Changing Behavior, Changing Lives in Burkina Faso

Shifting habits and adapting cultural customs are often vital steps to improving food security. With the support of the Government as well as cultural and religious leaders, the World Food Programme (WFP) is helping Burkinabe families rethink social norms, for the benefit of the entire community. 

A man goes to get water, another carries a millet grinder. A woman manages her own income and influences decisions that affect her family. Just a few years ago, such scenes were few and far between in Burkina Faso.

Patriarchal traditions persist in this Sahelian country; women are responsible for a number of laborious tasks but rarely have a strong voice or influence over household decision-making, to the detriment of community development, agricultural production and well-being of families.

Since 2012, however, these norms have been evolving slowly but surely, in large part due to an awareness campaign on gender issues affecting nutrition and food security led by WFP, in close collaboration with religious, cultural and community leaders and with the support of Burkina Faso’s ministers of Agriculture and Food Security, Gender and Women, and Health.

The campaign lasted from February to May again this year in the Center-North and East regions, where rates of moderate acute malnutrition are among the highest in the country (13.6 percent and 12.6 percent, respectively). Debates, conferences, home visits, theater and radio shows were used to raise awareness of these important issues.

In villages where the campaign is active, communities have already marked notable changes in behavior. Cultural leaders and heads of households are working to give women access to land and agricultural tools. Men have become more involved in improving nutrition and look to ensure equal participation among men and women in WFP-supported projects, such as those that restore soil and conserve water to improve agricultural production.

Within families, men are starting to allow their wives to access family grain reserves. Women say men now assist them with chores like collecting water and firewood, pounding millet, and bringing children to health centers. Many are also including women in family decision-making and have taken more responsibility for ensuring the nutrition of their children. In addition, women who previously could not go to the health center without authorization from their husbands now go on their own.

Communities are also slowly abandoning cultural practices that are contrary to good eating habits.  Traditional taboos, for example, forbid pregnant women from eating eggs for fear that their child will later become a thief; discourage children from eating liver, which is always reserved for the head of the family; and  prohibit a family’s eldest daughter from eating chicken.

Raising awareness around issues such as hygiene, basic food needs, and the use of local products contributes to improved nutrition among young children as well as the entire household.

“My husband now asks for my opinion on questions affecting our household. From now on, the goats I raise for him will be my property, though I will contribute to educating our children. I am proud because I now have responsibility in the family,” recounts Youmali Onadja de Pama, from the East region.

The involvement of cultural and religious heads as well as community leaders in the awareness campaign has been vital to its success. With their support, the campaign has promoted better understanding of and adherence to targeted behaviors.

“In each village where we visited to follow up, we saw the start of positive changes to habits and behavior, especially related to the food and nutrition components of the campaign,” says M. Germain Ouali, Regional Director for the Promotion of Women and Gender in the East.

At a meeting to share results of the campaign, participants recommended implementing similar awareness projects in other areas. Neighbouring villages, observing the project’s success, have requested that their communities benefit from the same activities.