We Grandmothers Know Plenty: Breastfeeding, Complementary Feeding and the Multifaceted Role of Grandmothers in Malawi

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Social Science and Medicine





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This paper has two purposes: first of all, we examine grandmothers' role and views of child feeding practices in northern Malawi, and their influence on younger women's practices. Secondly, we consider the implications of these findings for health promotion activities and models of health education. Data were collected from semi-structured interviews, focus groups and a participatory workshop. Findings demonstrate that, to address child feeding practices which have an effect on nutrition, attention must be paid to the broader context that influences child nutrition, including extended family relations. Paternal grandmothers have a powerful and multifaceted role within the extended family in northern Malawi, both in terms of childcare and in other arenas such as agricultural practices and marital relations. Grandmothers often differ in their ideas about early child feeding from conventional Western medicine. Some practices have existed in the area at least since colonial times, and have strong cultural significance. Despite the important integrated role, older women have within households and communities in this part of Malawi, hospital personnel often have disparaging and paternalistic attitudes towards ‘grannies’ and their knowledge. Health education rarely involves grandmothers, and even if they are involved, their perspectives are not taken into consideration. Hospital staff often reject grandmother knowledge as part of a broader modernization paradigm which views ‘traditional knowledge’ as backward. Grandmothers view current child health conditions within a broader context of changing livelihood conditions and a high prevalence of HIV/AIDS. The paper concludes by discussing the challenges of involving grandmothers in health education, and the difficulties of incorporating local knowledge into a medical system that largely rejects it.