A Community Health Initiative has developed a concept that is radically changing the role of men in an otherwise highly patriarchal society while improving the nutrition of the family.
Through the Siaya Maternal, Child Health and Nutrition project dubbed “Nawiri”, the Kisumu Medical and Education Trust (KMET), a non-profit organization has seen several men in Rarieda, Bondo and Gem sub counties in Siaya venture into chores that were traditionally a preserve of women.
“Not only have they seen light and started helping in house chores, they have equally become liberal and allowed their wives to eat “crucial” parts of the chicken such as the gizzard and other sumptuous parts,” says the Project Coordinator, Debra Otambo who adds that this has seen nutrition levels rise by 60%, from a low of about 30% when the programme started in 2016.
Funded by the European Union (EU) the “Nawiri” project, seeks to improve maternal, infant and young child nutrition by advocating for political commitment and good nutrition governance.
According to the Kenya Demographic and Health Survey, 2014, 26% of the children under the age of five are stunted, another 4% wasted and 11% underweight.
Siaya County records some of the highest child mortality rates in the country, with neonatal mortality rate of 39 in every 1,000 live births and infant mortality rate of 111 in every 1,000 live births.
The under-five mortality rate in the county stands at 159 in every 1,000, according to the KDHS 2014 while a recent study by the United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA) shows that the county has a maternal mortality rate of 691 deaths per 100,000 live births.
According to Otambo, so far, the project has succeeded in having 32 male champion teams advocating for change of attitude among community members who believe that it is a taboo for men to be in the kitchen cooking or performing domestic chores.
Otambo says that the journey towards the change of perception was initially met by strong opposition from Luo culture believers who saw it as an affront to the societal norms.
In the Luo set up, frequenting the kitchen, baby sitting and performing tasks such as sweeping the house and cleaning utensils would easily land you in an elders’ court, mostly following complaints from the wife. Men who engage in such activities are ridiculed and cannot raise their voice where their peers are.
“Initially, we were dismissed by both men and women who said there was no way a married man would perform chores such as sweeping the house, preparing meals and bathing children” said Otambo during the graduation of 100 mothers who had successfully finished a six month nutrition course at Ruma community center in Rarieda sub county.
Through community health volunteers’ sensitization and workers, the community slowly started embracing the concept that calls for both parents, especially men to take charge of the nutrition aspects of the food that his family partakes on a daily basis.
Otambo says that through engagement with the community, the programme was able to identify male champions who agreed to be trained on Maternal and child nutrition initiative.
“This was after research showed that men have a high stake on nutrition matters in the house hold as they are the ones relied on to provide food,” she says adding “if they bring less food, the children and members of the family suffers”.
The Coordinator says research has realised that most men would rather stay hungry the whole day whenever their wives were away as they could not venture into the kitchen to prepare food for fear of becoming laughing stocks in the village. This, she said, had adverse impact on the health of the men, especially the elderly.
Otambo says that with time, they have been able to convince the “die hard” to change their attitude and misconceptions about men preparing food, if not for the family, but for themselves.
As an example of a success, Otambo narrates how a man who would starve the whole day whenever his wife went to the lake to buy fish for sale changed and even started helping the wife in house chores.
“The wife no longer worries about him. She wakes up and heads to the beaches early leaving behind the husband who cleans the house and prepares breakfast,” she said adding “this has been replicated in several households where the man’s peers have since learned that it was pointless to starve as their friend was doing well after resorting to preparing his food whenever the wife was away.”
The change has however not been easy. Initially, says Otambo, most people and especially health workers in the community did not believe that men in a rigid society would change.
She says that the community believed that issues nutrition were a preserve for women as they were the custodians of the kitchen. But with time, she says, the community is happy as the health of their families have improved.
“Men are getting more interested in what type of food is served,” says Otambo giving an example of a family where a woman would buy chips or mandazi for children despite the husband leaving her with money enough for food but after being incorporated in the programme, the husband was able to change this and has since been having an input on what was to be eaten in the house.
The new strategy of identifying male champions to help drive the nutrition agenda in the county seeks to reverse the death statistics while ensuring a healthy population that can participate effectively in nation building, said Otambo.
She says that through collaboration with the county government, health workers have been capacity built and have made nutrition checkup mandatory for all children and child bearing age women visiting health centres.
“They conduct routine checks and advice accordingly,” she says, adding that apart from this, the programme has also assisted in the recruitment of nutritionists who are posted to various health facilities to help increase awareness.
Otambo hails the political support that the programme has been getting from the local political class, saying that they have been part and parcel of the journey towards improved nutrition in the area and have made it easy by joining various forums to speak to the residents.
By Philip Onyango