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Laughter echoes through the grove of cashew trees as the group watches a respected local elder enthusiastically pretending to pound cassava roots as though he were a little girl.

A young man acting the part of the mother scolds him for making a mess. “No one likes a messy girl!”

A woman in the audience slaps her leg with glee and exclaims in Senuofo, “It’s exactly that!”

Despite the fun, this group from Napalakaha village in northern Côte d’Ivoire is actually exploring gender norms and the ways that society sensitizes boys and girls into “male” and “female” roles. Indeed, after some more play-acting from the men, the women take the stage to act out ways that men instruct their sons to be “good boys.”

The humor is needed to break the ice. But what ensues is an important discussion about the lessons that girls and boys are taught about their roles in society — and the ramifications for these children later in life in terms of the opportunities and choices they will have.

Gender norms can have significant impacts on food availability and dietary diversity, in many cases determining who decides what land is used to grow which crops, whether the crops produced are consumed or sold, and who within a household eats certain foods (and how often). When women have greater influence over household decisions, income use, and the ways they spend their own time, both their own nutrition and that of their families tends to improve.

In many parts of Africa, women still have limited power to make decisions, have less access to land and resources, earn less from their labor than men, and shoulder the heaviest burden of the unpaid work of caring for their families. Addressing malnutrition and improving agricultural production equitably requires dedicated efforts both to empower women and to encourage men to adopt key roles in caring for children and supporting their nutrition and health.

Helen Keller programs have often focused on providing training and other inputs for women, aiming to increase their knowledge, productivity, and earnings — and improve their status and power within their households and communities. More recently, we have begun working to address directly the underlying social norms that constrain women’s choices through several novel gender-focused approaches.

The objective is to transform the attitudes, behaviors, and institutions that reinforce gender inequalities and, in so doing, to overturn gender disadvantages and power imbalances. These approaches recognize that women are often not able to change such deeply held norms independently: social change requires the active participation of all members of households, communities, and institutions.

Helen Keller Nurturing Connections curriculum specifically explores the impact of gender inequity on nutrition and health through facilitated discussions and exercises that help women and men jointly gain an understanding of women’s rights and their abilities to contribute on and off the farm. Developed by Helen Keller-Bangladesh and adapted for use in West Africa with the support of the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), this four-month-long participatory curriculum features weekly sessions held within peer groups (women, their partners/husbands, and community leaders/elders), as well as one monthly “community meeting” in which all three groups come together and jointly explore the skills and knowledge they’ve gained.

ICRW found that Nurturing Connections fosters significant increases in shared decision-making about childcare, nutrition, domestic work, and livestock rearing, as well as smaller changes in household communication and views on gender equity.i In the long term, such changes may lead to increased agricultural productivity for women, greater purchasing power, and improved family nutrition — and building, family-by-family, healthier and more equitable communities.

i  Nordhagen S, Bastardes Tort C, Kes A, Winograd L. (2017) Nurturing Connections? Evaluating the Impact of a Women’s Empowerment Curriculum in Cote d’Ivoire. ICRW Working Paper. Washington, DC: ICRW.