Infant nutrition programmes should challenge gender roles (South Africa)


Researchers in South Africa have recommended “gender transformative” approaches in the support of healthy infant nutrition. They recommend couple-focused programmes that challenge existing gender roles, support the inclusion of fathers in decisions about breastfeeding and nutrition, and improve the self-efficacy of mothers. They warn of the danger of reinforcing traditional female roles if men are inadequately included in infant nutrition discussions and activities. They also recommend engagement with grandmothers, many of whom reinforce traditional roles and can discourage exclusive breastfeeding.

The study took place in urban Soweto. It involved three focus groups with men (aged over 18) and six groups with women (two with 18-25 year olds, two with 26-40 year olds, and two with over 40s).

The focus groups found persistent traditional gender roles, with mothers taking the lead on domestic tasks, preparing food and caring for children, at the same time as earning money. Mothers expressed a general sense of hardship in response to the difficulty of doing all this simultaneously.

Elderly women commonly act as supervisors and advisors of mothers on nutrition. They help prepare food and feed children, particularly local vegetables. Often they discourage exclusive breastfeeding, believing it is not enough to assuage hunger and so stop crying. Mothers expressed feeling conflicted in this situation, since they have access to other sources of information such as the internet, the media and literature.

Fathers see themselves predominantly as providers. They typically take an active interesting in family health, including healthy eating. Some participate in childcare and some do not (described as “responsible” and “irresponsible” / “negligent” respectively).

The focus groups revealed aspirations for change. Men described wanting to play a bigger role in nutrition and in the well-being of mothers and the children. They expressed interest in learning more, for example, in antenatal classes. This trend has been identified in other studies in South Africa.

Gender equal attitudes are advanced in South Africa compared to many other countries. A social attitudes survey in 2012 found that 88% of respondents agreed that both men and women should contribute to household income. However the sharing of domestic and caring responsibilities is not so strongly believed in.  50% of respondents believed that mothers of young children should stay at home while the father should work full-time.


Erzse A, Goldstein S, Tugendhaft A, Norris SA, Barker M & Hofman KJ (2021), The roles of men and women in maternal and child nutrition in urban South Africa: A qualitative secondary analysis, Maternal & Child Nutrition

Header photo: Francesco Veronesi. Creative Commons.