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AFRO-NETS> Food for a belated Third World feminist thought

  • Subject: AFRO-NETS> Food for a belated Third World feminist thought
  • From: Claudio Schuftan <aviva@netnam.vn>
  • Date: Mon, 21 Jan 2002 22:31:47 -0500 (EST)

Food for a belated Third World feminist thought

The Household Entitlements Revolution
A Women-Centered Approach to Family Security

- Should we --the health and nutrition community-- blame ourselves in
part for not having achieved more in health for all? The response to
this question passes through asking ourselves another:

- Have we really tackled all major obstacles and opportunities to im-
prove these health and nutrition outcomes? Here, we can probably say
with confidence that we have not.

- Have we overlooked, neglected or consciously avoided tackling some
of the non-health, non-nutrition obstacles and opportunities that
could have maximized outcomes? Even if this is the most value-loaded
question of the three, it is crucial we take it face-on when, from
now to 2015, we engage new, more effective mechanisms to reach the
goal of lowering the infant mortality rate and halving the <5 malnu-
trition rate worldwide.

It is to expand on these matters that this article now turns.

The Household Entitlements Revolution here proposed looks at the
challenges we face in nutrition work from a more comprehensive per-
spective; it focuses not only on nutrition per-se, but on how to si-
multaneously address a host of related (non-upheld) household mem-
bers' rights.

Making this Revolution women-centered and focusing it on indicators
of family security departs, on the one hand, from the principle that
there is an array of household (HH) securities that are indispensable
for the well-being of HH members in general and for the women in it
in particular. On the other, the issue of providing such securities
has remained unresolved in most past and current nutrition and devel-
opment work --i.e. we have failed to secure poor women's actual ac-
cess to and utilization of the resources and services they need to
fulfill their basic entitlements (of which nutrition is only one).

The main rights HHs in general and women in particular are entitled
to are those related to attaining minimum levels of security in:

- Food and nutrition (macro- and micro-nutrients).
- The care of children and the support of women to do so.
- Women's own gender-related needs and entitlements.
- Health.
- Clean water supply and sanitation facilities/services.
- Housing (shelter).
- Income (in kind/in cash, including employment opportunities and ac-
cess to credit/subsidies, especially for women).
- Education (pre-primary/primary with a focus on girls, female liter-
- Fuel (energy).
- Legal protection (mainly, but not only of children and women's
- Physical environmental safety.
- Physical personal safety during armed conflicts.
- Women's personal safety from domestic violence.

For monitoring and accountability purposes, the minimum standards and
the best indicators for each of these entitlements need to be set by
community representatives themselves, together with experts, in each
(of the many) different local context(s).

There is nothing terribly new in this HH and women-centered approach
to overall family security. It just (re)packages well known basic
children's and women's rights in a way that more explicitly empha-
sizes the need for a new set of priorities that transcends current
development orthodoxy. The most important aspect of this approach is,
perhaps, that it has the potential to bring us closer to (and to fo-
cus our work more on) the underlying and basic causes of neglect,
abuse, ill-health, malnutrition and unnecessary mortality of women
and children.

Under this approach, the major focus of attention in the search for
solutions to the above causes, therefore, shifts: it now starts with
a major and explicit effort to identify insecure HHs and women living
insecure lives. Only then, does attention turn to devising a more
comprehensive set of interventions that, as much as possible, simul-
taneously addresses several of the insecurities identified. [It is
important to notice that some of the above insecurities are always
'limiting', in the same sense that a limiting amino-acid restricts
the biological value of a protein: regardless of the ample supply of
all other amino-acids needed to synthesize the protein, the absence
of even one limiting amino-acid stops the synthesis of the protein
altogether. This metaphor illustrates well what 'orthodox' develop-
ment work in nutrition has quite consistently neglected so far].

Locality by locality, the identification of vulnerable, insecure HHs
and women is also to simultaneously be accompanied by the identifica-
tion of the coping mechanisms proven successful as utilized by both
HHs and women to get access to the different resources and services
that help them fulfill their entitlements under given difficult local
conditions and circumstances. These coping mechanisms will be very
different in urban as opposed to rural settings and will have to be
surveyed with different instruments.

The ensuing challenge is then twofold: On the one hand, one has to
foster the needed community organization and consciousness raising to
forcefully and persistently place women's claims and demands on se-
lected duty bearers; this is necessary to create yet new conditions
that will further expand the opportunities and remove the existing
barriers for insecure HHs and women to attain the securities so far
not available to them. On the other hand, together with the commu-
nity, one has to find the interventions that support the adoption of
the proven and successful coping mechanisms by a larger proportion of
at-risk women and HHs in that particular environment.

This two-pronged approach then becomes the basis for directing inter-
ventions to the more vulnerable. The widespread organization of women
for active lobbying and the communication and adoption of the posi-
tive coping mechanisms used by each local community become the key
challenges for all of us; the use of participatory, consciousness-
raising Education Information and Communication (IEC) techniques is
key here.

All this, calls for a much heavier emphasis on local and national so-
cial mobilization programs and a better coordination among them. If
and when the approach here proposed starts to be accepted by a grow-
ing number of development organizations, coordination among UN and
bilateral donor agencies in the field --as well as among NGOs and
grassroots organizations at local and national level-- will have to
get more prominence and a greater sense of urgency so as to maximize
their combined social mobilization capabilities.

In practical terms, what this revolution also means is that sectoral
approaches --nutrition, health, water and sanitation, basic educa-
tion, income generation, women's affairs, etc.-- need more integra-
tion. Such a drive for integration actually has to come from the HH
and local women's organizations level up. This is helped by all tech-
nical sectors and programs, together with the local organizations,
jointly embarking in the upfront identification of insecure HHs with
women living insecure lives. Ideally, local organized groups should
actually actively participate from the planning of the identification
of vulnerable HH surveys on. If such community groups do not yet ex-
ist, preliminary efforts will have to be made to organize them.

If all sectors jointly start identifying these insecure HHs, as well
as the successful coping mechanisms used by some of them, and then
contribute their findings to a community participatory forum, a great
contribution will be made to a more appropriate search for more
workable and sustainable solutions to the problems at hand --and not
only for those of malnutrition alone.

Interventions chosen do not need to (and probably will not) be new,
but will be combined and focused in a way that different relevant
causal levels are tackled, using some tried and perhaps some new ap-
proaches to solve old problems expressed as felt needs by community
representatives, especially women. Some interventions will be manage-
able with the exclusive inputs (resources) and organization (mobili-
zation) of community members and existing women's organizations, oth-
ers will require some form of public pressure and lobbying that can
translate women's felt needs into effective claims and demands. It is
both of these, the internal and the external dynamization processes
together that will ultimately lead to the indispensable empowerment
of the organized community.

The approach here proposed does not lend itself for a grandiose na-
tional-scale scheme. Its focus has to be intensive rather than exten-
sive. It calls for a gradually growing set of mostly local interven-
tions that should perhaps start in the geographically most vulnerable
region(s) or district(s) of the country.

The pilot implementation of this HH and women-centered approach could
best be achieved through operations research activities: trying out
different approaches and documenting their impact. The surveying of
HHs and women for vulnerabilities and coping mechanisms will require
working on some simple data collection tools that can be analyzed
simply. The engagement of local organized groups and the sharing of
the results of these surveys with them will then lead to local col-
lective decision-making. NGOs and other organizations can help find-
ing funds for some of these community-based interventions and can
support women's lobbying since they often have the advantage of hav-
ing a more national presence.

In conclusion, if towards 2015, we are to more significantly improve
health and nutrition outcomes of women and children worldwide, we
have to address a number of their more crucial unfulfilled entitle-
ments at the same time. It is at this point, really, that the ques-
tion raised at the beginning of this article comes up again: How ef-
fective is it to continue trying (sometimes so hard) to tackle one
(or two) entitlement at a time..? Health or nutrition alone cannot be
significantly improved without resolving the access questions related
to other entitlements when these are limiting as well. So, if we want
to engage more effective mechanisms to improve nutrition outcomes
worldwide, this is the major challenge we simply have to confront:
Jointly assess all the major HH level shortcomings with a geographi-
cal rather than a sectoral program focus and let communities have the
final word on the better interventions.

Claudio Schuftan
Hanoi, Vietnam

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