Men Eating First, Women Eating Leftovers Is ‘Normal’… And Begins From The Cradle

When women eat their meals after men, they often eat leftover food that is of lower quality than what they would consume if men and women ate together, says the study.

It was a small incident. But it got me thinking. I take chopped banana with oats every morning. My husband takes it as part of a fruit bowl. That day there was only one banana in the house and our domestic help, a gem of a person in other ways, decided to allocate it to my husband. There was no thought of giving us half each.

Somehow, his action smacked of patriarchy. I explained to him that men and women, girls and boys are equal, and there should be no discrimination between them. Did my message reach him?

Even today, in many households there is a practice of feeding the male members first. Giving them hot ‘rotis’. This is seen as ‘respecting’ the male members of the family, especially the elders. What about respecting the womenfolk?

A tradition of eating last

The iconic, award-winning 2021 Malayalam movie The Great Indian Kitchen shows how the mother-in-law and daughter-in-law are caught up in the daily grind of monotonous kitchen-related chores while the men of the family are engaged in reading the newspaper and yoga. Moreover, after every meal (naturally, the men eat first), the menfolk leave the table a mess not bothered that the women have to eat after them.

A 2021 study published on PLoS One titled ‘When women eat last: Discrimination at home and women’s mental health’ reveals that according to the 2011 India Human Development Survey in about a quarter of Indian households, women are expected to have their meals after men have finished eating. The primary data source for the study was a mobile phone survey of women aged 18-65 years.

The study reveals that this form of gender discrimination is associated with poor mental health outcomes for women for two reasons. Eating last may be associated with worse mental health because it is associated with worse physical health. Or, eating last may be associated with poor mental health because it is associated with less autonomy. Or, both.

Evidence from the US too finds that food insufficiency is strongly associated with women’s self-reported depression, says the study. Lower nutrient intake negatively impacts immunity and thus increases the risk of a variety of chronic diseases – both physical and mental.

This discrimination begins in the cradle

The study goes on to explain that girl babies are breastfed for shorter periods than boy babies. Girl children are given less and worse food than boy children. And, women, despite doing almost all of the cooking, are often expected to eat last. When women eat their meals after men, they often eat leftover food that is of lower quality than what they would consume if men and women ate together, says the study.

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Women who experience this type of gender discrimination are more likely to be underweight than women who don’t, at all levels of household expenditure, the study observes.

Research has shown that the impact of mid-day meal schemes in India are more on girls than boys in terms of school enrolment and retention. In the absence of such programmes, the boys were fed at home from the limited resources available and the girl child often goes almost hungry.  Kudos to such schemes. They have found a way out of gender discrimination in terms of food at least.

As for me, I wish I had been more aware of the subtle forms of gender discrimination all these years. But better a feminist late in life, than never!

Image source: a still from The Great Indian Kitchen

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About the Author

Aruna Raghuram

I am a freelance journalist and write on parenting, personalities, women’s issues, environment, and other social causes. read more...

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