthali, B., Madzivhandila, T., Berhane, Y., Fawzi, W., & Gunaratna, N. S. (2021). Men’s nutrition knowledge is important for women’s and children’s nutrition in Ethiopia. Maternal & Child Nutrition, 17(1), e13062. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1111/mcn.13062
Ampt, F., Mon, M. M., Than, K. K., Khin, M. M., Agius, P. A., Morgan, C., Davis, J., & Luchters, S. (2015). Correlates of male involvement in maternal and newborn health: A cross-sectional study of men in a peri-urban region of Myanmar. BMC Pregnancy and Childbirth, 15(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12884-015-0561-9
Engle, P. L. (1997). The role of men in families: Achieving gender equity and supporting children. Gender and Development, 5(2). https://doi.org/10.1080/741922351
Flax, V.L., Ouma, E.A., Schreiner, M-A., Ufitinema, A., Niyonzima, E., Colverson K.E., and Galiè, A. 2023. Engaging fathers to support child nutrition increases frequency of children’s animal source food consumption in Rwanda. PLoS ONE 18(4): e0283813. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0283813
Otieno, P. E., Farnworth, C. R., & Banda, N. (2016). Involving Men in Nutrition. Gfras Good Practice Note for Extension and Advisory Services, September, 1–4. www.betterextension.org.
Wrote by Dr. Kathleen Colverson and Jim Harper