Men and GHI

POST BY DANIELLE ALLYN // ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED JANUARY 2016

As human beings, sometimes our assumptions are rooted in reality. Sometimes they are not. A November 2015 Washington Post headline reads: “Rwanda is beating the United States in gender equality.[1]” The headline challenges two distinct and paradoxical assumptions.

First, the assumption that the “Western world” has a monopoly on gender equity. From Kenyan environmentalist and women’s rights advocate Dr. Wangari Maathai to Nigerian feminist and novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Africa’s list of women change-makers spans[2] the continent and transcends generational, occupational, socioeconomic, religious, and linguistic cleavages. The World Economic Forum’s 2015[3]Global Gender Gap Report invalidates the superiority of Western feminism, delegitimizing the myth with statistics: at 6th internationally, Rwanda continues to outpace France (15th), Spain (25th), Germany (11th), Switzerland (8th), Denmark (14th), and the United States (28th) on measures of gender equity such as full-time employment and political representation.

Second, the opposite but related assumptions regarding the nature of gender dynamics in contemporary Rwanda:

  • “The battle is already won.” That women enjoy comparable opportunity to men throughout the country, across socioeconomic or geographic divides.
  • Alternately, gender equality in Rwanda is an elite-level phenomenon, that political progress has yet to translate into the sociocultural sphere, and that women outside Kigali remain excluded from the liberation that characterizes the experiences of their urban sisters[4].

Rwanda’s national Agriculture Gender Strategy[5], a policy plan for the Ministry of Agriculture and Animal Resources (MINAGRI), recognizes persistent disparities among rural men and women: country-wide, 43.5% of female-headed households live in extreme poverty, compared to 35.08% of male-headed households. “The agriculture sector is worked primarily by poor women (86%) with the highest rates of illiteracy (22.3%).”[6] Culturally, despite policies to institutionalize gender-equitable land ownership, land continues to remain predominantly under male control, and so-called “male crops” are allocated more land within family compounds. Women in rural Rwanda work an average of 8.5 hours more each day than their male peers, including 3.5 hours of additional farm labor.[7]

Statistics do much to illuminate phenomena and lend quantitative validity to theories, arguments, and perspectives. However, complex and acutely human issues, such as the way that Rwandan farmers experience and negotiate gender roles, cannot be fully conceptualized in exclusively numerical terms. At GHI, we know that 96% of primary caregivers enrolled in our program are women[8]. We can provide headcounts of fathers present at program graduations. But in seeking to understand more about the way that men view and participate in the GHI program, we went straight to the source, seeking out conversations with male farmers and caregivers themselves.

 Vestine, Sylvestre, David, and Faustin, partners who spoke with our team in Kabere,

Vestine, Sylvestre, David, and Faustin, partners who spoke with our team in Kabere,

“Sometimes men don’t want to be included in training, because they think that sitting for one hour is a waste of time.” (Leonard Baziruhoze, Kinigi, Musanze)

“[When we were invited to enroll in the GHI program] I was unhappy, I was angry. I asked, ‘How is my child malnourished when we have food at home?’” (David Sebazungu, Kabere, Musanze)

“When we sit together as men, we talk of different things-news, etc. -- but never about our children or our families.” (Sylvestre Sebahutu, Kabere, Musanze)

In farming communities across Rwanda’s northern province, fathers and husbands observed their health and agriculture-related assumptions challenged through participation in the GHI program. A farmer and Community Health Worker (CHW) from Kinigi struggled to understand how his son could fall into malnutrition, given an abundant household harvest, steady family income, and personal health expertise. Men in Kabere navigate savings culture and the value of prioritizing family investment above personal investment, openly and honestly discussing the tension this presents in their daily lives. Male farmers in Musanze District learned that seeds alone do not guarantee family health and prosperity, and that nutritional knowledge mediates the relationship between agricultural productivity and family health. At GHI, we found our own assumptions-about the typical Rwandan husband’s role in agriculture, health, and the family-challenged. In discussions from Kinigi and Kabere, men expressed unanimous support for a parallel set of health trainings targeting the male role in the family and in conversations about childhood nutrition. Motivated by family responsibility and paternal conscientiousness above economic incentives, Kabere men expressed a desire to continue learning regardless of whether educational opportunities were attached to savings mechanisms.

“[The GHI program] is not just a journey that [my wife] went on alone, and it is not a journey that ends-we have to keep on going together forever.” (Sylvestre Sebahutu, Kabere, Musanze)

“Now when I see a fellow man, I cannot help but share [what I learned through GHI].” (Sylvestre Sebahutu, Kabere, Musanze)

“We were watching. When you see something new, you watch and you get interested, and by watching you learn.” (Domacien Hubugimana, Kabere, Musanze)

The role that a man or woman plays in a family-in Switzerland or in Denmark, in Spain or in France, in the United States or in Germany, in Kigali city or on a farm in Kinigi, Musanze-continues to evolve and respond to the political, economic, geographic and socio-cultural circumstances in which families find themselves. At GHI, as we strive to provide families with a roadmap out of childhood malnutrition, we aim to engage both men and women in conversations surrounding the wellbeing of the whole family. This means reaching out to both male and female caregivers, recognizing and affirming the structural inequities specific to female farmers in rural Rwanda but simultaneously acknowledging the value of male partnership in pursuit of family health. As we watch fathers beam with pride on a triennial basis as their wives and children graduate our 14-week program, we remain hopeful for the coexistence of men and women as partner farmers, partner guarantors of child health, and partner architects of Rwanda’s happy, healthy, and prosperous future.

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[1] Paquette, D. (2015, November 20). The Washington Post. “Rwanda is beating the United States in gender equality.” Retrieved from: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2015/11/20/rwanda-is-beating-the-united-states-in-gender-equality/

[2] Banya, M. (2015). For Harriet. “18 phenomenal African feminists to know and celebrate.” Retrieved from: http://www.forharriet.com/2015/04/18-phenomenal-african-feminists-to-know.html#axzz3xaFTPCLr

[3] World Economic Forum. (2015, November). Global gender gap index 2015. Retrieved from: http://reports.weforum.org/global-gender-gap-report-2015/rankings/

[4] Berry, M. E. (2015). When “Bright Futures” Fade: Paradoxes of Women’s Empowerment in Rwanda. Signs, 41(1), 1-27.

[5] MINAGRI. (2010, November). Agriculture gender strategy. Retrieved from: http://www.minagri.gov.rw/index.php?id=16

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Gardens for Health International. (2015). 2016A baseline survey.