Scaling back down: searching for local insights in a global gender dataset
A group of gender specialists from Humidtropics and its collaborating CGIAR Research Programs (CRPs) are currently meeting in a write shop in Stone Town, Zanzibar to draw out information from the GENNOVATE databank that provides compelling evidence of changing gender relations that can arguably be linked with changes in localized, multiple, and integrated farming systems.
GENNOVATE is a global qualitative comparative research initiative investigating how gender norms and agencies shape women’s and men’s innovation in agriculture and natural resource management (NRM). It is a collaborative research initiative involving gender researchers from eleven CRPs designed to use qualitative methodology across 135 rural communities in 26 countries. Through focus groups and individual interviews, GENNOVATE is engaging roughly 6,000 rural women and men of different socio-economic backgrounds and age groups in a discussion of these issues.
The three journal papers that will emerge from
this write shop will be a bit different. They are focusing on the data from just a few sites―ten Humidtropics study locations in Burundi, DRC, Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda, and Uganda.
This case-based gender analysis of a huge dataset is a befitting part of the Humidtropics legacy, which has always been about making collaborative research agendas locally relevant.
Most of us are already quite familiar with the data – in fact, some of us were involved in collecting it – but the first three days of the write shop have brought out a few lessons.
Many hours of work have already gone into the qualitative data organized in the GENNOVATE databank, from the original interviews and focus groups to translation and coding. But we have learned that the interpretive work needed to analyze the data has only begun with us, this week. It sometimes feels as if we are still sitting in a village meeting place with these focus groups speaking around us, trying to understand how the gender norms, opinions, and hopes we hear fit together into a single community of men and women.
Adding to this feeling, we are finding that ideas about gender can pop up at any moment, or in any field in the dataset. After initially looking for statements on changing gender norms in the responses to questions about change, for instance, we soon found that the respondents were just as likely to talk about changes anywhere they felt like it. Perhaps this is inevitable when working with a large tool gathering such a broad scope of information as GENNOVATE.
At the same time, our first three days have led us to reflect at length on our own definitions of central concepts in this field of research. We were all surprised by definitions that we thought we all shared at the outset, but working together, found to be a bit more complicated. This even included our definition of “norms”, which had us digging back into the literature somewhere in the middle of Day 2.
Lastly, the complexity and diversity of these ten case studies was hardly a surprise, but it has given us time to reflect. We have returned again and again to the question of the value of case studies such as these, which goes beyond simply informing the global understanding. Just as we find so much diversity in localities from just one or two African countries, we expect to uncover strong heterogeneity right across the whole GENNOVATE set of data from 26 countries all over the world. That larger project’s specialized data collection tools, nevertheless, also holds a lot of interesting promise for teasing out wider patterns that can inform more gender-inclusive agricultural research for development. As Thomas Hylland Eriksen argues eloquently in Small Places, Large Issues, “Societies may appear as both patterned and as chaotic, depending on the analytical perspective employed and on the empirical focus [2010(1995): 94].
By the end of Day 3, all three papers consisted of a detailed outline with a clear statement of purpose, central questions, and the elements of a conceptual framework to interpret the data. They are now set to be enriched with the voices of the women and men who participated in the fieldwork, and all of the local detail that will give context to these communities, their farming systems, and their gendered dimensions.
Where that will lead our three teams by the end of Day 4, we don’t yet know. This is still an exploration of the data and we can’t say where it will take us. GENNOVATE’s rich archive of voices on gender has been built up with global aspirations, but much like wandering the streets and alleys of Stone Town, there is much to discover in the local details.
Challenging gender norms: I need my freedom
This week in Zanzibar we have spent many hours discussing women’s mobility and agency and what constrains these. Spatial and social mobility of women linked to innovation is often not recognized or is limited and is further affected by gender norms. Gender norms exist in every society and do change over time, varying between age, sex, and context. Changes in gender practices of men and women as well as gender norms lead to greater access to resources (education, training etc.) and freedom of movement. Women, especially rural women, are consciously making efforts to build up their capacities for innovation to meet the demands of the family, especially where the husband is absent.
The myth of traditional norms that has restricted the female child from education is gradually fading away. Decisions on who to educate are based on performance rather than sex. Parents are committed to educating both male and female children, as they believe that this brings exposure to greater opportunities for jobs, higher wages, and consequently improved living standards for the family at large. However, the drudgery of acquiring the funds to educate children can be enormous, especially in a widow-headed household.
While considering theories about norms, and the ways they are debated by the focus groups in the GENNOVATE dataset, Gaya found that he was reminded of his mother. A remarkable woman, she taught him from an early age that there can be much agency for women in going against expectations. Here, he shares her story.
“My dad died when I was in secondary school and according to tradition, my mum was asked to marry my dad’s younger brother. But she refused and insisted on remaining a widow to care for me and my seven siblings. She was restricted from my father’s resources and was forced to move out. It was not an easy time for mum as all dad’s property was seized by his brothers and she was forced to move to the village to marry my uncle.
She decided to stay back in the city and engage in farming and selling of processed agricultural products in order to pay fees for her children’s education. She was refused credit to start up a business several times and was cursed for being poor and not being able to take care of her family. She managed to begin farming, however, and every morning she would go to the farm and in the evening prepare bean cakes and sell them. In the early evening she would sell at the motor park and in the late evenings carry on selling beside our compound. With this, she was able to educate seven children out of eight to the university level. She was shunned, called names, but she did not give up on catering for her children. What kept her going was the thought that the children would someday make her proud, and today many of my siblings are working in different organizations, all courtesy of her endurance.
Today my mum is regarded in her community as a heroine and is highly respected by everyone. Many widows in the community are emulating her example and are taking up the responsibility of catering for their children, challenging the very tradition and customs that have restricted women over the years”.
Social interpretations: Whose truth is it, anyway?
During GENNOVATE (a cross-CRP, global comparative research initiative which addresses the question of how gender norms and agency influence men, women and youth to adopt innovation in agriculture and NRM) data collection in April of 2015 women in focus group discussions (FGDs) were often critical of the men in their communities, referring to them as idle or lazy. Although men were occasionally said to be hard working and faithful, the majority of the FGD comments were critical of men “Few men are willing to learn. They do not find time to be taught, rather they like drinking spots,” said a woman in a rural Kenyan village. Another woman in town remarked, “I have a neighbor whose husband is a sluggard and drinks a lot; he lacks vision so the wife is the driving force and main breadwinner.” And, in the western region of Uganda a woman reported that, “…the women devote their money to their households, they do things for their children and families but the men will go drinking and use some of the money and even marry a second wife.”
In Western Kenya, the Luhya, the second largest ethnic group in Kenya, hold many traditions that often reaffirm gender norms about men’s and women’s roles in the household and in the wider community. Yet, profound socioeconomic changes are being brought on by urbanization and are in turn influencing norms and behavior, particularly with regard to women’s participation in what have been traditionally held to be “male’s domains”. These include earning income and gaining access to agricultural extension and knowledge opportunities.
Interpreting social data and drawing conclusions about such changes and their implications for transforming gender relations pose challenges to researchers. While men’s and women’s activities are obviously changing in these contexts, norms appear less “resilient”. Understanding the links between norms and behavioral change requires careful interpretation of quotes like those above. At face value such expressions of frustration could lead one to conclude that most men are lazy alcoholics and most women are displacing men as breadwinners. It is not so simple.
FGD data, like all data, should be interpreted carefully
A focus group discussion is its own social context in which power relations are expressed through individuals’ voices, and, often as much, their silences. Although FGDs are often used to collect culturally sensitive information, researchers must remember to critically listen to what is said in public meetings, rather than uncritically accept the spoken word as “truth”. Local norms about what is acceptable to speak about in public, or with a member of the opposite sex, an elder or a youth, often influence both men and women respondents’ candor in disclosing such personal information. Researchers who do not participate in data collection themselves and rely on transcripts, or “reported speech” (Jackson 2012), must also consider the translation of the spoken word itself in order to draw meaningful interpretations.
It therefore calls upon the use of FGDs within a suite of social methods to better understand the potential for transformation of gender relations. Within FGDs what is often not captured are details about who is speaking, the tones, gestures, and laughter that enliven the conversation. These, in addition to triangulation of methods can better inform researchers’ understanding of complex social relations.
Jackson, C. 2012. Speech, gender and power: beyond testimony. Development and Change 43(5): 999–1023. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-7660.2012.01791.x