Respect for all women is vital for climate & gender researchers

Miranda Morgan – WNN Earth Watch – Bangladesh

Bangladeshi women with fisth traps
Bangladeshi women use fish traps to increase their catch. Image: WorldFish

(WNN/WF) Dhaka, BANGLADESH, SOUTH ASIA: I had just arrived at our training venue in Dhaka and watched as the manager stood at the top of the stairs, violently screaming orders at the woman rushing around to help me.  When I expressed my distaste for his behavior, especially on my behalf, he smiled and explained why he felt he could treat her like that. “Don’t worry,” he said. “She’s just the cleaning lady.”

A few days later the research assistants we’ve been working with to implement the study were struggling to learn one particular research tool. One of the few women in the group bravely attempted to facilitate the session but it was not an easy task.

Smirking, one of the men observing the exercise pointedly said to us, “this is what you get as a result of affirmative action”, as if the failure of the exercise was her fault and an obvious consequence of involving women in the research.

The irony that both of these incidents occurred as we conducted training for a study investigating power relations between and among men and women was not lost on me. The study we are embarking on is entitled, “Gender inequality: A barrier to household climate adaptation behavior,” and is funded by the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security.

Increasingly today climate change adaptation interventions are acknowledging women’s indispensable role in agriculture. In attempting to involve women in such efforts, WorldFish is delivering two ‘climate-smart agriculture’ innovations, like fish cages and pond polyculture to communities in southern Bangladesh to increase resilience in the face of climate risks.

It is not certain that these targeting efforts actually allow women to use or benefit from agricultural innovations, or that targeting alone will increase gender equality. In fact, women-sensitive adaptation projects can have the opposite effect unless they are designed and implemented in a gender-sensitive, or even gender transformative way. This specific study aims to investigate how gender shapes the uptake and sustained usage of these two ‘climate-smart’ agricultural innovations. It strives to go beyond understanding ‘women’ and ‘men’ as individual or isolated subjects, to grapple with the dynamic and uneven power relations among men and women in a specific time and place.

Through in-depth qualitative research, methods and tools, we hope to begin to flesh out how power is constituted in actual interpersonal relationships between wives and husbands; between an individual and her neighbor; or between an individual and a community leader or local ‘expert’.

How do women’s close relationships shape who uses, owns or benefits from new agricultural innovation?

How are the technologies and/or relationships themselves adapted, mediated or negotiated by the various actors? The study hopes to provide some insight into these questions, and more.

Our recent field staff training session in Dhaka highlighted that these uneven relationships and their consequences are not limited to poor men and women in the ‘field’. The incidents I described above are just a sample of the problematic power dynamics witnessed among the research team, differentiated by gender, status, experience, expertise and position.

While it is not surprising that the inequalities we want to study ‘out there’ would be reflected and reproduced ‘in here’ (among the training team and even in the training venue), it does pose a challenge for those planning training sessions to go beyond merely teaching research methods.

How do we encourage the researchers and partners that we work with to be conscious of their own positions of power vis-à-vis their research team and participants? How do we recognize that the way we all act reflects larger power dynamics and impacts our research efforts?

The ‘field’ is not objectively studied apart from us as researchers but produced by us, by the questions we ask, how we ask them and with whom we speak. Taking a gender transformative approach means not only finding effective ways to research the uneven power relations that limit the potential of agricultural development interventions, but also challenges the power dynamics in the research process itself to achieve lasting, deep and widespread impacts from this research.

As researchers, we spend a lot of time studying others ‘out there’. But this training session made it clear that we need to look inside as much as outside, to reflect on our positions, how we treat others and how this shapes the research process, even before the so-called ‘research’ begins.

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Miranda Morgan is a Post Doctoral Fellow who is currently working at the WorldFish Center in Penang, Malaysia.

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