Eating leftover food after the family finishes their meals is an everyday reality for women in the southern belt of Rajasthan. Following the centuries-old tradition, most men and women seem comfortable living their life this way. But for the new generation of women, these practices were not acceptable as they were becoming victimns of malnutrition. When their roar for change met the profound support of Vaagdhara, an NGO, who has a far-reaching understanding of tribal life — a revolution began.  

Credit: Wikimedia

It is known that these women eat last and the least in the family. The age-old practice of feeding men first then children still runs in the villages of the southern part of Rajasthan. Male-dominated norms restrict women’s access to food in the household. According to Vagaadhra, for most women, what appeared on their plate was only the leftover, they ate the remains and were meant to look after the house with almost empty stomachs.

This unethical practice not only keeps women hungry but also has an ill effect on their health. They become the victims of malnutrition and the same cycle passes on to the next generation. “The reason why women are more likely than men to be victims of hunger in this particular region is that their access to food is often undermined by gender-based discrimination. In the tribal area, tradition dictates that women eat last after all the male members and children have been fed,” Surbhi Saraswat, Theme Leader at Vaaghara told NTD India.

There was no change in women’s lives, and prejudice continued. People did not object to following these practices. But, the new generation of women by no means were willing to tolerate this bias. This intolerance towards the age-old custom was supported by Vaagdhara, who has been working closely to help women and children have a better standard of living in these areas.

“Through identifying and analyzing the issues related to malnutrition, we identified the approach of gender-equitable nutrition security and addressing intrahousehold food consumption disparity,” said Surbhi.

From the last 15 years, Vaagdhara has been working in the tribal belt of southern Rajasthan and has a broad understanding of tribal culture and traditions. The NGO works in a unique way, such that they combine technology with their tribal knowledge to fit into the community. But to bring changes in these areas they surely went through a tough time.

When asked about the challenges they faced, Surbhi mentioned, “The organization faced difficulties to make them understand the gender issues. The major concern was only of the traditions which have been continuing from 100’s of years, men and even women are comfortable with the situation. Gender-based thinking and changing behaviour itself is not an easy task to handle.”

The struggles were part of the revolution that began, but women from these tribal belts have set their mind to have an equal share of the meal. The organisation tried understanding the nutritional practices and ideas that the community valued, resisted, practiced, promoted and considered taboo. “The next big step was the appointment and training of Community Nutrition Advocates (CNAs), called Annapurnas, who would serve as the crucial link between the project and the community,” added Surbhi,

Vaagdhara believes in making sure that the learning process remains simple and practical. They came up with picture-based flip books which were used to ensure that the community built on the knowledge it already had and developed it further. Different helpful techniques like sprouting of moong/chana, making mixed grain rotis and cooking complementary nutritional combinations were also taught. “One efficient way of intervention was to demonstrate a visual comparison between a man’s plate and a woman’s plate to drive home the point that women were literally surviving on bottom-of-the-barrel food,” Surbhi revealed.

Soon, the women’s lives in the tribal villages of the southern belt of Rajasthan began to change as these novel plans from the NGO worked in favour of them. “We started to sensitize on the gender-based issue, the basic understanding of how they can be together as a couple, taking care of their wives, distributing household chores. But when they tried to make sure they have meals together, they perceived the changes not only in the nutrition level but also in sharing food with the family. It also brought about positive changes in their relationship.” Surbhi added.

Family Meals, Dietary Diversity and Gender equitable Distribution of Food were the new norms that the villagers started following. More than 400 SHGs (Self Help Groups) now have enhanced access to nutrition-related support services.

With simple and cost-effective solutions while keeping the community’s perspective in mind, a revolutionary change has come about in the tribal life. Women now have better financial literacy while men have a great sensitivity towards gender equality.

Feature image is representational. 

Picture Courtesy: Vaagdhara

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