Science - October 14, 2004

Men’s gambling leads to underfed children

Child malnutrition is a growing problem in the Philippines. Women should have more say about how to spend the household income if the situation is to be improved, because men spend more on gambling, drinking and smoking. Development programmes should not only target women, as they do now, but should re-educate men.

Sociologist Emy Balatibat compared two different regions in the Philippines on household livelihoods, food security and nutrition of children. In a lowland area in Southern Luzon children’s growth was stunted due to an insufficient diet, but in a coastal area on the island of Leyte, children were also underweight. This is because people in the coastal area depend on only one source of livelihood, fishing. During the rainy season the sea is too wild to go fishing and as a result people experience food shortages for five months of the year, and have little alternative income from other jobs. In the lowland area on the other hand people have more opportunities outside agriculture. By diversifying their livelihood strategies they are better able to cope with food insecurity.
Balatibat found that it is the women in particular who are overburdened in times of food insecurity. They are often the ones to get extra jobs, but reproductive tasks like taking care of the children are only to a limited extent taken over by men. In the coastal areas the problem is more severe, as the only options open to women are physically demanding work to earn extra income. In the lowland area women are better educated and can therefore get better jobs. Overburdened women tend to take less good care of their children, leading to malnutrition.
Livelihood is one of the preconditions for improving food security, but even if a household has a good livelihood and enough food, it still is no guarantee for better child nutrition, Balatibat concludes. Men are in generally in charge of the household and decide how the household income is to be spent. And quite often they spend more money on gambling on cock fighting or playing cards, drinking or cigarettes than women would do. Women should become more independent of men economically and have the power to decide how to spend income to improve child nutrition, Balatibat says. In the coastal area women depended more on men than in the lowland area, because in the lowland area women have their own jobs.
Current development programmes often target women to educate them on the importance of good nutrition for children. But, says Balatibat, women know about that. The problem is that they can do little with this knowledge when they have no power to decide to spend more money on food for children. Like the women’s classes, extension workers should set up men’s classes to make them understand the importance of nutrition for their children. / JT

Emy Balatibat defends her PhD thesis this Friday, 15 October. She was supervised by Professor Anke Niehof, professor of the sociology of consumers and households.