Climate change: putting women at the centre of the solutions
Are women farmers in Africa receiving the information they need to adapt to changing weather patterns?
Women are often on the frontline of climate change, as subsistence farmers trying to feed their families and as lynchpins holding rural communities together.
It is therefore important to understand how these women on the ground receive information about climate change and how they interact with it — they need this information in order to survive.
New insights and policy initiatives come from governments and scientists on how to mitigate the impacts of climate change, but do they reach the people who need them, and in a timely manner? And how easily can the information be put to use, alongside the knowledge they already have from the day-to-day reality of dealing with these challenges?
These are the questions that inspired a collaboration between experts in communications and gender at the University of Leeds and their counterparts at the University of Nairobi, funded through the Global Challenges Research Fund.
Gender is at the heart of sustainable development; one of the sustainable development goals — SDG 5 — aims to address Gender Equality.
The aim was to look at how women in rural communities received information about climate change, how useful it was to them and ways in which both the information and the processes could be improved.
The findings of the pilot project have been shared with the GCRF African-SWIFT project. SWIFT draws together meteorology organisations and expertise in five African countries and the UK to improve the quality of weather forecasting, particularly of extreme weather linked to climate change. It is led by The National Centre for Atmospheric Science (NCAS).
Human-made solutions to a human-made problem
The importance of combining social science research alongside traditional scientific projects is clear to Dr Lata Narayanaswamy from Leeds’ School of Politics and International Studies:
“Climate change is a human-made problem and won’t be solved purely through a technical fix — it requires a human-made solution as well,” she says.
“There is a tendency to have the technical solution at the centre and social sciences on the periphery, linking the technology to people. But this needs turning on its head. People must be at the centre of any solution to climate change, with the technological solutions answerable to their needs.”
Identifying issues by understanding how climate change is experienced locally in Kenya
The pilot project focused on Makueni and Kisumu counties in the east and west of Kenya, two areas that are already experiencing the impact of climate change on their weather patterns and agricultural production. Both sites offer an opportunity to build understanding of how climate change is experienced across borders and on coastal areas, affecting both fishing and farming communities.
Fieldwork within local communities was carried out by PhD students from the University of Nairobi, as Dr Chris Paterson from the University of Leeds School of Media and Communication explains:
“We were lucky in being able to recruit, through our colleagues in Nairobi, doctoral students who had precisely the expertise needed: knowledge of climate change communication and media, fieldwork experience and the local languages and cultural understanding required to become embedded in the local communities,” he says. “Their work gathered some really rich data on people’s lives to help us identify how information reached them and what they felt was lacking.”
The students spent two weeks in each location, identifying key figures for the research and carrying out in-depth interviews. They then shadowed four families across the two counties over two to three days, most of them women-run households, observing the details of their daily lives. This initial fieldwork was followed up with focus groups within the communities, to discuss some of the issues and challenges identified.
One-way information flow — how were the women affected?
Analysis of the data gathered highlighted how weak the flow of information was from the government, or government agencies, to women on the frontline and how rare the opportunities were for feedback.
While the wide use of mobile phones meant information should be easily accessible and timely, this was rarely the case. Women reported that information was unreliable and they often didn’t receive it in time to make use of it. For example, weather reports covered too large a region, rather than providing local breakdowns. The women also mentioned times when they’d been given suggestions on the best crop species for certain weather conditions after planting had taken place.
Women also said they needed more than just information to respond to climate change. Understanding the necessity for a new water supply or seed variety is useless without the resources to pay for it.
Overall, the researchers found that the varied roles that women play within their communities and the knowledge they hold as a result is rarely properly acknowledged within the information process. Often, the decisions women make on the ground are based on a combination of local knowledge, such as triggers in nature that predict weather, and external ‘scientific’ knowledge that they might receive through weather forecasts.
The insights from this pilot project, particularly around weather forecasting, have been fed back to relevant partners in the African-SWIFT project, including the Kenya Met Department (KMD). It provided evidence to support the need for more localised forecasts.
The SWIFT team are continuing to process important data on information flow gathered from the project. The next step is to extend the pilot to include Ghana, another country in the African-SWIFT project, focusing on both farming and fishing communities.