The Indian women eating with their families for the first time

By Geeta Pandey
BBC News, Delhi

Image caption,
The Damor family now eat all their meals together

Meals have a way of bringing families together. As food is laid out, everyone gathers round the table, conversation flows and families bond.

But traditionally, eating together has not been encouraged in India. Men and children are fed first and only then can women sit down to eat.

But in millions of poor homes, this practice has had an unintended consequence - malnutrition among women.

Now, however, campaigners are urging women to eat with their families instead of after them. And, they say, the results have been very encouraging.

No-one knows when or where or how the practice started, but like every other symbol of patriarchy, it is deeply entrenched in people's psyche.

As a child, in my home too, my mother, grandmother, aunts and cousin's wives would cook and serve, but they would always be the last to eat.

In the pecking order, gods came first - once food was prepared, a small portion of all the dishes would be offered to them.

In my Brahmin home, even the resident cow was fed before humans - when my grandfather sat down to eat, he would set aside bits of food from every dish onto a small thick round piece of bread that was placed on a leaf. He would eat only after one of us had fed that to the cow.

This staggered eating sometimes caused minor friction at home - if men delayed mealtimes, it just meant that the women's wait to eat got longer. It didn't matter how hungry they were, they just had to wait.

Image caption,
Manshu Damor also helps by chopping vegetables
Image caption,
The locally grown leafy vegetable is high in nutrients

Our family was not an exception - this is how my neighbours ate, as did those living across the length and breadth of the country. In many families, a rather unhygienic practice involved women eating from the unwashed plates of their husbands.

Anyone who sought an explanation for why this happened was told that it was the norm, that it had happened for centuries, that it was the traditional way.

In cities though, it is becoming increasingly common for educated and employed women to eat as and when they want to, but the tradition of women eating last continues to be widely followed to this day, especially in rural areas.

In homes like ours, it has no serious impact because there is enough food to go around. But in poor rural homes, it often leaves women and children hungry.

"This tradition of prioritising men's needs means sometimes when women sit down to eat, there isn't enough left for them," says Vandana Mishra of Rajasthan Nutrition Project (RNP), executed by charities Freedom from Hunger India Trust and Grameen Foundation.

Image caption,
Karma, Manshu Damor's daughter-in-law, does most of the cooking at their home
Image caption,
Campaigners are trying to promote locally grown coarse grain which they say is healthier

A survey of 403 poor tribal women in the state's Banswara and Sirohi districts in March 2015 showed "food secure and food insecure people in the same household", Ms Mishra said.

"Men always said, 'I go to work first and children go to school, so we need to eat first'," Rohit Samariya, RNP project manager in Banswara, told the BBC.

"We created plates to demonstrate what a man's plate looked like and what a woman's plate looked like to drive the point home that women were literally scraping the bottom of the barrel," he says.

To break this pattern, the group came up with a very simple but unusual strategy - to encourage families to eat their meals together.

Their two-year project concluded recently and to gauge its impact on rural communities, I travelled last month to the tribal-dominated Ambapara village in Banswara.

Image caption,
The family's lunch menu includes vegetable, lentil soup and handmade bread

As I arrive at Manshu Damor's house, I find him chopping a type of locally grown leafy vegetable while his wife and daughter-in-law cook in the kitchen behind him.

The family's lunch menu includes vegetable, lentil soup and handmade bread.

Ambapara is among India's poorest villages where 89% still defecate in the open, child marriages are rampant, literacy levels are low and women still cover their faces in the presence of men.

So when the RNP campaigners suggested that people eat their meals together as a family, it was nothing less than revolutionary.

Until then, Mr Damor tells me, he had never shared a meal with Barju, his wife of 35 years. The idea that his daughter-in-law Karma could sit alongside him was unthinkable.

"People said how could a woman eat in front of her father-in-law? It had always been against our tradition, so in the beginning I also resisted. I too found it a bit odd," he said.

Mr Samariya says by asking men to eat together with the women, "we were asking them to change their behaviour".

"In our patriarchal society, men are not brought up to care for their wives. So we have to sensitise them to gender issues."

Image caption,
Ramila Damor (front) said her family had their first meal together two years ago

It was not just men - women also believed in the same tradition. But after some persuasion, the villagers agreed to give it a try.

And, it's made a world of difference to women's well-being.

"I was the one always cooking, but by the time I would sit down to eat, there would be little food left. Men would finish all the vegetables, so I'd have to contend with bread and salt," says Karma, Mr Damor's daughter-in-law. "Now everyone gets equal food."

Her neighbour, Ramila Damor, said her family had their first meal together two years ago.

"When I heard about it for the first time, I went home and cooked and I told my husband that from now on, we'll all eat together. It felt really nice sharing a meal," she said.

Image caption,
In traditional Indian homes, men are fed first

All the other women I spoke to in the village said family meals had become the norm in their homes too.

A survey done at the end of the two-year campaign in May showed heartening results - food security among the surveyed women had more than doubled. As the wellbeing of children is often linked to that of mothers, their food security too showed a huge increase.

The impact of the campaign was not limited to improving nutrition levels, it brought on other positive changes too.

Mr Damor says his daughter-in-law no longer covers her face entirely and the veil has moved up.

"Also, now she calls me Ba (father) instead of Haahoo (dad-in-law) and my wife Aaee (mother) instead of Haaharozi (mum-in-law)."

Meals do have a way of bringing families together. Like they have done in the case of Damors.