A Ugandan woman and her child prepare a meal together | Photo: Gwen Varley
A Ugandan woman and her child prepare a meal together | Photo: Gwen Varley

Gwen Varley* and Winifred Candiru* |

Motherhood can come with tremendous pressures: many women struggle with balancing care work with other work obligations, mental health challenges, physical complications of childbirth, fatigue, and a slew of gendered norms and expectations. These pressures are all the more intensified for women living in extreme poverty and facing worries about whether they can provide their children a steady, nutritious diet of diverse, nourishing foods, or, in many cases, whether they can provide them a meal at all.

Development programmes targeting children’s nutrition aim to intervene in this struggle, providing women with information and resources to improve the nutritional quality of their children’s diets. However, attempts to alleviate these nutritional challenges can backfire without a thorough understanding of women’s empowerment, and development programmes can easily fall into the trap of ‘instrumentalism’. Instrumentalism is an approach that frames women’s empowerment as a tool for achieving another development outcome, rather than as an important outcome in its own right. In the case of nutrition, when viewing women’s empowerment primarily as a factor in improving children’s nutrition, it can become tempting to focus on individual women’s choices and behaviours as ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, depending on their impact on children’s nutritional health. This approach restricts women’s agency, assigns them disproportionate responsibility for their child’s health, and therefore disempowers them. [1-4]

A reproductive justice framework provides an alternative approach. Founded upon the experiences of feminists of colour in the US, reproductive justice focuses on expanding all women’s ability to choose if, when, and how they would like to parent [5-6]. This perspective makes it impossible to ignore the broader life context that surrounds parenting decisions. For example, some women struggle to feed their children as they would wish, partly because they were unable to space their children’s births in the way they wanted. Other women stretch scarce income by buying fewer types of food in order to save money for their children’s education. Others lack the time to grow and cook the foods they would prefer because they are overwhelmed by both productive and reproductive work demands. Reproductive work, sometimes referred to as ‘social reproduction’, refers to activities associated with biological reproduction, including childbearing and nurture, among other care-giving and domestic tasks. Most of it is unpaid, unrecorded and undertaken primarily by women. Productive work, on the other hand, is paid work involving goods and services with a monetary value and is included in calculation of a nation’s economic performance.

A reproductive justice approach recognises the complex trade-offs and difficult decisions that impoverished mothers often have to make. It centres on women’s own values and aspirations in parenting, prioritising the changes and choices that women themselves would like to make, thereby both trusting and empowering them to be capable parents.

Changing social norms can be a painfully slow process, and the endeavour of raising healthy children will likely continue to be fraught with gender inequities for the foreseeable future, in most contexts. We urge research and development programmes to place women’s empowerment front and centre, and to actively employ in their work a reproductive justice framework, which provides a useful guide in mapping pathways toward a more equitable society.

Read the other articles in our IWD 2022 series here

References and notes

*Dr Gwen Varley completed her PhD in Development Studies at NRI, University of Greenwich, UK, 2022. She is currently a Postdoctoral Researcher in the Division of Rural Development at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences.

*Winifred Candiru is a social scientist with over 8 years’ experience in development work, socioeconomic research, monitoring and evaluation. She is based in Kampala, Uganda and holds an MA in sociology and a post graduate diploma in monitoring and evaluation. 

[1] Caplan, P. J., & Hall‐McCorquodale, I. (1985). Mother‐blaming in major clinical journals. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 55(3), 345-353.

[2] McKerracher, L., Moffat, T., Barker, M., Williams, D., & Sloboda, D. M. (2019). Translating the Developmental Origins of Health and Disease concept to improve the nutritional environment for our next generations: a call for a reflexive, positive, multi-level approach. Journal of Developmental Origins of Health and Disease, 10(4), 420-428.

[3] Richardson, S. S., Daniels, C. R., Gillman, M. W., Golden, J., Kukla, R., Kuzawa, C., & Rich-Edwards, J. (2014). Society: don't blame the mothers. Nature, 512(7513), 131-132.

[4] Sharp, G. C., Lawlor, D. A., & Richardson, S. S. (2018). It's the mother!: How assumptions about the causal primacy of maternal effects influence research on the developmental origins of health and disease. Social Science & Medicine, 213, 20-27.

[5] Price, K. (2010). What is reproductive justice? How women of color activists are redefining the pro-choice paradigm. Meridians, 10(2), 42-65.

[6] Luna, Z. & Luker, K. (2013). Reproductive Justice. Annual Review of Law and Social Science.