Experts believe that if women are involved in the spread of practices based on scientific principles, society will stand a greater chance at fighting off problems related to health, environment and food security. From communicating the latest technical advancements in agriculture to ensuring access to antiretroviral and other HIV-related treatments, women and children can help transfer the findings of scientific research into communities. This was discussed at the Fifth World Conference of Science Journalists, held in Melbourne recently.
Rosemary Okello-Orlale, Executive Director, African Woman and Child Feature Service (AWC), a media NGO focusing on development communication in Africa, is of the opinion that, "Being the managers of homes, environment and also the majority of agricultural produce, women are a critical group for any science findings. But the role of rural women in implementing scientific research findings and innovations, as a strategy to reduce poverty and disease burden is rarely discussed. Most of these women tend to be left out because the majority cannot read and write."
Rural women in developing countries play a critical role in food production, processing and marketing, natural resource management and income generation.
Unfortunately, they are usually the last ones to learn of any breakthrough in agriculture science.
"Empowering women with science is the key to achieving food security and, ultimately, a sustainable, healthy food system for all," says Dr Jacqueline Ashby, Director of the Rural Innovation Institute at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), Colombia. A development sociologist, Ashby is also Associate Editor of the International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability.
"In societies where men migrate in search of seasonal labor, women and children are left in charge of family food production and take most of the decisions. Many studies show that when women control the income generated from agricultural activities they invest it in the food security, health and education of the whole family. Studies also show that there is a significant, positive correlation between women's income and child welfare," elaborates Ashby.
Today, one person out of nearly seven people doesn't get enough food in order to be healthy and lead an active life, making hunger and malnutrition the number one health risk worldwide. Explains Ashby, "As producers and laborers, women must use whatever knowledge and technologies, for improving agricultural production, that they can get to generate this income. Women have, for example, been very influential in household decision-making about decreasing the use of harmful pesticides. They are often the primary member of the household in charge of selecting and storing seeds for the next year's crop and so can influence the choice and adoption of new seeds."
Ashby is internationally recognized for path-breaking work that established the applicability of participatory action research as a scientific methodology relevant to agricultural fields as diverse as soil science, plant breeding and pest management.
Involving women in participatory plant breeding (PPB) projects is important as this leads to greater food security for the family as a whole, Ashby says. There are currently more than 80 programmes worldwide using PPB - in Syria, Jordan, Eritrea and Egypt - with barley, durum wheat, bread wheat, lentil and chickpea.
Similarly, women, girls and children make up an increasing proportion of people infected and affected by HIV/AIDS. According to UNAIDS, the real drivers of HIV/AIDS are stigma, discrimination and gender inequity.
"Feminization of the HIV/AIDS epidemic also stands to increase the number of children infected with HIV through mother-to-child transmission. Over half a million children became newly infected with HIV in 2006. Around 90 per cent of all children living with HIV acquired the infection from their mothers during pregnancy, birth or breastfeeding. Many children born to HIV+ women also stand to lose their mothers to AIDS-related illnesses", says Annmaree O'Keeffe, Australia's Ambassador for HIV/AIDS and Deputy Director General of Australia's Agency for International Development (AusAID).
O'Keefe says, "Taking a broader view of gender inequality that is imbedded in many cultural traditions and its relationship to HIV sees the domestic burden of AIDS care fall most heavily on them because of their traditional role as carer and homemaker. And, if infected, stigma is suffered more acutely by women because of negative assumptions."
While science has much to offer in terms of treatment and prevention, the needs of women and children require special communication strategies and efforts.
O'Keefe says, "In the area of prevention, science plays a critical role in providing the evidence that demonstrates the most effective way of preventing HIV infection. This is particularly important for women who often find themselves unable to negotiate in their own interest in sexual relations. For example, approaches to HIV prevention based on the ABC model (Abstain, be faithful, use condoms) are likely to be limited in protecting women unless broader contextual issues are also addressed."
Spreading or communicating science also means spreading practices based on scientific principles, such as hygiene, good cooking practices, conserving natural resources (especially water), traditional medical practices and animal health care. "In each one of these, if a woman does it, it has a greater chance of success as she is the pivot in the family and can play a central role in community mobilization activities. She is the one who cooks the food, keeps the house clean, washes the clothes and raises the children", says Dr Subbiah Arunachalam, who has been a volunteer with the M S Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF), Chennai.
"Children are also important because if we catch them young, it is easy to impress upon them the value of good practices. Children communicate among themselves freely and openly, learn from and imitate each other - so the message spreads quickly", he adds.
Arunachalam and his colleagues are engaged in an ICT-enabled development project, guided by a pro-poor, pro-nature and pro-women focus. They set up knowledge centers in villages and use modern ICTs, in combination with traditional technologies, to collect, process and disseminate information relevant to the lives of the local communities. The keywords are bottom up and participatory and, in the process, the beneficiaries acquire managerial skills.
"We should take science-based knowledge to the marginalized communities in a way that impinges on their daily lives. It should be part of building livelihood opportunities. At MSSRF, three women SHGs were initially trained in the production of bio-pesticides. These are sophisticated operations, normally performed by science degree holders. Semi-literate women carry out these operations in villages and market them through established manufacturers. A young woman, who was trained in the use of digital cameras, CD writing and so on, became a literacy trainer and has trained more than 100 people in her village in the past few years", Arunachalam adds.
If science has to reach disadvantaged communities, perhaps the role of women in science has to be made attractive to overcome the sexist male-domination in this field.