Overstory #160 - Women's Indigenous Knowledge
Women in most societies of the world, as mothers, grandmothers, wives, sisters, or daughters, often represent the first line of health care, prepare meals for the family, convey values, and provide the first role models for behavior. In many rural societies of developing countries, women carry the burden of farm labor and on-farm transport; they arrange for household energy (mostly firewood) and water. During periods of hunger, women know which plants can provide emergency meals to help keep their families alive.
Beyond the provision of livelihoods for local communities in the areas of family health, growing of staple crops, conflict management, and bio-diversity conservation, women have also found local answers to broader issues such as trade, tourism, education, health, and employment.
Despite the essential contributions to the lives of their families and communities, women still face many constraints in exercising more influence over their living conditions. These constraints include an excessive workload, the difficulties of accessing or controlling the key factors of production, and a lack of training opportunities and appropriate information, extension and advisory services (1).
This article highlights some of the cases where women's indigenous knowledge and practices help them, their families, and their communities to address local development challenges successfully and calls for more recognition of women's indigenous knowledge and its integration into the development process. In the past, indigenous knowledge related to family health care or subsistence food production has received little research and attention, reinforcing constraints and perpetuating gender inequality partly because technical or institutional knowledge associated with women's work often remains unappreciated or is not valued (2). While patriarchal traditions in many societies have contributed to these perceptions, we increasingly see evidence of women becoming the promoters of their own development priorities, including ways to challenge such traditions.
Addressing local challenges
Researchers have found that women have taken a lead role in preserving natural forests and bio-diversity in high-risk and marginal regions. In Senegal's West Coast region of Popenguine, for example, local women formed an association for the protection of the environment (3) to address the issues they were most concerned about. These included loss of bio-diversity, diminishing vegetable stock, an inappropriate tourism strategy, youth unemployment, and lack of capital. The association involved traditional leaders, urban women, and youth, encouraging entire communities across the region to participate. It planted firebreaks with endogenous species around the entire perimeter of their forests, established a cooperative distribution network for wood, charcoal, and gas to regulate fuel consumption, thereby supporting local efforts to control deforestation. They collected household waste for the compost needed in the nursery producing tree seedlings and formed savings and loan groups and a regional network of women associations (4).
Other studies (5) point to the substantial contribution of women to maintaining agro-biodiversity. Droughts periodically affect many regions in Africa, often causing widespread famine. In their role as principal providers of food in the event of food shortages, women have developed coping strategies to maintain food security at the household level. They often rely on minor crops or semidomesticated plants, more tolerant to droughts and pests, providing a reserve for extended periods of economic hardship (6). Many of the plants women use also have medicinal value (7). However, women's indigenous post-harvest technologies, such as storage, and processing practices related to underutilized plants, are in danger of disappearing (8). Today, projects focusing on the conservation and sustainable use of medicinal plants increasingly collaborate with women on in-situ and ex-situ conservation efforts, such as the cultivation of medicinal plants in home gardens (9).
The role of women's IK in relation to farm animals is also underestimated. Although animal ownership in most societies is associated with men, women often collect fodder for cattle, look after their health, milk them, and collect and use dry cow dung for energy purposes (10). As a result, gender differentiated research in this area is beginning to discover that women have acquired a substantial stock of husbandry and ethno-veterinary knowledge that complements existing scientific knowledge.
Contributing to global goals
In West Africa, women have redefined adult education programs with respect to functional literacy and skill building. Following their participation in literacy programs, women returned to their communities, empowered not only by their new skills, but also by realizing that their traditional skills and knowledge, complemented with external knowledge could be put to use addressing local community problems. By forming regional associations and promoting adult literacy programs, they encouraged other women to replicate their experiences (11). Another innovative education project in Mali used cultural symbols and indigenous practices to initiate a dialogue about women's pregnancy and health risks within the family and the community. Project participants have also learned to use modern media, such as videos, flipcharts, and badges to promote community awareness about women's health risks (12).
The cases relating to education reveal the complexity of indigenous knowledge and underscore the role of women in this context. While women are undoubtedly a valuable resource of indigenous knowledge, some of the constraints mentioned above are a result of actual or perceived cultural traditions. Culturally ingrained but harmful practices have shown great resistance to external efforts to abolish them, whereas internal and even indigenous ways to address them in a sustainable manner appear to have had a much higher chance of success. However, these indigenous approaches required the external stimulus - e.g., the adult literacy program - that gave the women the confidence to address the issue, take it up with their traditional leaders, and convince them to make it their issue as well.
In another case, the cooperation between the modern public health sector and traditional birth attendants in the Iganga District of Uganda demonstrates how women's indigenous and modern knowledge can be leveraged to help achieve one of the MDGs. The project managed to bridge the perceived gap between the traditional and modern knowledge systems and lead to impressive outcomes a reported 50 percent reduction in maternal mortality in three years (13).
Next to literacy, income generation provides additional opportunities for the empowerment of women. For example, a number of self-help groups have emerged to support women with skills development and opportunities for income generation. It is quite common for men to take over activities from women once these activities generate cash proceeds (e.g., when subsistence crops become cash crops) and seize responsibilities from women once they provide cash proceeds, especially in food production. Hence, efforts to support income-generating projects for women have to consider such gender roles to ensure that the opportunities offered can be fully utilized by the women. Combining such efforts with savings schemes increases the likelihood for women to remain in control over the proceeds.
In India, for example, women formed over 175 self-help groups in the rural district of Pratabghar in Northern India, such as the Kaveri Mahela Self Help Group. Formed in 1995, the Kaveri group initially comprised 15 members. At first, each member saved the equivalent of 10 cents per month, which they increased four to eight times over the next six months. Today, each member saves up to $6 per month. The funds are saved in the local bank under a joint fund called the Kaveri Self Help Fund. Having saved a fair amount, the women started an internal lending scheme within the group. They also took out individual loans worth $100-200 from the local bank to invest in modern technologies, such as a sugar cane processor. These self-help groups have also become effective agents of social change in the countryside and have addressed several sensitive issues, such as the dowry system. Today, a large number of women in this district can read, write, and comprehend complex aspects of their business transactions (14).
Building on these experiences, in the small town of Embalam in South India, women run "Village Knowledge Centers" for their own and neighboring villages. This enables women to educate themselves further, not only in avenues available to them through the government and other NGOs but also on subjects of their own choice, such as local diseases and treatments for humans and farm animals (15). As is the case in Senegal, the empowerment of women through education in India has allowed them to address cultural obstacles to their own development.
Leveraging women's indigenous knowledge a challenge for development agents
Whether it is local production or political expression through advocacy, women have managed to influence community leaders, politicians, and development partners. They have raised and addressed serious issues such as female genital mutilation, HIV/AIDS, food security, and the loss of sustainable production practices while promoting innovative community institutions, such as savings and credit groups, natural resource management cooperatives, and drought management committees.
More systematic research is needed to complement studies on the socio-economic roles of women in their societies and on power relationships, concentrating on their indigenous knowledge and wisdom. This would help development practitioners to better understand, value, and eventually validate such contributions to development. The price of overlooking women's IK outside their "traditional," domestic knowledge domains could eventually result in losing a substantial body of knowledge. This poses a specific challenge for development workers they need to help develop more space and opportunities for women to express, apply, and share their knowledge of solving development problems.
Women as bearers of indigenous knowledge, can - probably better than men - act as bridge builders between representatives of the various knowledge systems.
Women's IK can make a significant contribution to achieving sustainable outcomes in development. Therefore, there is a need to make sustained and focused efforts towards facilitating the incorporation of women's knowledge into broader development efforts. To enable women to maximize their IK contribution to the development process, national governments and development partners need to go beyond gender-balanced participation of women in development activities and develop approaches that provide them with:
- Space, in the form of fora where women can present their experiences, learn from their peers, and encounter representatives from the established knowledge systems for fair and equitable exchange and learning;
- Opportunities, in the form of substantially improved access for women to the knowledge systems and infrastructure in their countries in a way that is not prescriptive in its methods and outcomes. From primary school to adult literacy programs, education is a centerpiece of such an approach; its effectiveness depends on appropriate participation and inclusion not just of numbers of participants, but of contributors to a development solution; and
- Recognition, through a commitment by governments and development partners to direct specific research towards IK of women; to identify, document, and appropriately disseminate women's IK; to help strengthen existing women's knowledge networks; and to provide fora for the exchange of knowledge between women and the formal sciences. Recognition, of course, also includes the possibility for traditional women practitioners to gain income from their IK and not be taken advantage of in arrangements that deprive them of possibilities to practice their skills. "Recognition" depends above all on an inclusive and participatory process between the public and private actors in development. By providing them with opportunities of the type described in the IK Notes, women can become agents of change rooted in their traditions and yet be able to leverage learning from outside their communities.
"IK Notes" below refers to past editions of the "Indigenous Knowledge Notes" which are compiled in:
Woytek, R., P. Shroff-Mehta, and P.C. Mohan (Eds). Indigenous Knowledge Local Pathways to Global Development. World Bank, Africa Region - Knowledge and Learning (AFTKL), Washington, DC.
An electronic version of this publication can be downloaded from The World Bank Indigenous Knowledge (IK) Program's website: http://www.worldbank.org/afr/ik/index.htm
1 Austria Development Corporation, CTA, Hellenic Development Corporation; 1999 "The economic role of women in agricultural and rural development promoting income-generating activities." Seminar Report.
2 Madge, Clare; 1994 Collected food and domestic knowledge in the Gambia, West Africa The Geographical Journal, Volume 160. Issue 3.
3 Regroupement des Femmes de Popenguine pour la Protection de la Nature or RFPPN.
4 IK Notes 8.
5 IK Notes 8, 23.
6 One such plant is cat's whiskers (Cleome gynandra L./Gynandropsis gynandra (L.) Briq.), which has been the subject of some exceptional in-depth research.
7 IK Notes 44, 58.
8 In Kenya, young people may reject traditional leafy vegetables because, they say, they taste bitter. Older women point out that this is probably because the food has not been prepared properly.
9 IK Notes 35.
10 IK Notes 58
11 IK Notes 3, 8.
12 IK Notes 12.
13 IK Notes 40; the case is also summarized in the concluding lead article "Indigenous Knowledge The Way Forward."
14 IK Notes 45.
15 IK Notes 63, not in this compilation; can be downloaded from http://www.worldbank.org/afr/ik/iknt63.pdf.
This article was adapted with the kind permission of the publisher from
Ramphele, M. 2004. "Women's Indigenous Knowledge Building Bridges Between the Traditional and the Modern" In Woytek, R., P. Shroff-Mehta, and P.C. Mohan (Eds). Indigenous Knowledge Local Pathways to Global Development. World Bank, Africa Region - Knowledge and Learning (AFTKL), Washington, DC.
An electronic version of this publication can be downloaded from The World Bank Indigenous Knowledge (IK) Program's website http://www.worldbank.org/afr/ik/index.htm
About the author
A South African-born physician and anthropologist, Dr. Mamphela Ramphele was the first woman and the first black South African to hold the position of Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cape Town. In addition to a medical degree and Ph.D. in social anthropology, she holds a BCom degree in Administration, and diplomas in Tropical Health & Hygiene and Public Health. As a student she played a key role in the Black Consciousness Movement in South Africa. She has received numerous national and international awards, eighteen honorary doctorates, and the Medal of Distinction from Barnard College. Her extensive books and articles, spanning the themes of education, health, and social development, have received numerous prizes and awards. Dr. Ramphele is co-chair of the Global Commission on International Migration (GCIM).
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Tags: Traditional knowledge