Making My Problems Your Problems, Too

This year’s Climate and Society class is out in the field (or lab or office) completing a summer internship or thesis. They’ll be documenting their experiences one blog post at a time. Read on to see what they’re up to.

Saroja Schwager, C+S ’18

Women working in a rice field in Junagadh, Gujarat, India (Source: Bernard Gagnon )

One question kept lurking in the back of my mind: where are all the men? For weeks, I had been scrolling through Google Scholar, Science Direct and other various databases in a search for literature about incorporating more gender awareness into development, agricultural and climate services projects. And yet nearly every reference I came across about gender awareness in these areas was written by a woman. This discovery is surprising when considering a recent report in the Conversation, which found that women made up less than 25 percent of first authors (i.e. the lead researcher) in the most prestigious science journals. Even worse, only slightly more than 15 percent of people in the last author spot (often the project’s supervisory position) were women. But while women aren’t producing anywhere near as much scientific literature as men overall, they certainly are dominating the field of gender research.

This issue is disquieting for the basic fact that any work that disregards issues relevant to half the world’s population is inherently flawed. Gender inequalities are easy to dismiss because they are often highly complex, easily misunderstood or overlooked, and/or simply viewed solely as a “women’s problem.” Yet those women experts in gender issues have made great strides in identifying methods that can acknowledge gender differences while also enhancing project effectiveness. What follows here are three short, simple steps for making development projects—and other projects in general—more gender-transformative.

Let me first briefly note that the term gender-transformative refers to any effort to improve relations and roles between men and women, promote women’s rights and responsibilities, and allocate women more access to and control of resources and decision-making authority. These steps show that gender issues are general issues because they matter to everyone.

Step 1: Talk to Women, Not About Them

This first step—a shockingly simple one—is to directly ask women what they think about their lives, their activities and their freedom (or lack thereof). Don’t just talk to men during an intervention, especially when you want information about women. Talk to both genders, separately and together. Furthermore, when conducting household surveys, record the original words of women whenever possible. Not only does it improve the accuracy of the data, it also provides a more rich and powerful understanding of what women really think and experience.

In Southeast Asia, for example, researchers have ensured an ongoing project is impressively gender-responsive by incorporating gender-aware questions about how farmers make decisions using weather and climate information. Questions are posed to both women and men, together and separately, and touch on issues ranging from access to information to formal and informal types of labor to decision-making.

They include two-part questions like, “in your household, who commonly makes the decisions, you, your husband or both of you together? What happens if you disagree?” That last question is particularly illuminating because when the interviewer follows up, they nearly always find that in the case of a disagreement, the husband has the final say. Without that additional question, you’re left with a different, less nuanced understanding of who really is in control. If someone’s decision is never accepted and followed, then they never had true authority to begin with.

Step 2: Enable Women’s Participation

Any project should also involve women more in the process itself. Doing so can have researchers better understand a problem or knowledge gap. But the benefits go even deeper than that.

A 2017 case study of a microfinancing project in rural Indian villages chronicled the profound impact that such involvement can have on women themselves. By self-monitoring their activities, women participants gained increased financial literacy, cultivated stronger social ties with other women in their group and achieved a greater sense of confidence and control over their own lives. Additionally, when reflecting on existing social and cultural norms concerning child marriage, child labor and dowries, women found themselves considering such issues with a more honest and critical lens. Without the fear and worry that accompanies economic dependency, the women were able to challenge what they had previously accepted without thought. By enabling agency and control in one area of a woman’s life, she is more emboldened to seek it elsewhere.

Step 3: Support Women’s Self-Empowerment

Lastly, support women in their empowerment process. Gender-transformative efforts acknowledge that women have their own specific needs and face their own specific challenges. Collectively, society needs to redistribute resources and responsibilities to address those needs and challenges. An integral component in such work is to encourage and aid women in recognizing and acknowledging their personal self-worth and self-determination. Empowerment does not come from external actors; instead, it depends on women advocating for themselves wherever possible. An external support system can be incredibly helpful, especially in situations where gender issues are met with indifference or even hostility. Women’s groups, for example, have been found to be particularly effective in rural communities at disseminating climate information by word of mouth. In areas where women’s education is restricted and their mobility limited, local women’s groups are often the largest contributor to women’s knowledge growth.

Women’s empowerment: what works? (Source: Cornwall, A. )

Since that literature search, I’ve come to realize what was so bothersome about that lopsided gender distribution of authors. It goes back to the fact that it’s easy to ignore an issue when you think it doesn’t directly affect you. But women’s issues don’t exist in a vacuum; they affect everyone and should therefore matter to everyone. These simple steps are a good start, for both men and women, in tackling this problem. Maybe when I see more male author bylines appear in article searches related to gender issues, then I’ll worry less about how far we have to go.

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