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Child Welfare in India Improves as Mothers Participate in Peer Support Groups

  • Jessica Berman

New research in India has demonstrated that children receive better nutrition when their mothers are empowered, educated and mobile. The researchers found that participation in a vocational training program empowered women at home, significantly increasing their children’s consumption of rice and dairy products.

A vocational program in southern India called Mahila Samakhya brings groups of women together to form local support networks. A study by researchers at the University of Illinois looked at its impact on the women’s roles and empowerment inside the home.

Economist Kathy Baylis of the school's College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences led the study. Before joining the peer groups, Baylis said, the women knew fewer than five other women outside the family.

Many assumed they had little say in the management of household resources, according to Baylis, as reflected in their comments.

“Before I was in the peer group, I didn’t know I could stand up to my husband. I didn’t know I could work outside the home or work outside the farm. I didn’t know women were doctors and lawyers, etc., etc.,” said Baylis, recalling some of the comments made.

Experts say 40 percent of Indian children under age five suffer from malnutrition, but Baylis said participation in the peer groups, designed to teach women work skills, led them to provide better nutrition for their children.

Researchers confirmed that youngsters started eating better by visiting the participants' homes with different size bowls.

“And instead of trying to get people to recall exact number of cups or etc. that they were feeding their kids, we went and asked how many of these size bowls did your different kids get fed of rice and of daal and of various dairy products - we also asked about eggs – yesterday,” said Baylis.

Girls in particular started consuming more food.

Baylis said the women also began confronting husbands who were known to physically abuse their wives, threatening to expose them unless they stopped.

The study is one of the first to show the positive impact of Mahila Samakhya on female empowerment since its founding by the Indian central government in 1995.
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