For years, Banswara’s women have been eating last, and least. But this old tradition is changing as they join the menfolk for meals and start a revolution with a rotla
There is a saying in Harendragarh, a tribal village 50 km from Rajasthan’s Banswara town, that if a man eats the last rotla (chapatti) he will fall ill. So by default the last rotla, thinner than the rest and made from leftover dough along with the stale remains of the dal or vegetable made that day, would land on the plate of the woman of the house. It should have been enough for Sarla Bariya. It was enough for her mother-in-law, and generations of women before her. But it was not, not anymore.
“The woman used to keep making hot rotlas for the family, and when everyone had finished, she would eat what was left. That was the practice,’’ says Sarla who is in her early 30s. It was only when a social worker pointed out that the toll eating last takes on the health of women did she decide to break tradition and suggest that the family eat together.
In Aamlipada village, Amuli Gharasiya says when she started joining the family for meals, her in-laws were so upset that they hid the food and left her starving many nights. “I fought with my husband and my in-laws. There were many nights I would cry myself to sleep,’’ she says.
And yet Sarla and Amuli did not give up. With the help of the Freedom from Hunger Project India and NGOs Vaagdhara and Pradhan, over 8,000 women from Banswara and Sirohi districts have sown seeds of change in their homes by eating with their families.
Freedom from Hunger project, which conducted the advocacy programme between 2015 and 2017, said that among the key findings of the initial study was that women and adolescent girls are affected the most during food scarcity. Not only do they eat less but they also eat leftovers which lack the nutrients required for physical growth and mental development. More than half (51%) of all Indian women of reproductive age have anaemia, according to the Global Nutrition report 2017.
This bias is not restricted to Rajasthan, which has low levels of female literacy. The India Human Development Survey (IHDS) 2011 survey interviewed married women aged 15-49 and found that one in five women in Delhi and half of the women in Uttar Pradesh said they ate after men did. A phone survey by Social Attitudes Research for India (SARI) asked the same question in 2016 and the results were no better in urban India. The SARI survey found that about three in 10 women in Delhi and urban Rajasthan reported eating last. About four in 10 women in urban UP ate after the men.
Diane Coffey, a researcher who studies social influences on health in India, says it was a concern that women continued to face prejudice in the home. “We found that women who ate last are more likely to be underweight than those who ate with families. Pregnant women who are underweight are also more likely to give birth to low birth weight babies, who are more likely to die in the first month of life.’’ It is a challenge that Vaagdhara decided to take head-on in Banswara. Women’s self-groups were given training in sanitation, creating their own kitchen gardens, eating local foodgrains, accessing services like immunisation, supplementary nutrition and maternal benefits and of course convincing their families to give them a more equitable share of food. The NGO used pictures and story-telling, counselling and persuasion to convince women and men over 18 months. Saraswathi Rao from Freedom from Hunger project says, “It was not easy to convince the elders in the family. The idea that the daughterin-law should eat with them broke many conventions.”
Says Amuli, “My husband used to fight with me when I went for meetings and came back with ideas like removing my ghoonghat and eating together. But I stood my ground.”
Now, her husband Dinesh helps cut vegetables while she makes rotlas for dinner, he gets the children ready for school while she cleans the house and he brings water for the day when she is busy feeding the buffaloes.
Dinesh admits ruefully, “It took me time to understand that we need to work together if we want things done. When only Amuli used to work at home, we would get late going to the farm or chores would remain undone.”
While it is too early to assess the impact of this project on the health of women and children, a recent impact study done by the organisation found women reported greater say in decision-making, reduced fear of their husbands, and more satisfaction with their lives. A key impact of the project, according to the NGO, was that the women increased the number of meals they consumed with their husbands which resulted in them eating a greater share of the meals they prepared as well as improved communication with their spouses.
So has life changed completely? No, there are still families who stick to old ways and shun the changes that these empowered women are bringing. But as 40-something Amuli says with a smile, “I just don’t know how to give up.”