One afternoon in August, walking through green fields and a fine drizzle, nine women from Odisha’s Barhatipura village arrived at an anganwadi, a rural child care centre, its walls adorned with bright murals of birds, bees, flowers and wild animals.
They joined a discussion on maternal health, re-watching the videos that had spread awareness about pregnancy and post-natal nutrition in Keonjhar district, home to a number of tribal-dominated rural communities. One of the main topics of discussion was the foods that they were usually prevented from eating while pregnant as prevailing beliefs deem them unsafe for an expectant mother.
Jhuni Giri, a woman in her late 20s, says they usually ate vegetables grown in backyards, which ensured a wholesome diet, but certain food restrictions were observed when women were pregnant or lactating. “This would affect our health. Many women are not allowed to eat spinach and pumpkin once they conceive. They also avoid big fish, mushroom and okra.”
These restrictions on foods are often dictated by custom and habit. In Jagannathpur village, Chonchola Naik, one of the elders of the community, says she did not allow her daughters-in-law to consume spinach or poi saag during pregnancy as she believes it causes arthritis and diarrhoea. Mothers-in-law would take away eggs, mutton and fish served to women in hospitals and primary health centres as they considered them unsafe for new mothers, women at a meeting in nearby Baliposi said.
“What people eat or don’t eat varies, depending on the cultural beliefs of the different tribes,” said Delliswararao Konduru, a doctoral scholar at the department of anthropology at Pondicherry University. “But it’s economics and availability that play an important role in food taboos. Chicken and beef tend to be more affordable; fish is dearer in tribal areas,” he explains.
Konduru is the author of the paper A Brief Analysis of Food Practices and Food Taboos on Women Health in Andhra Pradesh, which was published in the International Journal of Community Medicine and Public Health in December 2019. “Some tribes prefer to eat local, especially during pregnancy,” he says, though there is no scientific evidence behind such practices, sometimes there is a need to respect certain cultural beliefs. “Taboos are not only restricted to tribal societies in rural areas but exist in urban areas, too. However, the difference is that in villages, taboos are observed strictly. In urban areas, such practices are flexible,” he adds.
For the past five years, two video projects have focused on changing people’s minds about food taboos. Upavan, which started in 2016, and Samvad, which ran from 2018 to this August, are managed by two non-profits, Varrat and Centre for Youth and Social Development, with support from international development organisation Digital Green. The videos feature local men and women talking about nutrition, growing their own vegetables, and how they have “defied food taboos” yet remained healthy. The videos are screened in common areas in the villages and are followed by discussions about health, food and nutrition.
Ronali Pradhan, Digital Green regional head for Odisha and Jharkhand, says they created the videos after conducting research to identify the food taboos, and calibrated the discussions to ensure that both older and younger women could speak freely without fear of judgement.
Apart from food restrictions, many women said they were not allowed more than two meals a day when they were pregnant as the local belief is that eating too much will prevent a normal delivery, says ASHA worker Bindubati Behera from Baliposi. The videos have helped change these misconceptions, she adds.
Many women across Keonjhar have started growing spinach after watching the videos. In Musakhori village, Sushmita Behera, 27, said she consumed spinach grown in her backyard throughout her pregnancy and safely delivered a boy, now 13 months old. “Now others in the village are beginning to think differently and focus on nutrition rather than worry about what not to eat,” she says.
“There is no dearth of fresh, organic food in these forested areas, and women often grow food in their backyards. But during pregnancy, the older generation tends to restrict younger women from eating certain foods such as papaya and drumstick, which are nutritious and commonly found. Such restrictions can lead to anaemia and malnutrition when they are not substituted by other foods,” says Krushna Chandra Barik, an independent social worker who focuses on maternal health and nutrition. He’s been working in the area for 15 years. “It will take time to change things on the ground,” he adds.