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Father-to-Father groups in Malawi: Towards a gender-transformative approach to improving nutrition

In Malawi, where malnutrition is widespread, men tend to make key decisions which affect the nutritional status of their families. Engaging them to think differently about their roles as husbands and fathers is crucial for improving nutrition.

It is late afternoon in central Malawi, and a dozen men sit close together on plastic chairs. Broad trees shade them from the sun. Village life unfolds around them: neighbours amble by, children run and shout. The men are not playing bawo – the traditional boardgame which is a favourite pastime of Malawian men – but are engaged in something more novel. This is a meeting of the local Father-to-Father group, a space for men to come together and talk about their roles as husbands and fathers. The groups – 37 of which exist across Salima, a district on the shores of Lake Malawi – bring together men who are open to learning how they can contribute to better nutrition for their families by sharing household responsibilities and decision-making more equally with their wives.

Father-to-Father groups and the ‘3Rs’ of Feminist Development Policy

Father-to-Father groups raise men‘s awareness of the value of collaborating with their wives for better family nutrition. This promotes, at household and at community levels, women’s voices and perspectives being represented, their access to resources being facilitated, and their rights being realised.

Making the best possible nutritional choices during the crucial 1,000 days

The Father-to-Father groups are organised under the auspices of the Food and Nutrition Security Programme, whose aim is to improve the nutrition status of women and young children in a district where 35 per cent of children under five are short for their age. The programme is part of the global special initiative ‘Transformation of Agricultural and Food Systems’ commissioned by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) and implemented by Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) in 10 countries currently, including Malawi.

Men in discussion in Traditional Authority Ndindi, Salima

Salima is typical of the areas which the special initiative targets. According to the most recent Malawi Demographic and Health Survey, nearly one-third of girls and women between 15 and 49 years of age in Salima are anaemic and less than one-quarter of children between 6 and 23 months of age eat a diverse diet.

Poor nutrition during the crucial 1,000 days between conception and a child’s second birthday can have lasting effects on physical and cognitive development. This is why it is important for households to pay particular attention to the different nutritional needs of their members – including pregnant and lactating women and infants – and to make informed decisions about food in order to maximise nutritional benefits for the whole family.

Gender inequality causes malnutrition. Transforming roles at home can help.

This is where the Father-to-Father groups come in. ‘If you want to improve the nutritional status of women and children, you have to involve men and boys,’ explains Anja Schmidt, an advisor with GIZ and the gender focal point for the programme, adding:

A family’s well-being depends on all its members – and on joint decision-making in the interest of the family.

It is not enough to educate women about food groups and healthy diets, because women may not be in a position to act upon this knowledge due to imbalances in access to resources or decision-making power in the home. Gender inequality is a major cause of malnutrition – and solutions to it must therefore address structural and systemic causes of gender inequality at the household, community and societal level.

The team implementing the programme saw that gender-transformative approaches were needed alongside typical nutrition activities, such as improving knowledge about healthy diets and supporting sustainable agriculture practices. They had like-minded partners at CARE, the non-governmental organisation which has been implementing nutrition-related activities in Salima on behalf of the Food and Nutrition Security Programme since 2015. CARE has a well-elaborated gender equality framework which, among other things, emphasises engagement with men and boys as both ‘change agents’ and as ‘supportive spouses and partners’ across all of the organisation’s programming.

‘We saw that men were not playing a much-needed role when it comes to better nutritional outcomes,’ says Billy Molosoni, the Gender Justice and Advocacy Lead at CARE. In 2018 he and his colleagues undertook a ‘gender and power’ analysis in Salima to understand why – and what could potentially be done about it.

The fear of social backlash reinforces gender norms – but there are men ready to challenge stereotypes

The study used participatory methods to explore women’s and men’s attitudes and practices with respect to the household division of labour, decision-making around money, and access to and control over resources. It found broad acceptance among both women and men of conventional gender roles which see it as the man’s responsibility to provide financially for the household, and the woman’s to care for the home and the children.

Watering the family’s crops
Watering the family’s crops

It also revealed that men control many day-to-day decisions which influence nutritional status. For example, it is men who typically decide which crops should be grown, which crops and livestock should be sold at market, and how food should be distributed among family members. Decisions about how money should be spent are also largely made by men – a frequent point of tension and something which reportedly triggers conflict, and even violence, when women disagree or try to assert their views.

The community response to men who go against the grain can be harsh. Men who involve themselves in household tasks, or who ‘allow’ their wives to influence decisions, are frequently ridiculed by their neighbours and accused of being under the spell of a ‘love potion.’ But the study also found that, despite the social backlash, there are men who chart their own way and shoulder domestic responsibilities alongside their wives – even if they tend to do it quietly. As one man from Traditional Authority Ndindi put it during a focus group discussion:

I was born in this village. My umbilical cord got cut in this village. I help my wife with household chores and it’s my family affair. No one should poke their nose on my family.

Father-to-Father groups offer a safe space for men to talk about their roles

The team from CARE saw that these ‘positive outliers’ were few and far between, but recognised that they might act as an entry point for gender-transformative activities in the community. While CARE was busy implementing various nutrition interventions – teaching about sustainable agriculture, leading discussions about healthy meals, guiding village savings associations, supporting livestock projects, organising cooking demonstrations – it began to look for male ‘champions’ who were ready to address some of these entrenched gender norms in communities across Salima.

Members of a Father-to-Father group at a community nutrition event
Members of a Father-to-Father group at a community nutrition event

They sought out and trained men who enjoy respect in the community and who demonstrate certain key behaviours: supporting their wives with nutritious food during pregnancy and breastfeeding; sharing the domestic workload, including childcare, to free up more time for their wives; and accompanying their wives to health clinic for growth monitoring checks.

These male champions play various roles. One is to lead community ‘gender dialogues’ – public discussions involving men and women, both separately and together – which use participatory tools to address issues related to gender norms and expectations. Another is to mobilise interested men to join Father-to-Father groups and to facilitate regular discussions among them.

The ’gender dialogues’ and the Father-to-Father groups work hand in hand, as the topics unpacked during the community meetings provide fertile ground for reflection and discussion among the men: Are there tasks I can take over at home to lessen the burden on my wife? Are there ways we could work together to make a plan around income and expenses? What are steps we can take right away to provide a more diverse diet for our baby?

‘The gender dialogues help to “clear the ground” for open discussions around the role of men,’ says Billy Molosoni of CARE. ‘Community and traditional leaders participate in these dialogues. This is a factor which allows the Father-to-Father groups to flourish.’

Father-to-Father groups have broken important ground, but to sustain members’ interest they need to be linked to practical benefits

The Food and Nutrition Security Programme and CARE are more than five years into this innovative experiment to systematically embed gender-sensitive and gender-transformative activities into a complex nutrition support programme. Both are deeply committed to a culture of reflection and learning – and have already drawn some initial conclusions about the potentials of Father-to-Father groups as well as the challenges which they confront.

Father-to-Father group members participate in community cooking demonstration
Father-to-Father group members participate in community cooking demonstration

First, bringing men together into peer group formats appears more successful than approaches which work with individual male champions. When they are part of a collective, men feel more confident doing something different which challenges the status quo. Second, when community leaders are openly supportive of – or directly involved in – Father-to-Father groups, the groups tend to be larger and more dynamic. Public support from religious and local leaders appears to be a success factor and may counterbalance community disapproval.

In terms of challenges, it is proving difficult to sustain members’ motivation over time. ‘From a high of 925 members, we currently have approximately 650 who are active in groups,’ explains Ivy Vale, a M&E Officer with CARE. ‘Participation is voluntary and some of the men eventually decide that they need to concentrate on fulfilling their practical needs and drift away.’

Her colleague, Billy Molosoni, adds:

This loss of motivation is driven by societal expectations of men as the head of the household. If you go out, people expect you to provide something when you come back.

The team at CARE is now considering ways to link the Father-to-Father groups more directly with other Food and Nutrition Security Programme activities, such as village savings schemes and poultry projects, which provide participants with tangible benefits.

The Food and Nutrition Security Programme will end in 2025. In the time that remains, the teams at the programme and at CARE will continue capturing and sharing these learnings with both nutrition and gender authorities at the district and national levels, with the aim of embedding Father-to-Father activities in existing community structures, including nutrition M&E systems.

Men and boys as allies in transforming harmful gender norms

Earlier this year Malawi’s Ministry of Gender, Community Development and Social Welfare published the country’s first-ever National Male Engagement Strategy. It notes that, while in the past, efforts to achieve gender equality have been left in the hands of women and girls, it is now clear that achieving gender equality in Malawi will require men to ‘engage as allies in transforming harmful gender norms.’

Groups like Father-to-Father can encourage men in this allyship role. ‘Bringing men together is good, as long as the groups do not reinforce negative gender stereotypes,’ says Anja Schmidt, of the Food and Nutrition Security Programme. ‘If done well, they provide a safe space for men to explore and ask questions. Ultimately, however, they need to be grounded in an understanding of why the groups exist in the first place: that both parents should be equal in the effort of raising a family and that they can only do this by working together.’

Karen Birdsall
October 2023

© C12 Consultants/Elizabeth Molloy
© GIZ/Anja Schmidt
© GIZ/Anja Schmidt
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