Has anyone considered the relationship between the stubbornly high malnutrition in Laos and the increasing workloads of women in agriculture? A recent World Bank report ignored this question, while other projects are assuming that nutrition can be solved by boosting the numbers of trainings and home gardens.
In reality however, the social pressure to achieve a modern lifestyle means that rural families are deliberately choosing to undertake more agricultural labour in return for a higher income. Where I live in the northern Lao province of Bokeo, Chinese investments in banana plantations have transformed the economy.
Thousands of women from ethnic minorities such as Hmong, Khmu and Lahu (many of them migrants) work seven days a week with their husbands to manage their allocated plantations on a contract basis. Women are also preferred as day labourers in nursery work and washing/packing bananas, and they must work strictly 8 to 5 to get their daily payment of about $10 USD.
Nutrition loses out
Instead of breastfeeding, mothers leave infants with relatives to eat solid foods, while the older children walk to school with a handful of rice and chili.
Add all this extra labour to the regular household tasks of women, and something has to give. Since men haven't caught up yet to the changing gender roles needed in this new economy, women still end up taking most responsibility for the nutrition of infants and children. These women have money, but lack time. Since they come home late, there is no time to manage vegetable gardens or forage in the forest: the easy option is to pop down to the village shop and grab some instant noodles - just ask the little shops in the village what they sell best!
As mum has to leave early again the next day, she is often not around when the kids have breakfast. Instead of breastfeeding, mothers leave infants with relatives to eat solid foods, while the older children walk to school with a handful of rice and chili.
A holistic approach
So what about some solutions? Well that is the tough part. For sure it needs more than just an agriculture project with a nutrition component. In some cases women already have awareness of good nutrition practice, but this takes a back seat to income generation – the result is that nutrition indicators for Laos are stagnant or even in decline. There is a parallel here with the increased reliance of convenience foods in the developed world and rising obesity.
A holistic approach that incorporates the social sciences is a starting point for debate within the communities themselves. One discussion is needed on social status - rural people are very conscious of how their income compares relative to others in their communities (relative deprivation), but are the costs of taking on extra labour really worthwhile?
Another discussion is needed on culture and gender, which challenges families to change attitudes to women’s roles in the family and to breastfeeding. And the Chinese companies should also be challenged to provide a supportive environment for women in their workforce – as I write, the first contingent of cheap Burmese labour has just been officially approved to work on Bokeo banana plantations, making it even harder to improve working conditions for local people!
A holistic approach is going to take time and doesn’t have easily measured indicators– making it hard to squeeze into a project logframe. And that is probably the biggest challenge to meaningful change from development agencies!