Champions of change

Champions of change

I could not have imagined how much the world would change in the short span of time between meeting Stephen Chilufya in February and writing his story in April. But somehow, it fits. It’s all about challenge, change and harmony…

CARE’s Southern African Nutrition Initiative (SANI) has been working in rural communities across Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia since 2016 to reduce malnutrition. From the outset, SANI’s women’s-rights-based nutrition programming employed a variety of interventions such as training health workers, seeding backyard gardens, teaching climate-smart agriculture, and more. In fact, SANI also undertook extensive training of community members, so that they were empowered to play vital volunteer roles (during and after the project) such as Community Health Workers, Waterpoint Pump Menders and Gender Champions. Trainings included key messaging in gender equality, to be shared by the volunteer with the wider community.

This past February, I traveled to Mpepo in Zambia’s Shiwang’andu District, to meet Stephen Chilufya, a 48-year old father of seven young children who was trained as a SANI Gender Champion in early 2019. Stephen is soft spoken and well respected in his village, where he lives with his extended family in a household of 9 people. As a Gender Champion, Stephen received gender-sensitive training to take an active role in reducing his wife’s workload while demonstrating to men in his community how/why he is doing so:

“The challenges we face are related to our culture, in the way duties are distributed. Men end up with very few duties while women must perform many duties to care for the family. Problems arise because men want to control and dominate, and women feel oppressed. My duty as Gender Champion is first to show my family how to work together, and then to teach my neighbours so that they will know what we know and can improve their family’s health…”

Stephen is one of 110 men engaged by SANI as Gender Champions in Zambia, and subsequently assigned to one of 10 Male Action Groups (MAGs). MAGs meet quarterly plan outreach activities, review progress and discuss challenges. Stephen points out that the MAG to which he belongs is an important source of support and guidance, but that the work of a Gender Champion requires one-to-one and naturally occurring interactions between himself and the men in his community that he wishes to influence.

Stephen explained: “We use different methods (to reach other men) depending on the opportunities we get. There are times when we have events such as a cooking workshop or feeding program for children. At these events we can sometimes meet the husbands. But we also go one-to-one, targeting men. We chat with them, we invite them to where we gather so that they can come and experience good food. The idea is to firstly, be friendly, have fun together. In our culture, in order to speak to men about helping women and changing culture, you cannot simply point out mistakes or they will feel undermined and stop listening to you.”

But, of course, this process – befriending and gaining trust in order to introduce new ideas – takes time. Time and patience are required when trying to change gender norms, especially when the men he wishes to speak to live far away, and he can only meet with so many men in a day or a week: “It is not easy to expect someone to change when they were born in a certain culture, grew up like that, and now they learn new ways of doing things. Consider, you are setting out to change someone who might already be 50 years of age or older, and has always known life a certain way. We (Gender Champions) face the challenge of having only a few of us to do the teaching, but a lot of men who need the learning! And even then, the places all these men live are vastly distributed, and must be reached by foot, one by one.”

To address the challenges, and to indirectly reach as many men in his community as possible, Stephen found that it was most effective to let the others see him interacting in new ways with his own wife – to lead by example. So, Stephen ensured that his community would observe him performing activities deemed “inappropriate for men” without shame – activities such as cleaning, cooking or taking his grandchild to the health clinic for regular check-ups. Not only did this teach his own children a new way of working and interacting, but it ensured that men in the community who were set in their ways could see the potential benefit in changing the family dynamic: “For me, as a Gender Champion, they key has been to live as an example, a role model – I must ‘walk my talk’. So, it’s important to me that my family and friends see me do the things that I am trying to teach them.”

Stephen continued: “In fact, it is a pleasure for me to use my family as an example, to showcase how we are now happy as we work to support and help each other for one cause – the family. We can easily show the troubles we used to face and how we are now joyful together – there is a big difference. We can show the difficulties we used to face in expecting only one person to do all the work in the house. The happiness of working together without any one person feeling that they are being oppressed or taken advantage of.”

And indeed, Stephen has seen a huge change in his own household. For instance, when he recently had to work away from home for almost two months, he was delighted to return home to find that his wife and children had worked together to grow soybeans, sweet potatoes, maize and more. Stephen said: “They were so happy telling what they did in my absence, how they worked together to achieve this. So, in other words, what has changed in my family is that we are now working together to move forward, everyone has found their space in the family, and everyone contributes to making good plans for the future and to find best ways to feed ourselves adequately.”

What about the other men in Mpepo? In fact, Stephen reported happily that there has been definite change and improvement. More and more fathers are more committed to taking care of their children, some are even taking their children to health clinic appointments, bringing food home, and/or helping their wives cook: “People are, in fact, slowly receiving the information we are giving them – the challenge is greater in just finding the time to sit with them and have the conversation.”

When I asked Stephen about the end of the SANI project later this year, and how he will continue the positive changes that have already been achieved, he said: “As a Gender Champion, the biggest thing I can keep working on is living by example, to be the one other men look to see how things can be done. As a family, people are watching us. So, my family and I, we keep teaching just by living our life. Moving forward, for myself and my Male Action Group, our hope and desire is to work together to bring unity, so that we have the power to support each man in this new education and to improve ways of living. We want to improve the health and life and opportunities for our own children and our grandchildren. And we want this to become our new culture.”

Overall, it is clear: Stephen is gently leading by example, at home and in his community. And by doing so, he is creating positive change. It seems to me that faced with the current global pandemic, we must do the same — in our own homes, and as a country. Just as Stephen does in his household, Canadians must make decisions for their families that benefit and support entire communities. And just as Stephen does for Zambia, Canada must continue to lead by example internationally through continued investment in global health projects (such as SANI) that create sustainable improvements in health, nutrition and gender norms for women, girls, men, boys, families and communities.

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[I wrote this story about a trip taken to Zambia in February 2020. I was traveling on behalf of CARE Canada, where I work as Communications and Public Engagement Officer. In this role, I lead the “Feed Her Future” campaign (www.feedherfuture.ca) – a campaign to raise awareness about the importance of women’s access to nutrition by highlighting the work of the Southern African Nutrition Initiative (SANI).]

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