Cultural Values are Hindering Women’s Physical Activity

Physical activity is a crucial part of a healthy lifestyle. In most countries, however, men are more likely to be active than women.

Cultural values and traditions can influence levels of physical activity among women. There is often a lack of safe, affordable and appropriate programs and places where girls and women can be active.

Globally, inactivity is the fourth leading cause of death.

Exercise is a necessity for good health. It can prevent noncommunicable diseases, such as cardiovascular diseases, depression, breast and colon cancer and type 2 diabetes. But it isn’t only about sports – the World Health Organization (WHO) defines physical activity as “any bodily movement produced by skeletal muscle that requires energy expenditure”. This means that cycling to work or school, taking the stairs, and walking instead of taking the bus all count.

As stated in the WHO’s Global Action Plan on Physical Activity 2018-2030, physical activity needs to be integrated into people’s everyday life. However, this can be challenging if cultural values don’t allow it.

In Pakistan, girls and women who cycle may experience resistance. In Saudi Arabia, women are allowed to cycle, but only on beaches and in parks and only while remaining close to their male guardian.

Women who perform sports often experience opposition based on cultural norms.

Based on a true story, the Indian movie Dangal tells the story of a father who opposes traditions and cultural values and raises and trains his two daughters Geeta Phogat and Babita Kumari to win India’s first international gold medal in female wrestling. This raises quite a few eyebrows in the community.

At first, the girls loathe the training and want to be like other girls, but when the sisters complain to a friend about their father and the tough training they have to endure she replies: “I wish God had given me such a father. When a girl is born here, the only thought is to teach her household work and get her married off at 14”. Geeta and Babita’s mother initially opposes the training. In one scene, she asks her husband “Who will marry our girls?”The father confidently replies, “I will make our girls so capable that boys will not choose them, they will choose boys”.

Of course, the story is not only about choosing a life partner. It’s about gaining confidence, physical and mental strength and allowing women to decide for themselves how they want to live their lives.

When women are discouraged from being active, whether it’s walking, cycling or performing sports, their right to health is under attack.


So, what can we do to promote physical activity for women?

Emphasize the importance of physical activity for health. Physical activity is essential for good health and this should be stressed in the face of resistance.

Demand safe spaces for women. Sports and physical activity should be for all. In places where women don’t feel safe walking or cycling or when performing sports, advocacy is needed.

Encouragement is key. Just as Geeta and Babita’s father encouraged his daughters to train, we need to encourage our children and young people.

Be the change you want to see. To change cultural values and traditions we need to see women doing sports or being physically active. Don’t wait for an invitation. Women need to conquer the streets, whether on bikes or on foot just as we need to take our rightful place in the gym and in sports.

Health is a human right and physical activity plays a huge role in a healthy lifestyle.

How can physical activity be promoted for women in your community? Post your suggestions in the comment section!

In Conversation with Natasha Salifyanji Kaoma

Allow us to introduce you to Natasha Salifyanji Kaoma! Natasha is a Zambian medical doctor and the founder of Copper Rose Zambia – an organization working to advance adolescent sexual and reproductive health.

We sat down with Natasha to talk about starting her own organization, the taboo around menstruation and abortion, and how she takes care of her own wellbeing in her work. 

“I noticed a menstrual hygiene problem in my school. Not because the girls couldn’t afford the products, but most people didn’t know what was going on with their bodies.”

It can be incredibly challenging to work on issues considered to be taboo, sensitive or ‘controversial’, but Natasha clearly isn’t going to let societal norms in Zambia – or anywhere else in the world – stand in her way. 

“I believe that women, if empowered, can change the narrative of the African continent.”

This video was made possible through a generous grant from SayItForward.org in support of women’s advocacy messages.

What Can I Tell You About Uganda?

What do you know about Uganda? I asked myself while booking my flight to Entebbe. That was two months ago.

I have been working for the Swedish Organization for Global Health for almost 2 years now and involved in the evaluation of our project on maternal and newborn health in Uganda (Mama & Family Project) for more than year. I should know a lot.

But, knowing a place based on paper, other people’s experience, and Google is not really knowing a place. The only way to truly know about a country and its culture is to experience them for yourself.

As my plane took off, ideas and images swirled in my head, some based on pictures I had seen and some creations of my imagination. I was excited and open to the challenge of truly discovering the country and the work. I had a smile on my face when I landed. Ready to learn! I thought to myself.

Geographically, Uganda is located on the Central East part of the African continent. It is surrounded by many countries, Kenya, Tanzania, South Sudan, Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo. Though not located on a coast, Uganda has a great source of water, Late Victoria – the biggest tropical lake on earth. However, this is information that you could easily find on Google. What can I tell you about Uganda that you cannot find out yourself on the internet?

I can tell you about ‘You’re Welcome!’ – the phrase I heard the most during my time in Iganga, a small city located around 3 hours east of Entebbe. ‘You’re welcome!’, not as a response to my ‘thank you’, but as ‘Hello, we are happy to have you here’. I immediately felt at home in a place I had never been before with people I had never met. This is what Uganda felt to me: welcoming.

Scientists, who didn’t know me at all, welcomed me at their amazing research facility of infectious diseases in Entebbe. The UDHA team welcomed me when I arrived at the office the next day. Fancy, a midwife of the Mama & Family Project, welcomed me at the Maina Clinic. The women in the villages I visited welcomed my excited soul and shy presence. 

SOGH Mama & Family Team. Photo Credit: SOGH

What else is Uganda (at least for me)? Uganda is red sand, everywhere. The sand gets into your shoes, into the tiny space between your glasses lenses and frame, even into your ears. But that color… That color just captured me. I was in love, I am in love with it. The warm feeling of the sun on the skin, a warm hug, that was, is, the red sand for me.

What would I miss the most about this place? You’re welcome, the red sand and for sure the people… Moses, Jarius, Sumaya, Fariba, John, Sulaiman, Tabisa, Rose, Zainabu, Olivia, Fancy, Sarah, Betty, the waitress at Smile and Dine, the nurse at the hospital, Joffrey, and many more. All the people I had met contributed to our work, not just by telling me about menstrual health in Uganda but also by giving me the opportunity to understand the culture and their country.

Menstrual health is a social issue because it doesn’t concern just health, but also education, infrastructures, culture and beliefs. Menstrual health is the kind of topic that needs cultural insight for true understanding.

What else is Iganga? Iganga is animals running around everywhere, chips from a street vendor, houses painted with coca cola commercials, music from a local band, water bottles, slow internet, car rides, ‘jumping’ roads, great driving skills, kids’ ‘hello, bye’, kids, kids and kids, walks, old men and checkers, becoming a ‘latrine pro’, slow pace, smiles and high dreams, collaboration, community and women, communities of women.

All bright and beautiful? No. Uganda is a low-middle income country. There is poverty, garbage piles, issues with sanitation, a high maternal and child mortality, malaria and other infectious diseases. However, many people already know about these issues. So, yes difficulties are there, but there is much more beyond those difficulties. Uganda is not the difficulties it faces, but the communities of people who rise up against them. Uganda is the community spirit of ‘going ahead, all together’.

Together we rise.

You’re welcome.

See you very soon, Uganda!

Burn the Dowry, Spare the Bride

India – a country of contrasts – shows you a myriad of colours. It is home to many highly educated and intelligent people, as well as to many who are illiterate, poor, hungry and troubled. India boasts the beautiful Himalayas, deep blue seas, green forests and glistening rivers, but also acres of slums and dry and parched lands.

The country is also famous for its big, fat Indian weddings – a major and thriving industry. But in India, the dowry system is an ever-present menace which frequently changes shape to adapt to society. Increasingly, dowry is being masked by more socially acceptable norms, such as gift-giving.

A car for your daughter to travel in.

A house for your daughter to live comfortably in.

Gold jewellery to give her security in the future.

These lines by a groom’s family mask dowry demands as gifts. How difficult would it be to understand that this was extortion? The bride’s family had no intention of giving such ‘gifts’ to their daughter. But now they have been made to make them!

The girl’s family may find it easy to turn a blind eye, and to tell themselves that they are simply gifting their daughter. Who else did they earn money for all their life? Their daughter needs to get married after all! It is the most important identity for a woman. She may be well educated, earning enough to feed an entire family, raising the bar at her workplace, but if she’s unmarried she is viewed by many as incomplete.

For some, it ends on the wedding day. The groom and his family’s ego have been appeased. The newlyweds go on to live a happy life. But for some others, the demands continue. The first festival, the first child, the naming ceremony, the first house that the new couple build, and at every other occasion – the bride’s family must gift again. Sweets, clothes, gold, cash – the list is endless. If the parents are unable to provide, the woman is often packed off back to her mother’s house, not to return till the demands are met. Some are physically and emotionally abused; beaten, starved and even burnt.

India has had a long battle against dowry – an unsuccessful one. Legislations have been made and amended. But the practice seems to be growing. It has spared no economic or social group. The battle lines must now be altered. What can be done when law has not eradicated the problem? Why not focus on the one link that can be our biggest asset? The bride’s parents!

This is a call to parents of every girl child in every country where the dowry system is flourishing. Why should we not say no? It starts with the birth of our daughters. Let us give them a good education, a good upbringing, a happy and safe environment at home and combine all this with a good dose of self confidence and self esteem. Let us say no to any potential groom and his family who talk about marriage like a business transaction. Let us stand strong and firm so our daughters learn from us to say no.

Let us teach them that life throws us many challenges. That we are all supposed to enjoy the journey of life – marriage is never the final destination. It is one part of our journey. Let us give our daughters the confidence to walk out of a marriage where they are being abused and harassed for dowry, knowing that it is not the end of the world. Let there be no more burned brides, hanged brides, poisoned brides or strangulated brides.

Maybe the power has been with us all along. It is time to exercise it. To show the world that every single woman’s life matters. Let us bring forth a change, and let us start at home.

My Journey of Political Courage, Resistance & Solidarity

Earlier this year, I was glad to be present to support a close friend in the miracle that is child birth. I stood by her through her unmedicated birth plan navigated by calculated breathing and back rubs, and through the eventual contractions that culminated in the birth of a beautiful baby girl.

Being an afternoon of many firsts, I also guided them in their first bonding experience between mother and child – breastfeeding. Having gone through this myself (my daughter turns four next month!), I am glad to be able to support my friend and her baby through the recommended 6 months of exclusive breastfeeding and beyond.

Great news indeed, but the journey of breastfeeding is still laced with many social, economic and political challenges to be overcome. Culture remains a great influence on the uptake of positive breastfeeding practices, especially in the African context. Positive social and cultural beliefs and practices which associate breastmilk with intellectual development and general good health encourage breastfeeding. On the other hand, long-standing myths and misconceptions weaved through cultural beliefs continue to be perpetuated from one generation to another and influence breastfeeding outcomes.

I confronted many myths in my own breastfeeding journey:

Myth 1: Breast milk alone is not enough to support optimal growth

According to WHO, exclusive breastfeeding is the practice of feeding only breast milk (including expressed breast milk) and no other liquids or solids with the exception of drops or syrups consisting of vitamins, mineral supplements or medicine and oral rehydration solution(ORS). When I was breastfeeding my daughter, I often received unsolicited advice on why breast milk was not adequate. For example, I was advised to supplement breast milk with water so that the baby does not get dehydrated or wean her off at 3 months to reduce and/or prevent colic.  What we know, though, is that breast milk’s composition changes from one feeding to another to meet baby’s physical, growth and developmental needs. Even over a single feed – it is higher in water content at first to quench the baby’s thirst and then the nutrient composition increases with time.

Myth 2: Breastfeeding is old fashioned & for poor people who cannot afford infant formula

I encountered social pressure from friends who felt that breastfeeding was old-fashioned and some wondered whether it was because we couldn’t afford infant formula. This meant that I received tins upon tins of infant formula with every visit. Needless to say, both baby and I boycotted any such offers – much to the chagrin of the gift bearers. The role of corporations in advancing aggressive marketing strategies that undermine breastfeeding and mothers’ confidence must be checked. The International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN) (which monitors countries’ compliance with the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes) indicates that the world’s largest baby food companies are violating the Code which demands all communication to be ‘honest, truthful and not misleading’. Closely connected to this marketing gimmick is messaging that some mothers naturally do not produce enough milk. What this means is that a lot of young mothers ‘think’ they are choosing to breastfeed and then formula feed but in reality, they are actually responding to ‘profit-driven’ marketing strategies through advertisements and manipulation of health workers by corporations that eventually become passed on as culture.

Myth 3: ‘Evil eye’ if you breastfeed in public

Being the extrovert I am, this is a myth I encountered frequently! According to some African traditions, it is believed that if you breastfeed in public you could be watched by people believed to have an ‘evil eye’ –  basically a glare associated with witchcraft. Apparently, this can result in breast milk production stopping prematurely or mothers developing breast sores. This, coupled with disapproving looks I had to contend with when breastfeeding in public, meant that I had to premeditate my movements and compromise on which functions I attended – especially if I was planning to go with baby. For most mothers, this may prompt them to avoid breastfeeding or stop altogether, especially when attending public gatherings or generally being in public.

The female body is too often considered public domain open to ogling and scrutiny. On top of this, breastfeeding within a hypersexualized culture reduces female breasts to sexual objects and the mere act of nursing is laced with sexual undertones. The combined effect is another common belief among young mothers – that breastfeeding for prolonged durations will make their breasts sag and consequently unattractive.

Not all mothers are able to breastfeed their babies for a huge variety of reasons and the choice to breastfeed ultimately rests with the mother. For me, the choice to breastfeed was an act of resistance to the hold of patriarchy and capitalism has on our minds, bodies, and lives. I contend that in addition to public health interventions to promote breastfeeding, it will take political courage, resistance and solidarity to truly interrogate the preconditions under which women can freely decide to breastfeed.