|Challenges for the 21st Century: A Gender Perspective on Nutrition through the Life Cycle - Nutrition policy paper No. 17 (UNSSCN, 1998, 116 p.)|
|Chapter 6: Nutrition Challenges and Gender in Asia|
Urban Jonsson (UNICEF): There are hardly any similarities between Thailand and South Asia. In South Asia, millions of women are missing, infanticide is common, and the population pyramid is continuing to change. Certain districts in Thailand have an unbelievable balance between men and women. The situation for women in South Asia is quite different from that in Sub-Saharan Africa. In Sub-Saharan Africa women are primarily the mothers of their husbands children. In South Asia, a married woman is a commodity, owned by her husband and his family. In Sub-Saharan Africa, traditionally, infertility is the only legitimate reason for divorce. In South Asia, infidelity is the only legitimate reason.
Ruth Oniango (AGN): On both continents, women are marginalised and oppressed. In some local languages in Sub-Saharan Africa, a woman is not a person. The international donor community has assisted and instilled confidence in women, and has made men realise that without women, they are nothing. But communities are made up of men, women, children, livestock, and everything in it. It is better to include men, and to sensitise them, because then they support the women and they work together. It is important to include both genders in projects. In Africa, at the political level, you can find a whole commission made up of women, discussing womens issues. Of course this never goes anywhere. In contrast, a commission that discusses economic issues doesnt have a single woman on it. We need to understand the environment within which we are operating. We also need to instill confidence in women. If you go and sit in a womens group and there are one or two men present, the women will not stand up and discuss their issues. They let the men do the talking. It has been instilled into women for so many years that firstly, they have no idea what they can contribute, secondly, that they have no business standing up to talk in front of men, and thirdly, that their business is to produce, serve men, and sit down. Instilling confidence, and at the higher level, leadership and training are very important.
Suttilak Smitasiri: In preparing for this presentation, I asked my Bangladeshi, Indian, and Pakistani colleagues at Mahidol for input. They said that even in India, there is a big difference between one state and another. In one part of India, females have even more power than men. We need to look at the problem in a way in which we can take action. There are so many NGOs and organisations that already work to empower women. When we think about nutrition we think about a problem. For example, if we are interested in vitamin A, we search for the problem and then we try different ways to solve it, but we never think about the potential for change. In South Asia, we need to start from what we have already. The difficulties for women to talk in South Asia are much greater than for women in my country. I spoke with a Bangladeshi NGO that has been very effective in working at the community level and asked how do you learn this? Do you know what the women think? The man said that you dont have to know what women think to be effective, you only have to know how to get into the system to be able to provide them with something. To understand would be very difficult. I challenged him to go back and do it, but he said what is more important is that you have to work with the men to be able to get to the women. So this is very critical. Even though we have to work with women to make a difference, we should not create more conflict within her family.
Lilian Marovatsanga (AGN): I am from Africa and have visited several Asian countries. One of the similarities between Africa and South Asia is the lack of economic and technological empowerment of women. Successful projects have incorporated this into their strategy.
Urban Jonsson (UNICEF): Women both in Africa and in South Asia are exploited - they are subordinated. But there are 34 million women missing in South Asia. The form of exploitation is totally different.
Mohamed Abdulla (UNESCO): I come from the South of India - Kerala State. Some years ago a group from Boston arrived and compared the status of women in Kerala with the women in Boston. The only difference they could find was in GNP - nothing else. The Kerala situation has shown that it is possible through proper education and proper training to overcome some of the health and nutritional problems. The UN has repeatedly said that we should follow the Kerallian model to make progress in developing countries.
Rita Bhatia (UNHCR): I would like to compliment my colleague from South India. One of the commitments of the Kerala project came from the community and the community leaders. It was very interesting to see your opening slide with a quote from Mahatama Gandhi and your closing slide with a quote from Jawaharlal Nehru - I was very proud to see those names - both men. That in itself shows that there is a need for political will and commitment. In Kerala, the literacy rates are very high. It comes back to what Dr Brundtland said earlier - you cannot improve nutrition without education.
The continent is so heterogeneous that you cannot generalise. To add to what Urban Jonsson said - the woman is a commodity to her husband. She is not a wife - she belongs to the family. In rural India, the head of the family is the mother-in-law. In Africa, women can choose their husband, but in Asia this still does not happen. Its a marriage of not one man and one woman, but a marriage of families. One has to keep in mind the social values and context while you are trying to bring in some changes to improve the nutritional status and health of the population.