by Ramona Ridolfi
Rooted in the centuries-old struggle for gender equality, International Women’s Day celebrates ordinary women as makers of history.
In 1977, the United Nations General Assembly invited member states to proclaim March 8th as the United Nations Day for Women’s Rights and International Peace.
Since then this special day has integrated a new global dimension: the growing international women’s movement. This movement has been strengthened by four global United Nations women’s conferences, and International Women’s Day has evolved to build support for women’s rights and participation in the political and economic arenas.
International Women’s Day is an official holiday in several countries, where men often honor their mothers, wives, partners, colleagues and friends with flowers. Events are held throughout the world to reflect on the progress made in advancing gender equality, to celebrate achievements and to call for change for the future. In fact, this year’s theme is “Inspiring Change,” a call to challenge the status quo for women’s equality, promote continued vigilance and inspire positive change.
Helen Keller International – Bangladesh celebrated International Women’s Day by hosting a joint event with WorldFish in Dhaka to encourage dialogue surrounding the topic of Inspiring Change: Institutionalizing Gender in Nutrition and Agriculture Interventions.
Gender discrimination is an underlying cause of malnutrition in South Asia. A recent Helen Keller International mapping exercise of nutrition activities in Bangladesh found that less than 5% of projects report incorporating training and education surrounding gender and equity and less than 20% of these projects address adolescent nutrition. Given the recent increase in global discussion on adolescent nutrition stimulated by the 2013 Lancet series and the high rates of child marriage in the country, Bangladesh is presented with the opportunity to be a global leader by taking steps to encourage culturally significant, realistic approaches to address these issues. The mapping exercise also uncovered that more than half of the nutrition projects in Bangladesh address maternal nutrition, yet gender training for service providers and other sources of authority, as well as education at the household and community level, is still lacking.
Integrating gender training in nutrition and agriculture programs without bringing about social change limits the sustainability of our actions and gender transformative approaches are crucial in order to empower women and achieve gender equality. Nutrition and agriculture system interventions should be introduced using an approach that understands power relations and social diversity in their context. These issues need to be addressed by engaging both men and women through critical learning, reflection and questioning their own (often discriminatory) behaviors and practices.
Helen Keller International-Bangladesh elaborated on this approach recently in a transformative gender and nutrition manual called Nurturing Connections. This innovative six-month curriculum builds the communication and problem solving skills, as well as the critical literacy, of its participants by providing them with the opportunity to discuss discriminating behaviors and practices that cause malnutrition and food insecurity within the household. Families that participate begin the program with informal learning activities within their own peer groups and then progress to sessions in a mediated community setting at the conclusion of the workshops. The curriculum was pilot-tested in Helen Keller International’s Building Equity for Agriculture and Markets project in Nilphamari, Northwest Bangladesh, in conjuction with the project’s activities promoting homestead food production and women’s access to markets. The final project evaluation showed that women’s decision-making power surrounding child healthcare and visits to family and relatives significantly increased.
Maternal and child nutrition and agriculture interventions are traditionally built upon a paradigm that views nutrition, child care and household tasks as a feminine responsibility. Existing programs have done little to address the time burden or the division of labor that create barriers to optimal child-feeding and self-care practices, as well as to women’s participation in agricultural activities and access to markets.
The International Women’s Day event brought together representatives from nongovernmental organizations, donor agencies and local government to discuss the importance of gender equality within nutrition and agricultural programs and how to strengthen these vital programs to empower even more women across Bangladesh in the future.
Learn more about Helen Keller International’s 2014 International Women’s Day Event in Blangladesh: