Subscribe to the Healthy DEvelopments Newsletter
Women And Man Cooking

Planting seeds of change in India

How communal gardening and learning about nutrition improves families’ lives and transforms gender roles

In the central Indian states of Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra a gender-transformative project is breaking the cycle of malnutrition to empower women, through knowledge and employment, to access a balanced range of nutritious home-grown foods for their children, themselves and their families.

‘It’s important that we take good care of our diet and health,’ says 45-year old Ramvati Adiwashi, as she prepares the soil for the potatoes, cabbages, radishes and spinach she’s planning to grow in the communal nutrition garden of Dalarnakhurd village in the central Indian state of Madya Pradesh.  ‘Growing your own fresh vegetables is much cheaper than buying them in the market, and healthier, too, because we don’t use chemicals’, she says. Ramvati has understood that growing and eating her own vegetables can improve her children’s and her own health and lives. And she has been encouraging many others in her village to do the same. 

Shifting to a gender-transformative approach

Ramvati is just one of 424,000 women of child-bearing age in the states of Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra whom the Indo-German cooperation project ‘Securing Nutrition, Enhancing Resilience’ empowers through nutrition education and paid work in community nutrition gardens to properly feed their children and themselves. The project  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, including India. It shows what it means to shift from a gender-sensitive to a gender-transformative approach to put BMZ’s new feminist development policy into practice: 

We recognised that, in order to have a real impact, it is not enough to just work with pregnant or breast-feeding mothers. We need to involve their husbands, too. The responsibility for child nutrition should not just be on mothers. Our current approach is fully in line with BMZ’s feminist development policy: It challenges and transforms dominant gender norms around nutrition, child-care and food production.

Susanne Milcher, Project Director, GIZ

How does the project support families in need of better nutrition for their children and themselves?

Men are becoming more involved in care and nutrition of their small children
Men are becoming more involved in care and nutrition of their small children

Integrated benefits of nutrition knowledge, community gardens and employment

Across India, the Anganwadi workers have for decades been the backbone of the Government’s flagship  Integrated Child Development Services programme for early childhood care and development since 1975. In partnership with the State Departments of Women and Child Development, the Indo-German project is now training 10,000 Anganwadi workers in supporting families in improving their children’s and their own nutrition. The implementing partner for the training of the Anganwadi workers is the German NGO Welthungerhilfe. According to Pratibha Srivastava, Welthungerhilfe’s State Coordinator in Madhya Pradesh, this training measure is already showing quite an impact: Anganwadi workers involve mothers, fathers and grandmothers in 5000 villages in learning about hygiene, healthy nutrition and food production. In each village they conduct a series of 20 meetings which 20-30 mothers attend, some of them accompanied by fathers or grandmothers.

A second component of the Indo-German project is the setting up of community nutrition gardens. This initiative was first piloted on small scale by 20 women’s self-help groups. Given the positive responses to it, the project is now rolling it out to some 600 communities in Madhya Pradesh. In addition to getting more diverse and more nutritious foods for their families from these gardens, the women earn wages from the Government’s National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme and benefit from the support and advice they receive from agricultural extension workers.

Many villagers are keen to learn more about good nutrition, hygiene and food production practices
Many villagers are keen to learn more about good nutrition, hygiene and food production practices

Getting it right in the first 1000 days

Susanne Milcher explains why it is crucial that mothers and fathers understand the importance of good nutrition in early childhood:

How children are fed during the first 1000 days shapes their physical and cognitive development and their health for the rest of their lives. In this critical period both mothers and children get all the micro- and macro-nutrients they need. This involves targeted feeding, baby-friendly foods and good guidance for the transition from breast feeding to complementary feeding.

Susanne Milcher, GIZ Project Director

However, knowing about food groups and nutritional diversity is not enough. According to Nadine Bader, one of the project’s nutrition advisors, focus group discussions with mothers, fathers, grandmothers and Anganwadi workers revealed many social and cultural factors that either prevent or enable healthy nutrition practices. The project team has taken these factors into account in the design of its interventions (see this research brief).

Working with positive exceptions as role models

As a next step, the project plans to work with exceptional individuals who can serve as role models in their communities. A field study identified so-called ‘Positive Deviants’, i.e. families with small children that appear better fed and healthier than their peers. The team took a closer look at their hygiene- and nutrition-related practices and family dynamics to find out what they are doing differently. Ramvati Adiwashi, for example, with her locally grown vegetables is such a positive exception. The project intends to empower more individuals like her to share what they know and practise via peer-to-peer learning and dialogue: 

These individuals’ healthy solutions are not brought in from the outside – they are ‘homegrown’ and they showcase for the other villagers what’s possible.

Susanne Milcher, GIZ Project Director
Meeting of the Anganwadi workers in Barwani district, Madhya Pradesh
Meeting of the Anganwadi workers in Barwani district, Madhya Pradesh

Pratibha Srivastava explains: ‘We encourage exceptional women to talk to other mothers about their feeding practices and routines. What are they preparing for their children and how often do they feed? Since they come from the same village the other women are prepared to listen and learn from them.’ 

And yet, notes Pratibha , getting women involved isn’t enough – men also need to take responsibility, otherwise the women’s workload will just increase.

Changing gendered mindsets and involving men

In a society where women cannot change anything without the agreement of their husbands, it is important to also tackle women’s and men’s gendered mindsets about who does what when it comes to nutrition. To learn more about prevailing gender attitudes and practices, Welthungerhilfe conducted a series of village meetings at which these were explored.Men and women are asked to write a list of all the work and tasks they do each day. ‘The women’s lists went on and on, doing so many things, cleaning, cooking, washing clothes, working the fields from dawn to dusk,’ says Pratibha. ‘But when we looked at the men’s lists, they are much shorter and most of the work is outside the house.’ 

This simple exercise of writing lists, she says, raised the villagers’ awareness of the gender patterns in their communities. And this started a process of social change. An official from the Department of Women and Child Development of Madhya Pradesh fully supports the project’s gender-transformative approach: ‘Now we can talk about gender equality in the community, it is not a taboo anymore. We all know that we need a holistic approach to change the nutrition situation.’ 

Informed by research about gender norms and practices the project now involves men in tailor-made participatory trainings and theatre performances that challenge traditional views of masculinity and showcase more caring and supportive husbands and fathers.

Gender street theatre in Khandwa District, Madhya Pradesh
Gender street theatre in Khandwa District, Madhya Pradesh

Prakash Michael, an NGO partner in Madhya Pradesh, sees many positive changes: Husbands have started helping their wife with household chores; fathers can be seen taking care of their children and feeding them; and the communities are now more supportive of girls and their education.

Ensuring scale and sustainability through India’s existing social protection systems

Experience shows that improving health and nutrition security is a complex journey and a highly political process, says Deputy Project Director Dr Tapan Kumar Gope.  Many successful pilot projects have floundered when faced with the challenges of scaling up and sustainability. What is different about this project, he says, is the way it is working as part of India’s existing social protection systems, such as the guaranteed employment and food distribution schemes and through the extensive – and trusted – network of government Anganwadi workers. ‘We are working with the government at the highest level, as well as with state and district administrations and an extensive eco-system of different stakeholders such NGOs and civil society.’ 

I tell my team members that you have to design and implement the programme along with existing government systems, not in isolation. Sometimes this is very challenging and stressful, but it makes all the difference.

Deputy Project Director Dr Tapan Kumar Gope

Planting seeds of change: Nutrition gardens as social innovation hubs

Ramvati Adiwashi’s homestead nutrition garden and the larger community nutrition gardens that the project supports aren’t just producing vegetables. They have become safe space for nurturing behaviour change and for challenging harmful gender norms and practices. 

Woman working in a Community Nutrition Garden in Chhatarpur district, Madhya Pradesh

The Indo-German project is proud of its results to date and keen to take its interventions to even more people and places: ‘There’s still a long way to go,’ says Dr Tapan Gope, ‘But if this approach can be scaled up nationwide, this would constitute a paradigm shift in nutrition sensitive agriculture across India.’   

‘Today when I go to the villages where we work, I see a lot of tomatoes, a lot of fresh vegetables available to women and children to eat throughout the year’, says Pratibha Srivastava. ‘Every day we are adding few more people as change facilitators in their villages.’ 

Ramvati Adiwashi is delighted with all the positive changes that the nutrition gardens have brought about in her community. The simple act of growing a few vegetables has, she says, not just provided families with nutritious food but also planted the seeds of change in the community’s gender relations: ‘I see a lot more smiles on women’s faces.’ 

Ruth Evans and Sharmishtha Basu,
March 2023

Scroll to Top