Men Can Cook – Challenging Patriarchal Norms in Zimbabwe

St. Mary's Road United Church

Jane*, a mother of four in Zimbabwe, was facing exhaustion. In addition to caring for her smaller children, cooking for her family and managing her household, she received a daily list of tasks from her husband. She spent several hours every day weeding crops, gathering firewood and fetching water, without any assistance or appreciation from family. Her exhaustion and workload caused fights between Jane and her husband and affected the dynamics of their household. 
In the 2020 UN Human Development Report, Zimbabwe ranked 150 out of 189 in the Gender Inequality Index. Women’s political participation is also very low (ranked in the bottom 25% of African countries) which is a result of systemic inequality in government, industry and the household. Since women’s work is often based in the home, their contributions and role in economy and society are often invisible and undervalued. Men hold the decision-making power at the community and household level, leaving women with no voice to speak up for their own needs or rights. As a result, women are overworked and face increased instances of domestic conflict, gender-based violence and disempowerment. 
Supported by FIT, St. Mary’s Road United Church and local partners SCORE Against Poverty (Zimbabwe) tested an innovative solution that engaged men in a community-designed program that redefines masculinity and associated norms in a positive, supportive way at the family level, using intent instead of mandate.  

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The innovation used two approaches. The ‘Men Can Cook’ competition involved a skills-based learning opportunity where men were taught to cook by women in the community, and then participated in a competition judged by the women. The ‘Men’s Forum’ intended to support the learning process and create safe spaces for men to dialogue and start to “unpack” what was being learned. This approach addressed the unpaid work imbalance in the home by both providing men with domestic skills and a platform for them to discuss and address harmful patriarchal norms. The innovation engaged 90 men and 80 women in the Mwenezi district of Zimbabwe. 
The results confirm that transformational gender equity can be dramatically increased in a short period of time, when contextually appropriate material and gender equity components are carefully understood and adopted. The approach led to: 
• a positive multi-generational impact on gender equity.   
• increased family social/emotional wellbeing,  
• increased family income generation and  
• decreased gender-based violence in the family and the community 
At the end of the testing period, 100% of participants reported that their involvement resulted in an improved household dynamic. At baseline, only 15% of men had a positive/supportive view toward their wives. By the end, 100% reported that their definition of masculinity and femininity changed ‘a lot’ in a positive/supportive way. This transformation was reinforced by their wives who indicated that this attitude shift resulted in a change in behavior, with men performing more household duties and spending time with the family. All women reported that their decision-making power and leadership capacity had increased in the home when it came to decisions around children, healthcare, finances, and other household matters. The innovation also had some unanticipated positive outcomes. Many women participants reported that gender-based violence decreased in their home, their family’s economic situation improved and their perceived value in the community increased. 

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Since participating in the innovation, Jane’s family dynamic has transformed. Her husband learned the scope of her daily work, and how his participation in the home would strengthen not only his relationship with his wife, but with his children as well. Their son 13-year-old son Joseph took note of the new relationship between his mother and father and was inspired to learn to cook and help with the household. 
“I think those old ideas are like germs, slowly engulfing our true culture and robbing women of their time to do other things like socializing with friends and resting,” said Joseph. “Now, my mom can rest whilst my father cooks or bathes my young brother. My father is excellent at caring for us children and spends a lot of his time with my baby brother.” 
This innovation testing not only validated the original hypotheses, but also resulted in the decrease in Gender Based Violence (GBV) in the home and increase in harmony/wellbeing of the families participated in the testing.  Participants noted lessons learned about the value of quality childcare and the large amount of time spent together by couples from their joint participation in activities during the testing process such as travel together for the activities and participation in training. Participants also indicated a higher ability to withstand the economic shocks of COVID and drought during the testing period. 
The longer-term indicators, such as men advocating on behalf of women, women having access to and control of key family resources, and women having more leisure time, can be seen to greatly increase the agency of women.  Thus, the shift towards gender equity is strengthened because both men and women have gained awareness and confidence, learned new skills, and augmented their social assets with redefined and transformed gender relationships, increased community recognition and support for women’s equal role in both household and community. 
*Names have been changed to protect participant identities 

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