Power, gender, and equality in a time of global change

May 23, 2019
IDRC / Greg Teckles

Part of a series of articles on Solutions for Gender Equity

The world is facing an era of unprecedented global changes. Wide-ranging socioeconomic and environmental shifts are having a negative impact on some of the world’s most vulnerable regions.

In semi-arid regions of Kenya, for example, pastoralist men and women rely on livestock. The livestock, in turn, rely on people to lead them to pasture, to milk them, and to provide them with water — a necessity that is becoming even scarcer because of drought. 

Nitya Rao, professor of gender and development at the UK’s University of East Anglia, explains that smallholder livestock keepers have two choices when the usual water sources dry up. “They can water their cattle in the village itself,” she says, “in which case they’re using the same water points that women are using to collect domestic water.” This option often puts women at the end of the line at the usual water sources.

A second option, Rao continues, is for men, who are deemed owners of the livestock, to move cattle far from the village in search of water. In this scenario, women can no longer milk the animals each day and sell the milk for family income. This situation has dire ripple effects, forcing women to find other livelihoods. Rao’s research identified cleaning, laundry, and other domestic work as safe work possibilities, while documenting the much higher risks faced by women who had to move into the sex trade.

Rao is one of more than 100 researchers working in the eight-country, seventeen-institution Adaptation at Scale in Semi-Arid Regions (ASSAR) consortium, one of four consortia belonging to the Collaborative Adaptation Research Initiative in Africa and Asia (CARIAA). Through CARIAA and other IDRC-supported projects, researchers are seeking ways to accelerate effective climate adaptation and improve food security, and to do so in a way that is truly representative, equitable, and inclusive of the most marginalized people.

Yet many groups — particularly women, girls, and Indigenous peoples — suffer disproportionately from climate stresses, food insecurity, and related challenges. Research teams are tackling some of these realities by integrating gender-focused approaches into justice and community-based dialogue. The result is solutions that are helping women and girls, improving community resilience, transforming food systems, and enhancing the livelihoods of vulnerable peoples across the Global South.

Redefine resilience to include gender equality

There is a perfect storm affecting many parts of Africa and Asia, Rao said at an IDRC-sponsored panel in February 2019. Environmental stresses interact with climate adaptation to push once-stable communities to migrate in search of solutions.

ASSAR’s findings on gender relations point to the myriad ways women are diversifying livelihoods and sometimes suffering for it. “The state is also very blind to power inequalities,” Rao said. Lack of childcare, healthcare, and education about protecting sexual or reproductive health are new crises that ASSAR has identified as offshoots of the climate-generated disaster of drought.

Another of ASSAR’s researchers, Daniel Morchain, spoke about creating an opportunity where community members felt they could contribute to the climate adaptation debate and help researchers redefine resilience. “Resilience is something that traditionally has been very much about physical hazards, but little by little, it's becoming more about rights, entitlement, and gender equality,” he says.

But untangling the tension and interplay between climate and gender — and social equity and power — sometimes requires a more creative approach, in Morchain’s experience. In South Africa, he recently employed the dramatic technique popularly known as Theatre of the Oppressed to highlight differing views on climate adaptation. In a township rife with poverty and violence, the technique led women to reject a proposal from a large development bank to re-roof homes as a blanket solution to overheating. Instead, the women called for consultations with community stakeholders in the interest of pursuing effective, appropriate, locally-relevant climate action.

Acknowledge women’s roles in farming

In Nepal’s rural regions, a survey carried out by another CARIAA consortium, Himalayan Adaptation, Water and Resilience (HI-AWARE), showed that more than 85% of residents perceived changes to agriculture due to climate change. For men, climate adaptation frequently involves relocating, sometimes internationally, in search of reliable living wages. Women have mostly remained on the land.

Climate-based migration has complex and serious effects on female-headed households, said Amina Maharjan, a migration specialist with the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development who has spent the last four years as a researcher with HI-AWARE. “Now, the heart and the head [of the home] is all on women. You keep adding to the burden but then you have no support for the women to take it on,” she added, citing the example of Nepal’s agricultural extension program, which failed to adapt to the reality of women as farmers by redirecting its support from them. “When women migrate, that's when [land] abandonment happens,” she warned.

Also a panelist at IDRC’s February event, Maharjan spoke about the tough choices that community researchers had to make when training women to grow off-season vegetables in an urban area. The project was successful because women’s work soon generated household income.

“Suddenly, in all the meetings, it’s the husbands who are coming,” she said. The husbands told the project’s animators that their wives were at home. “Because the income increased, it’s now men’s role. That was a challenge…and we had to say no, we only train the [women] members, and not members’ spouses or children. We had to take a stand.”

Transform power relations for food security

In Kenya, a 30-month IDRC project led by CARE Canada aimed to produce evidence on how transforming gender relations can affect a household’s food security. “We need to recognize that agency building, skills building, only takes you so far,” said Maureen Kemunto Miruka, a panelist representing CARE USA at the IDRC-sponsored event.

In the past, development approaches have often focused on improving women’s market literacy and offering access to credit. To address structural and systemic issues around gender and power, Miruka has been encouraging approaches that transform gender power relations.

Men and women from almost 500 households in Kinangop, about 100 km north of Nairobi, have been sitting together in gender dialogues on issues such as agriculture, climate impacts, and food security. “We take men and women through reflection spaces, through gender dialogues, using specific tools, where they reflect upon the social norms,” she said.

“There is a myth that social change takes a long time, but after one year of implementing such a program, we’ve seen significant changes in men’s workload sharing and care giving. What we hope to see at the end of three years is more systemic changes, such as men allocating the productive pieces of land to their wives and spouses and really considering women as partners.”

An important goal in gender dialogue, she added, is for men to regard women’s empowerment “not as a threat to their masculinity, but rather as a benefit to the household.”

Nitya Rao, Daniel Morchain, Amina Maharjan, and Maureen Kemunto Miruka were panelists in the “Solutions for Gender Equality” speaker series. They spoke at the panel discussion “Challenging Power Structures in the Context of Global Change” on February 6, 2019, in Ottawa, Canada. The speaker series builds a narrative of IDRC’s efforts to support gender equality globally leading up to Women Deliver, an international conference on gender equality taking place in Vancouver from June 3-6, 2019.