Food Security Policy Innovation Lab

Women’s day: Men celebrating women

3 August 2018

Men have a vested interest in women's empowerment and gender equality. However, men may be reluctant to participate in child care and nutrition because it is regarded by society as women's work. As part of the Feed the Future 

Innovation Lab for Food Security, we embarked on a study that showed that men have an important role to play in improving maternal and child nutrition as well as gender equality.

Many times when we think of women's day, we imagine women marching at the forefront demanding their rights. While this may indeed be true sometimes, women also march for the benefit of the larger society. Unfortunately, women's ability to provide and care for children is limited because of unequal pay, gender-based violence and social norms that continue to prevent women from meeting their full potential. If these constraints didn't exist, one wonders how much progress could be made towards reducing malnutrition?

Past studies have shown that when men are involved in maternal and child health, women are more likely to exclusively breastfeed, comply with antenatal visits and eat better during pregnancy. However, several changes need to take place to ensure that men are free to be involved in these activities actively. Changes are needed in policies at a community level and also at a personal level.

Our recently published paper explains that policymakers have an important role in making sure that policies address the socially ingrained obstacles that prevent women and men from exercising certain freedoms. For example, lack of paternity leave policies, or policies that offer men a limited number of leave days reinforces the idea that childcare is women's work. This stereotype perpetuates the notion that women belong at home and justifies unequal pay.

Our study shows that the role of traditional leaders and opinion leaders is fundamental in changing social norms and behaviours. Traditional leaders can lead by example, but they can also enforce regulations that persuade men to be involved in activities that are traditionally considered to be women's work. For example, in Malawi, bylaws were established to ensure that men attend antenatal care with their partners. If they did not attend, they were fined. Fines are not the most appropriate means to motivate men since the penalties can be used to purchase food. But community service for men might be an alternative disincentive to encourage men to attend antenatal visits. When men attend antenatal visit, they can be held to account for gender-based violence. They are also able to receive information that can enable them to support women during pregnancy.

The men that participated in this study recognised that as fathers they had an important role to play in maternal and child nutrition. They realised that when they helped their partners access nutritious food and provided support with housework and child care, their wives were healthier and consequently their children were born healthier. They were able to take pride in the fact that they had healthy families. Men taking part in these activities ensures that women are healthier and have more time to pursue their full potential.

So, whether you are a policymaker, a traditional leader or just a dad, there are many reasons to join the women's day celebrations. Joining the march is not only joining the women's empowerment movement, but it is also joining the march towards a better future for our children. A future where children and women can meet their full potential.

- Author Elizabeth Mkandawire and Nokuthula Vilakazi