In rural Cambodia, a nutrition project to plant vegetables in home gardens is exploring how to promote gender equality and women’s empowerment. SEI is working with the World Vegetable Center in Cambodia to conduct this research.
Malnutrition is a serious public health issue in rural Cambodia. One in four children and over one in ten women are underweight, and vitamin A and D deficiencies are of particular concern . Stunted growth, one of the consequences of chronic poor nutrition, affects one in three children under the age of five and creates long-lasting effects on their physical and mental development. These children also face higher risks of illness and premature death.
To address the health issues associated with malnutrition in Cambodia, the World Vegetable Center in Cambodia introduced 1,400 home vegetable gardens in 2016. The project, which is part of USAID’s Feed the Future initiative, wants to encourage families with young children to eat a greater variety of vegetables.
"At the World Vegetable Center, we believe that eating vegetables is one of the best ways to get the nutrients and minerals that every person requires,” says Stuart Brown, project manager of Deploying vegetable seed kits to tackle malnutrition in Cambodia.
The World Vegetable Center has collaborated with local non-government organizations to design and distribute seed kits, and train household representatives in setting up and managing their home gardens.
Most of these gardeners are women. Women in rural Cambodia traditionally spend more time at home managing the household and raising children, so they are seen as the natural managers of home gardens and family diets. Engaging and committing women to home gardens for the long term is therefore considered the key to changing eating habits in the family.
In addition to improving child nutrition, the World Vegetable Center also wishes to empower the women as gardeners. SEI is helping the project find ways to do this by offering expertise in gender research.
“Many development projects assume that building women’s capacities through training is equal to empowering them. But actually, empowerment is about people gaining the ability to do what they aspire to do, and gaining self-esteem in doing so,” says Ha Nguyen of the SEI gender research team involved in the project.
SEI researchers were particularly interested in how social norms affect gender roles and self-esteem of gardeners who participated in the project.
SEI researchers spent two weeks speaking with project participants and visiting their home gardens around Siem Reap and Battambang, talking to women and men about their roles and expectations for the home garden, and their ability to address problems that arise.
The research found that while women were the main caretakers of the gardens, men also worked alongside them, especially on tasks such as preparing the soil and installing the trellises. Women, on the other hand, did the perceived ‘lighter’ tasks such as planting, weeding, and applying fertilizer.
Examining how these women and men feel about community recognition of their work can reveal how their self-esteem has changed.
Being recognised for work beyond one's role usually improves a person's self-esteem. The research found that compared to men, women did not gain self-esteem from managing home gardens, regardless of the types of tasks or how much they did in the garden.
Some men, far from being stigmatized by the community, were praised for working in what is considered a woman’s domain. One male gardener from Prey Totueng village said, “I get more respect for sharing responsibilities and for kindness in helping my wife, and others see our family as one that knows how to help each other”.
But for women who single-handedly managed home gardens, especially in the absence of male family members, the same sense of recognition did not come easy. They were instead perceived to be doing their usual domestic duties. “People still think the same of you,” said one woman whose husband is a construction worker in Phnom Penh.
The Cambodian society expects women to behave according to traditional norms related to their gender. For example, they are expected to take on nurturing tasks, such as caring for children and the elderly, and providing food for their families. This is why women are often targeted by nutrition projects.
SEI researchers found that the project helped women improve their knowledge and skills relating to home gardens and family nutrition. They argue that this gain does not necessarily increase their status in society, as women are still playing a nurturing role that is less valued than traditionally male roles, such as earning income for the family.
However, there are signs that women are pushing the boundaries of their traditional roles in the household. Some women felt more self-confident from gaining knowledge on land preparation and bedding, which is knowledge traditionally held by men. They were able to influence their husbands or male family members to apply new techniques and change gardening practices.
SEI researchers recommend that the project increase social recognition of women’s abilities by identifying and promoting these types of cases throughout the project. Such an effort would be the first step in transforming persistent gender norms that disadvantage women.
The project will use some of these findings in the next phase, where they aim to reach 8,000 households by September 2018. Instead of targeting individuals that in most cases happen to be women, the project will target households, and encourage both male and female family members to participate in trainings on gardening techniques and nutrition.
The project has held discussions with its local non-government organization partners on engaging men in home gardening, and promoting women’s voices in planning, training and monitoring project activities.
“We’re looking for ways to garner more motivation and ownership by participants. If we can do that better, we can then highlight an approach that is a lot more inclusive, particularly for Cambodia,” says Stuart Brown.
 National Institute of Statistics, Directorate General for Health, and ICF International, 2015. Cambodia Demographic and Health Survey 2014. Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and Rockville, Maryland, USA: National Institute of Statistics, Directorate General for Health, and ICF International. https://dhsprogram.com/pubs/pdf/FR312/FR312.pdf