The result: poor health and malnutrition, and a lack of critical conversations about the household, money and property.
A project in the western state of Rajasthan to improve the health of women among poor tribal communities took on this tradition by encouraging families to eat together.
By doing so, the Rajasthan Nutrition Project, launched in 2015 by non-profits Freedom from Hunger India Trust and Grameen Foundation, not only improved the health of women, it also made men more aware of gender equality, a senior official said.
“When the issue of women’s health comes up, everyone is aware that ‘women eat last, women eat the least’. Yet this had never been addressed before,” said Saraswathi Rao, chief executive of Freedom From Hunger India Trust.
“We decided to specifically address it by engaging with women and men, showing them what it means to have women eat alone, and eat the smallest portions. We wanted them to see eating together is for everyone’s benefit.”
One of India’s poorest states, Rajasthan is known as much for its beautiful palaces and colorful apparel as for its centuries-old traditions of patriarchy.
It has some of India’s lowest rates of female literacy and highest rates of child marriage.
A recent survey of about 400 of the 8,500 families that took part in the nutrition project showed improved health and nutrition levels among the women and children, said Rao.
The women also said they were less afraid of their husbands and were more involved in household decisions including on children’s education, health care and property, she said.
While Indian law ensures equal inheritance rights for women, in states such as Rajasthan, married women often forgo their claim through a tradition called “haq tyag,” or sacrifice of right.
Taking on seemingly innocuous traditions is key to securing equal rights for women, said Varsha Joshi, an associate professor at the Institute of Development Studies in Jaipur, the state capital.
“Getting women to eat with their husbands is a major achievement; it makes a dent in other traditions that hold women back,” Joshi told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“Even if they don’t get their property right away, at least they are having conversations about it, and men are seeing the injustice of these traditions.”