Social networks and the influence of gender: Part 1

The exchange of resources and information among rural women in East Africa

Kisumu, Kenya

What this post is all about

In this post, I want to tell you all a little bit more about the path that led me to my current project and then to delve into the literature on social networks and their importance in the lives of women, migrants, and domestic workers. Sociologist Charles Tilly provides a handy and very clear definition of social networks: “Social networks include any set of similar connections among three or more social sites. Connections include communication, mutual recognition, and shared participation in some activity, flows of goods or services, transmission of diseases, and other forms of consequential interaction” (Tilly 2007, 7).

The structure of this blog post will be a little bit different than past posts. Because this is such a fundamental part of my research, I don’t want to overwhelm the reader. Also, when writing it as one piece, I felt as if I couldn’t really sprinkle in first-hand experiences for fear of making the post really, really, really long. This section will be broken up into three installments, with a new post going up every Friday. The first installment will cover the experience that piqued my interest in social networks, the second installment will cover the social networks linking sending and receiving locations, and the third installment will discuss the role of social networks in the adaption process.  

P.S. All the pictures I am including in this post were taken with the express permission of all participants or at the behest of the organization! Most people are farmers taking part in seed fairs or trainings hosted by the organization or are researchers.

Social networks & Climate Change

My interest in social networks really began in 2017 when I took an internship working for Bioversity International, a research-for-development organization that provides scientific evidence, practices, and policy options to preserve biodiversity. They work throughout the world to help maintain crops with a variety of genetic material, that are more capable to withstand weather variability induced by climate change.

While interning in the organization’s Kampala office, I worked on a project mapping the exchange of seeds between farmers, with a particular interest in the way that women exchange seeds. The exchange of local varieties of seeds, and introduction of these varieties in new locations, introduces more biodiversity in the crops grown. In the case of rapid climate change, the overall harvest therefore has a better chance of surviving. Pautasso et al. (2013) lists three major reasons why more diversity in the crops that are grown is better: 1) Ecosystems with more diversity have been shown to be more resilient in the face of disturbances 2) Simultaneously growing several varieties increases soil fertility, lowering the chance of depleting the minerals in an area of land 3) Growing lots of different crops and varieties means more nutritious food being grown as well as increasing the area’s food security (153).

Kisumu, Kenya: A seed fair hosted by Bioversity International.

What are the weaknesses and strengths of East African women’s networks?

Weaknesses

Many studies have shown that women’s social networks are markedly different than men’s. The building and maintenance of social networks requires significant inputs of time and resources, which raises a barrier for those who have low social capital (Katungi, Edmeades, and Smale 2006). Katungi, Edmeades, and Smale (2006, 15) determine that there are five indicators of social capital: size of social network, frequency of interaction in social institutions, frequency of civic engagement, and the forms of participation in social and civic institutions. Because women shoulder the bulk burden of maintaining the household, creating and maintaining a social network carries significantly higher costs (McOmber et al. 2013, Katungi, Edmeades, and Smale 2006). Women are also less likely to have ownership over assets such as land or tools, meaning that their decision-making power is significantly curbed (McOmber et al. 2013, 13). These factors lead to women’s networks being more limited than their male counterpart’s.

Another weakness of women’s seed networks in East Africa is that they are limited to the informal sector and rarely interface with formal sources of aid and information. The existence of region specific gender norms and prejudices often prevent women from directly cooperating with government offices and NGOs, and it is sometimes the case that representatives from these institutions are are unwilling to collaborate with women. For example, in the context of accessing climate change information, men have access to more formal sources of information (such as from NGOs or government agencies) while women are more likely to access information through conversations with neighbors, relatives, and friends (Tatlonghari et al. 2012, 170).

Strengths

While East African women’s networks are more constrained than men’s due to patrilocal residence, women’s networks are often more wider reaching than their husbands. Patrilocal residence is the practice of the wife moving to the husband’s village. Despite removal from the maternal family, women will often maintain connections with relatives from their natal villages. Connections are further spread as contact is kept up with female relatives and, when the woman’s own children have grown and married, with daughters. This phenomenon leads to women’s social networks reaching further than their male counterpart’s (Tadesse et al. 2016).

A second strength of women’s networks is the availability of local varieties with a range of genetic variety. Since men are more likely to buy or receive seeds from formal sources, which they then grow for profit, the seeds they obtain are often improved varieties that have market demand, and are generally quite homogenous. Women’s networks introduce strains of seeds from further away zones, increasing the genetic variety of locally grown crops, therefore making the crops themselves more resilient and staving off food insecurity. Informal seed networks are vital to the project of increasing the biogenetic diversity of crops.

With global trends such as large-scale urban migration drawing men from the farm to the city taking place, the burden on women has increased accordingly, the so called feminization of farming (Vernooy et al. 2016). In addition, women are more likely to grow food crops, and are therefore absolutely vital for ensuring food and nutrition security (McOmber et al. 2013).

This all ties into the end goal of the project, which was to find ways to support and boost the networking capacity of women, through introducing them to women from other areas to exchange farming information/technology and self-saved seeds. With stronger, wider reaching networks in place, the hope is that climate change information will travel further and faster without excluding the most vulnerable populations.

Hoima, Uganda: distribution of varieties of seeds gathered from various locations throughout Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda to farmers along with best practice demonstrations.

I really just thought this was the coolest idea, connecting lots of women across East Africa (I specifically worked on data collected from Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda) to hear each other’s experiences and learn about the different coping mechanisms other women use. Like I brought up in the past post, this project used a resiliency approach, taking as a given that every woman had resources and looking to see how she can better take advantage of said resources. In this case, women are already depending heavily on informal social networks and already using them to exchange seeds, so we just need to discover how to best support that and make it the most efficient.

As I was being exposed to this area of research in the summer of 2017, I was simultaneously putting together my application for the Fulbright grant. I was ruminating on the idea of social networks as pathways for the exchange of goods, vital information, advice, and support along with the fact that they seemed extremely important to the wellbeing of smallholder farming women in East Africa. Evidently, this area of study has a ton of really rich and fascinating sources to pull on. In this short section, I have barely skimmed the surface and at times had to simplify. Shifting my focus to domestic workers, I began to think about the role of social networks in the lives of women around the world, but specifically in informal employment, where they are similarly cut off from formal sources of information, aid, and resources. Off the bat, I was disappointed in the scarcity of work exploring these concepts! So I thought it might be time for me to dip a toe in the waters.

I want to make clear that I entered this project with an unfortunate set of preconceptions that were cleared by my experience with the literature. The preconception I had about social networks was that they were singularly positive in their impact on women. What I have learned is that social networks have both positive and negative aspects on the lives, opportunities and wellbeing of women. Check in next week for installation 2 where I will dive into the ways networks impact migrants, domestic workers, and women.

Pictures of my co-intern, Wes Zebrowski, and myself at field sites in Kenya and Uganda

Bibliography

Katungi, Enid, Svetlana Edmeades, and Melinda Smale. 2006. Gender, social capital and information exchange in rural Uganda. Washington, DC: International Food Policy Research Institute.

McOmber, Chesney, Amy Panikowski, Sarah McKune, Wendy-Lin Bartels, and Sandra Russo. 2013. Investigating climate information services through a gendered lens. CCAFS Working Paper no. 42. Copenhagen, Denmark: CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS).

Pautasso, Marco, Guntra Aistara, Adeline Barnaud, Sophie Caillon, Pascal Clouvel, Oliver T. Coomes, Marc Delêtre, Elise Demeulenaere, Paola De Santis, Thomas Döring, Ludivine Eloy, Laure Emperaire, Eric Garine, Isabelle Goldringer, Devra Jarvis, Hélène I.  Joly, Christian Leclerc, Selim Louafi, Pierre Martin, Francois Massol, Shawn J. McGuire, Doyle McKey, Christine Padoch, Clélia Soler, Mathieu Thomas, and Sara Tramontini. 2013. “Seed exchange networks for biodiversity conservation. A review.”  Agronomy for Sustainable Development 33:151-175.

Tadesse, Yenenesh, Conny J.M. Almekinders, Rogier P.O. Schulte, and Paul C. Struik. 2016. “Tracing the seed: seed diffusion of improved potato varieties through farmers’ networks in Chencha, Ethiopia.”  Explanatory Agriculture 3 (4):1-16.

Tatlonghari, Gerlie, Thelma Paris, Valerien Pede, Inpong Siliphouthone, and Rita Suhaeti. 2012. “Seed and information exchange through social networks: the case of rice farmers of Indonesia and Lao PDR.”  Sociology Mind 2 (2):169-176.

Tilly, Charles. 2007. “Trust networks in transnational migration.”  Sociological Forum 22 (1):3-24.

Vernooy, Ronnie, Guy Bessette, Per Rudebejer, and Gloria Otieno. 2016. “Resource box for resilient seed systems: handbook.” In. Rome, Italy: Bioversity International.


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