Guatemala has one of the highest rates of chronic malnutrition in the world, at 47 per cent. Malnutrition among indigenous people is even more prevalent, with eight out of ten indigenous children below their expected height. The World Food Programme (WFP) works with the government and other UN agencies to address the root causes of malnutrition. Alongside poverty and poor living standards, poor feeding and nutrition practices are one of the major causes of malnutrition. The local diet is heavily dependent on maize and lacking in essential nutrients, and only half of mothers exclusively breastfeed their babies for the first six months.
Improving feeding and nutrition practices among indigenous women
Since 2013, WFP have been implementing a community education programme aimed at improving feeding and nutrition practices among indigenous women in the department of Totonicapán. The programme trains women to be ‘peer advisors’ who can advise and support other mothers in their communities on appropriate feeding and childcare practices. As well as doing home visits, peer advisors bring women together in ‘mother-to-mother’ groups, which meet regularly to learn and share experiences.
Over 300 community educators have been trained through the programme, and more than 3,500 women have taken part in mother-to-mother groups. During the initial participatory action learning workshop for the WFP-IDS gender mainstreaming initiative, WFP staff reflected that, although evidently successful in many ways, the programme was not designed with gender in mind. They decided to interrogate the extent to which the programme has been empowering for women, through carrying out focus group discussions and participatory exercises with peer advisors and mother-to-mother groups.
Women’s empowerment through nutrition education
In their conversations with women involved in the programme, WFP staff heard how the programme has supported women’s empowerment in a variety of ways. Training women to be peer advisors, and encouraging community authorities to recognize the work they do, has fostered women’s leadership and enabled them to participate in community decision-making processes. The mother-to-mother support approach has opened up social spaces for women to connect outside the home, and built their capacity to reflect, analyse and find solutions to day-to-day problems related to their roles as carers.
However, they also found that women are constrained in their ability to apply new knowledge by their subordinate position within the household. For example, they are not free to decide to use household income on healthier food for their children, or to use contraception to space childbirth and to protect their own health. Such decisions require prior negotiation with their partners, with no guarantee of success.
Incorporating a rights perspective and engaging with men
To enable greater empowerment among women, WFP staff concluded that the programme needed two new elements. First, a human rights perspective should be incorporated into education strategies – educating women about their rights at the same time as building their understanding of good nutrition practices. Second, there is a need for sensitisation strategies directed at men, including young men, adults, leaders and community authorities. This will help create the conditions for women’s rights to be recognised. As part of this, men should be involved in training on good feeding and childcare practices, to tackle the perception that this is solely the responsibility of women.
The learning gained from their participatory action learning inquiry led WFP Guatemala to develop new training modules for the community peer advisors, focused on human rights and violence against women, with a programme of training now underway. They are exploring ways of working with a local network of men advocating for women’s rights, and other strategies for engaging with men, and are seeking new funding to take this work forward. By integrating gender considerations more centrally into the nutrition programme, they believe there is a far greater chance of both women being empowered and malnutrition rates in Guatemala being reduced.