When I visited the Milind Nagar Anganwadi in Pimpri-Chinchwad, Pune in the month of March 2020 the COVID19 pandemic scare had just started rearing its head. Parents were trickling in to pick up food packets of the afternoon ‘khau’ in Anganwadi Centres as the children were kept safe at home. While Rohini Chittaranjan Joshi has been an Anganwadi Sevika for the last 30 years of her life, she’s started seeing male fathers being actively involved in their child’s development in the last two years only.
“It’s actually amusing because some of these men used to come to this same Anganwadi when they were children themselves,” Rohini shares. “Now that they’ve grown up into capable men, I don’t need to convince them about the importance of nutrition and childcare as much as I had to 30 years ago.”
Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) is a government programme in India which provides food, preschool education, primary healthcare, immunization, health check-up and referral services to children under 6 years of age and their mothers. Even though the programme used to be targeted for mothers as parents, in the last two years, active programmatic efforts are being made to ensure that male caretakers are involved too. The Poshan Pakhwada’s key message this year was ‘Men for Nutrition – Increasing Male Involvement in Poshan Abhiyaan to Improve Nutrition Indicators’. I wanted to inquire how do Anganwadi Sevikas ensure male engagement through their everyday efforts?
Through public meetings, home visits and the Poshan Pakhwada celebrations, Anganwadi Sevikas all over Maharashtra have been equipping fathers to interact with their children, break their own gender barriers and share more responsibilities around the household. “I demonstrate how fathers can banter with their child while bathing them, washing their hands, and feeding them. These instructions are especially welcome in the migrant families where the family consists of only the parents and children. Men have to take up responsibilities,” shares Joshi.
All the Anganwadi Sevikas I interacted with mentioned that both fathers and grandfathers are keen to know more about the child. But there are still certain barriers that keep men from being fully involved in their child’s formative years. Kiran Shivsharan, another Anganwadi Sevika from Gautam Nagar, Pimpri shares, “In my community, male involvement in meetings often deterred mothers from joining in. As women ourselves, we did face some hesitancy and perhaps shyness in interacting with men. Moreover, as my Anganwadi is quite small, both parents cannot fit in for every meeting.”
Men, like women, are also bound by the gender norms of their community. “Men from my community started participating with more outdoor chores like registering their pregnant wife with us or getting them for vaccination and periodic visit. But as more fathers have started breaking barriers by getting involved in household chores, more men feel like joining in,” says Meera Pandirkar, an Anganwadi Sevika in Mandangad, Ratnagiri. While Shalaka Pawar from Anganwadi states, “We need to target attitudes. And apart from the ICDS programme, a lot of other initiatives like the Self-Help Groups, Gram Panchayat’s programmes also talk about gender equality at home.” The cross-programme efforts have helped in creating an enabling environment at the village level as a whole.
Anganwadi Sevikas all over Maharashtra have been taking innovative steps to ensure fathers, who often come from working class families, are reached out to creatively. “I always schedule my home visits on Thursdays,” says Kiran Shivsharan. “With weekly power cuts on the same day, it is easier to reach them. Also, because, I have Muslim community members and reaching them on Fridays after prayers proves to be difficult.”
Meanwhile, in coastal Maharashtra, fishermen return from the sea only in the afternoon. Sunaina Sotekar, an Anganwadi Sevika for Valmiki Nagar, Veshvi, Mandangad shares, “I had to schedule all my Poshan Pakhwada events in the afternoon as that’s the time when men are most likely to come for the community programmes, after they return from fishing.”
“I ensure that I keep reiterating the progress of their child every single time a father comes to pick up their child. This ensures that fathers feel more invested in their child’s progress,” shares Meera Pandirkar. Grandfathers are also a slightly easier target group to work with.
Meanwhile Rohini Joshi finds technology helpful to engage fathers. “At the end of every Poshan Pakhwada event, whether it is Haat Bazaars or Palak Melawas, I send WhatsApp photos to fathers’ numbers.” With the COVID 19 outbreak, parents were weary of sending their children to community spaces. Hopefully, in the oncoming lockdown, fathers get to be hands-on parents as families get a chance to spend more with their children.