In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), rates of food insecurity and malnutrition are severe and growth in the agricultural and rural sectors is undermined by gender disparity and gender-related constraints, particularly in access to productive resources, inputs, knowledge, and markets. High levels of gender inequality have been associated with high levels of food insecurity.
In South-Kivu Province, food insecurity and malnutrition are leading causes of mortality among the population. Previous studies have shown that malnutrition rates in the Province are linked to poverty and low purchasing power of the population, poor dietary habits, intra-household food allocation, and traditional customs that result in poor food preparation practices. Furthermore, approximately 83% of the people in the province spend less than $1.90 per day on food items, which reflects income constraints to supplementing diets with essential items to improve nutrition.
Additionally, pervasive gender inequalities pose considerable challenges to improving livelihoods in this area. Men’s and women’s roles and responsibilities in the household often differ, with the women often being responsible for food collection and preparation. In some areas, gender disparities also exist in what men and women consume. For example, in Uvira, women are forbidden to drink milk, even when they contribute substantial labor to on-farm livestock management. Gender inequalities also exacerbate and place a heavy burden on women’s health. Women are particularly affected by high rates of drudgery associated with casual labor, on-farm household labor, and childcare. Furthermore, women have almost no access to resources and have less decision-making powers concerning production.
Women’s empowerment is key to attaining positive development outcomes in agricultural households and, if supported, will help accelerate economic growth and contribute to the well-being of rural households (Doss 2013; Ochieng et al. 2014). Empowering women through programs that both engage men and women and seek to increase their knowledge and challenge gender inequity will be essential to improving health and nutrition outcomes.
To this end, IITA, through the Support to Agricultural Research for Development of Strategic Crops in Africa (SARD-SC) project funded by the African Development Bank has created opportunities for women and men to work together through the cassava community processing centers (CCPCs) established in project countries, including the DRC. The CCPCs serve as entry points to address gender and nutrition challenges in the region.
Currently, five CCPCs have been established in Kavumu, Katana, Kabare, Kamanyola, Luvungi, and Sange in the Ruzizi Plains. Three of these CCPCs are chaired or managed by women, which places them in important leadership positions where they serve as role models for other women and girls in these communities. However, in general, the male members of these CCPCs are better educated than the women, owing to better access to information sources that they often control such as mobile phones and radio. Additionally, women’s responsibilities in the household and in childcare limit their opportunities to attend social and educational events.
Recognizing the importance of gender, nutrition, and hygiene, SARD-SC conducted a 2-day, awareness training for members and their spouses of the five CCPCs. More than 165 individuals, 100 of whom were women, participated. The first day of the training specifically focused on sensitizing CCPC members—through participatory approaches—on gender, community gender norms related to division of tasks and labor, and developing community-led strategies to attain gender equity at the household and community levels. Some of the salient strategies proposed by the participants to reduce women’s workloads and to provide equal opportunities for women and men included: (1) sensitizing local leaders, including chiefs and clergy; (2) providing joint training for husbands and wives to facilitate and enhance dialogue and joint decision-making in the household; (3) sensitizng children, and parents leading by example; and (4) creating activities to encourage young men and women to work together such as baking bread.
The second day focused on nutrition, particularly improving knowledge on basic nutrition, household food security, and hygiene. Pre- and post-test questionnaires were used to assess participants’ basic knowledge on nutrition and hygiene. The surveys showed that the men had generally better knowledge of basic nutrition and hygiene than the women, likely stemming from men’s access to better education and information when compared to women. Following the training, however, the men and women’s knowledge levels on nutrition and hygiene evened out.
This training demonstrated the need to intensify and address gender within agricultural projects to achieve better outcomes for production and wider development outcomes. This will lead to a better understanding about how IITA and its partners can incorporate gender transformative approaches that will significantly change gender relations and improve the plight of women.