Feed the Future
This project is part of the U.S. Government's global hunger and food security initiative.

Gender-responsive nutrition policies – a myth or a possibility?

This piece was co-authored by Elizabeth Mkandawire and Sheryl L Hendriks of the University of Pretoria, South Africa.

Policy-makers tend to misunderstand the term gender. Drawing from their personal frames of reference, policymakers often incorrectly understand gender to mean addressing women’s issues. This interpretation can negatively influence policy outcomes. Gender refers to the roles and responsibilities society allocates to men and women and the relationships between men and women. While addressing women’s concerns is a priority, one cannot do so without understanding the social expectations of men and women and how men and women interact. Food security and nutrition policies, typically emphasise the role of women in food production, access to food and child nutrition.

A team of researchers from the University of Pretoria set out to determine if the commitment to the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action led to the mainstreaming of gender in nutrition policy through a review and engagement with the Malawi National Nutrition Policy and Strategic Plan 2007 – 2012. The study forms part of the Feed the Future Innovation Lab on Food Security Policy. The review found that Malawi’s nutrition policy was not gender-responsive. Although gender was included as a principle, there was no mention of efforts to create an environment that promoted gender equality. The policy perpetuated the idea that women are responsible for nutrition. However, the policy still failed to address the challenges women face in accessing nutritious food.

A policy dialogue was held in Lilongwe, Malawi in 2016 to present and validate the research findings and assess gender mainstreaming in the forthcoming National Nutrition Policy 2016 – 2020 using an integrated framework for gender analysis in nutrition policy developed through the Lab. The stakeholders included officials from Nutrition, HIV and AIDS, Gender, Children, Disability and Social Welfare as well as gender specialists, NGOs, civil society and community members.

The dialogue offered an opportunity to reflect on gender biases and mutual learning on how to ensure that policies are gender-responsive. The participants found that the draft Nutrition Policy perpetuated the notion that women alone were responsible for providing childcare, driven by inherent gender stereotypes. Policy-makers learned that men had an important role to play in nutrition. Men have a vested interest in improving maternal and child nutrition, but their participation can also improve gender equality.

The dialogue provided an opportunity for the various stakeholders to understand gender from the perspectives of the community. One policymaker expressed that, ‘It was very useful to have them around. The larger population in Malawi is rural, so we need things that work for them. We need to know what works for them because in implementing things like the nutrition policy, we need the community involved because we are going to implement this thing in the community. So, to then have them here and tell us what has worked for them, and what strategies they have used to make this thing work, would help inform policy.’ The engagement with the community members strengthened policy-makers appreciation for community-driven solutions to policy problems. The policy-makers also realised the important role that traditional leaders can play in influencing behaviour change. As the custodians of culture, traditional leaders are able to develop strategies and approaches that are more readily taken up by the community.

The engagement with the community members and the mutual learning enabled policy-makers to identify weaknesses in the way in which policy statements addressed gender. In the latest draft of the nutrition policy, one policy statement that perpetuated women’s role in child care was changed. The policy statement now promotes the involvement of men in nutrition as an approach to advancing gender equality.

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