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Women in blue use smart foods to fight malnutrition in rural India

by Jerome Bossuet | ICRISAT
Monday, 9 April 2018 09:48 GMT

Reka and peer in front of Kodo patti processing unit with branded products. JEROME BOSSUET

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Empowering women can make a real difference to improving nutrition in rural areas

Despite having the most dynamic food production growth among Indian States in recent years, Madhya Pradesh has worrying child malnutrition statistics according to the last National Family Health survey in 2015-2016.  More than 40 percent of children under five are still stunted in the “Heart of India”, while almost 70 percent are anaemic. This is particularly true for poor rural communities like the Gond and Baiga farmers, two indigenous groups recognised among India’s scheduled tribes.

“To improve the nutrition situation in these rural communities, empowering women can make the real difference,” states Meera Mishra, country coordinator of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) in India.  “More confident, skilled and economically independent women can become change makers within their own household and village, to improve family nutrition and health.”

This is what Tejaswini, a 10-year IFAD-funded women’s empowerment programme, has proved in six of the poorest districts of Madhya Pradesh. Tejaswini is an Indian name implying radiance and strength.

Women in blue make the difference

Central to Tejaswini was the creation of Shaurya Dal or “courage brigades”. Dressed in blue saris, groups of active village women including self-help group (SHG) members, health and social workers team up with men in the community to raise awareness on social issues like domestic violence, education and family health concerns, or child marriage.

In Madhya Pradesh, a third of women are married before the legal age (18). This hinders life prospects of the women and their families. A study in tribal areas of Madhya Pradesh found a strong correlation between marriage of the mother at a young age and malnutrition (and consequently the development potential of the children).

When the Tejaswini programme started in 2007, most women in these villages did not have a voice on family and community affairs, and often never ventured outside the family circle. Engaging women, some illiterate, in SHGs was a game changer as they started making use of choices, spaces and opportunities to improve family well-being.

Groups of 10 to 20 women would meet in a safe space twice a month, to discuss family and community problems. Women are gradually empowered, both in the economic and social spheres, through savings and income-generating activities, learning new skills, but more importantly being part of a group, opening up and talking in front of others.

When asked to name the most significant change Tejaswini brought to them, the women in blue often reply, “the freedom of going out and the confidence to speak unveiled”.

Being more listened to in the family and the community, they drove improvements in family nutrition as well.

‘Three colour plate’ teaches communities about diet diversity

Tejaswini encouraged families to grow a variety of vegetables for home consumption with the “seven day, seven plots” system. They received high quality seeds to grow seven types of vegetables – like coriander, eggplant, fenugreek, chickpea (eaten green), spinach, red amaranth, and tomatoes – each in a square plot of garden, so they could pick one different vegetable a day.

They learnt about a more balanced diet with the three colours plate or tirangaa thali. Women were taught to prepare meals with white (rice or wheat or dairy like curd), green (leafy vegetables) and saffron food (e.g. pulses in form of daal). “Tejaswini reached out to 200,000 households with this concept, and it has been widely accepted as the three colours remind them of our country’s national flag”, says Dr Rachna Gupta in charge of health and nutrition for the programme.

Families also adopted better food hygiene practices. Women listened to hygiene improvement messages from the health coordinator when they understood it was linked their finances too, as any sick child meant 2-3 days off work for the mother.

The Kodo Kutki way for smarter school feeding

“What you grow, that is what you eat” is a mantra often repeated by the Tejaswini team. In many villages, SHGs are supplying neighbouring schools and youth hostels with locally produced fresh produce, like vegetables or ground spices e.g. turmeric, chilies and coriander.

Like with Brazil’s innovative locally sourced school feeding, giving priority to women’s SHGs when implementing government-supported feeding schemes, drives women’s empowerment and rural development as well as better meals for children.  It brings secured income to women and local farmers and produce can be fresher and safer as women would ensure their children receive the right food.

In Mehadwani village, women wanted their children to eat the nutritious kodo and kutki millets that they used to traditionally grow. These dryland cereals are true smart foods, being nutritious grains packed with iron, fibre and antioxidant, climate resilient and quick to grow on poor soils. Yet with low yields and time consuming manual de-husking, kodo and kutki have been gradually replaced by rice and wheat. According to the Neglected and Under-utilized Species (NUS) initiative, minor millet production has declined by 50 percent in the last two decades in Madhya Pradesh.

With Tejaswini’s support, Mehadwani women developed a breakfast bar recipe to include in school feeding programmes. They started producing kodo patti composed of kodo millet, groundnut and soybean, to serve to children as breakfast, instead of the industrial packets of biscuits. Now, they have secured a contract with district authorities to supply schools and youth hostels with kodo breakfast bars, for at least a year, six days a week for around 5,000 children.

“Where the mind is without fear, and the head is held high, where knowledge is free ... let my country awake”. The Indian poet Tagore’s words aptly fit the Tejaswini women from rural Madhya Pradesh. Smarter nutrition, better income opportunities, a safer world for girls: the impact these women are having on their family and community should not be underestimated.

For a photo series of the Tejaswini programme, see this Flickr album

Jerome Bossuet is co-head of communications and partnerships at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT).