Male Champions Breaking Gender Stereotypes in Nepal
“If you were to meet me a few years ago, you would find me whiling away hours at a tea shop nearby talking to every passerby,” says Sandesh Katharia, gender equality and social inclusion (GESI) champion of USAID’s Suaahara II Good Nutrition Program in Nepal. Today, Sandesh is an entrepreneur who produces vegetables through climate-smart agriculture and makes and sells concrete biosand filters. He is the GESI champion, uses sustainable and modern methods to farm and rear his cattle, and, most importantly, he plays an equal role in sharing household chores with his wife.
Sandesh Katharia is one of Suaahara II’s GESI champions. GESI champions’ approach helps engage father and father figures to challenge harmful social and gender norms to improve maternal and child health and nutrition practices. Suaahara II recognizes that multiple factors affect the nutrition status of women and children and there is an urgent need to mainstream GESI in health and nutrition programs. Suaahara II partnered with the Government of Nepal, the private sector and other USAID activities to improve the nutritional status of women and children within the 1,000-day period from conception until the child reaches 24 months of age, in 42 underserved districts of Nepal. The program uses a multisectoral approach to implement community programs that improve nutrition; maternal, newborn and child health; family planning services; water sanitation and hygiene practices; and home-based gardening. This involves a behavior change strategy to foster adoption of key health and nutrition practices.
Fathers or father figures who were willing to become community ambassadors and change gender norms, starting with their own households, were selected as GESI champions. They were then given a three-day training to improve local nutrition practices related to gender norms. Systematic mentorships and post-training follow-ups were designed as a part of GESI champion approach, especially to keep the GESI champions motivated to continue advocating for change in their households and communities. This support includes home visits by supervisors and an annual get-together where all GESI champions collectively reflect on challenges and come up with strategies for ways forward. GESI champions were expected to mobilize about 20 fathers in their villages/communities.
For GESI champions to fully engage with other fathers in the community, they started monthly father’s dialogue groups (small groups of 15-20 members from 1,000-day households). These groups provided a safe space for fathers to openly discuss and gain knowledge on maternal and child health nutrition and build their collective agency to challenge traditional social and gender norms and encourage participation in community platforms, such as nutrition counseling and food demonstrations. Katharia himself started a fathers’ dialogue group in his community and encouraged the fathers and father figures to get involved in improving health and nutrition of mothers and children under two.
Additionally, a peer-to-peer outreach approach let GESI champions share their knowledge and experiences with other men at popular informal spaces, such as tea shops, public spaces and chautaris (sitting places under trees).
“It was not an easy change,” says Katharia. “People would often laugh or make fun when they saw me washing clothes or cleaning the house. But this change was necessary,” he adds. Katharia is proud of the person he has become. According to him, becoming a GESI champion has transformed his life for good. He now has more knowledge of nutrition and the types of nutrition-rich crops to plant in certain seasons. His support in household chores has also made his wife and family healthier and happier, and as a champion, he has also been able to bring about a positive change in his community. According to him, social norms are gradually changing, and their community is becoming more aware of the importance of nutritious food and sharing workload at home. “These days, I see husbands accompanying their wives and infants to the nearest health post; they are aware of their child’s nutritional needs, and they have also started doing some household chores, such as washing dishes and cleaning their surroundings,” says Katharia.
As a result of this and many other interventions, the project witnessed about an 8% increase in women consuming iron and folic acid tablets during pregnancy over the span of five years, from 52% in 2017 to 65% in 2022 (data from the Suaahara II Annual Survey Report 2022). Which means women were healthier during pregnancy and more aware of their nutritional needs.
The project has also seen an increase in postnatal checks within 24 hours of birth. There was also a more than 30% increase in the percentage of children weighed from 0-2 years of age in the past month from 17.8% in 2017 to 49.8% in 2022, which means parents were more aware of the nutritional needs and well-being of their infants. The project also saw an increase in newborns receiving postnatal checks within 24 hours of birth from 73.5% in 2017 to 82.5% in 2022. (Data from the Suaahara II Annual Survey Report 2022.)
“I have seen my friends change their lifestyles by taking part in domestic chores and incorporating nutritionally rich food in their family’s diet due to this program. I believe we should have GESI champions in every community, only then will we be able to see some substantial change,” concludes Katharia as he goes back to doing the household chores that he had left mid-way to talk to us.