And it is one step the project is taking to determine how women working along food value chains and women professionals working in related research can be empowered.
The research team behind the project has analysed a suite of tools used to ensure that Thai ethnic minority women who farm Arabica coffee in the mountainous areas of northern Vietnam are respected and treated fairly and that their contributions in the household and on the farm are valued and respected.
CARE International, the in-country project partner, specialises in gender and development but wanted the Australian researchers to help find evidence to show how and why gender relations are improved and whether women are empowered or not when specific tools are used.
The project takes a transformative gender approach using Gender Action Learning System and Social Analysis and Action tools to guide critical discussions on social norms and activities in producer households, groups and communities to achieve progress in gender equity.
Using this approach, 5 “gender dialogue” training sessions were conducted with ethnic minority Thai men and women. Dialogue topics included challenging men’s roles; challenging gendered stereotypes and social norms; labour division and gender-based violence; intra-household power and decision-making; and sharing feelings.
Methods of gender transformative approaches used in these dialogues included a 24-hour activity clock, role playing, problem tree analysis, couple dialogues, storytelling and drawing activities.
These methods proved eye-opening for both men and women in the communities. After seeing his wife’s 24-hour activity clock for which she worked with a research assistant to detail all the paid and unpaid labour that she does (including family and caring responsibilities and looking after small livestock), one male participant said in the training: ‘Oh, god! My wife works so much and has no time to rest; I [didn’t] know until now. I usually come home from work, just lie down, watch movies and play with my phone and wait [for] my wife [to call me] for dinner. I have to change.’
A husband and wife took part in the drawing exercise, sitting on the floor, back-to-back, facing in opposite directions. They had to describe what their partner looked like and what they were wearing to see how attentive they were. It’s a fun activity that often elicits laughter.
The wife, in this case, said: ‘I feel very emotional. This is the first time after 10 years of marriage that my husband listens to me and also the first time he holds my hand and says such things.’ Minutes earlier, the husband was saying he really respected his wife and showed gratitude for everything that his wife did for their family.
‘Through those sorts of participatory activities, CARE is facilitating what can be quite difficult or even non-existent conversations between husband and wife,’ says Dr Rochelle Spencer, the project leader and founding co-director of the Centre for Responsible Citizenship and Sustainability at Murdoch University.
‘From there you can actually start to really help the community at the household level guide what kind of changes they want to have brought about by these changed social relations.’
As part of their data collection, the researchers gather all the clocks, drawings, sticky notes and other resources generated by the community. They are analysed and can end up being turned into tools to raise awareness and bring about social change.
The researchers start challenging entrenched patriarchal social norms about gender roles in the household (such as who controls finances) by reminding the men of their own realisation that their wives are capable, hardworking partners.
By opening up a safe space for people to talk about the experiences of women farmers that are often taken for granted, assumptions about the roles of men and women are challenged, and that’s how we begin to catalyse change.
Dr Rochelle Spencer
Empowering women researchers
Supporting female junior social scientists to develop their abilities for gender analysis has been key to the project. The COVID-19 pandemic threatened to put a dint in progress but in fact it facilitated an unexpected and welcome change.
‘During COVID, localisation became a reality,’ says Dr Spencer. ‘The Australian researchers took a remote support role, providing proper resourcing to support in-country partners so as to not over-burden them with the increased research responsibility.’ For instance, funds were transferred to partners to lead local implementation while Australian researchers provided online training and remote support for fieldwork through evening debriefs and online sense-making workshops with the research teams.
For Dr Huong Ngo Thi Thanh, a Policy Researcher at CARE International in Vietnam, the added responsibility was much welcomed. ‘I have really felt more empowered,’ she says. ‘Admittedly, at the beginning, I was a bit worried about whether I could do it or not. What if I made the wrong decision? However, after some time and with support from the Australian researchers, I gradually felt more confident.’ As a result, Dr Ngo has been more proactive in coordinating activities, foreseeing challenges and solving problems, both technical and logistical in nature. ‘Personally, I found the open communication and frequent updates with the Australian team to be very important so that I could get their guidance in time to ensure quality for the project,’ she says.
The power of language
Strong collaboration between the Vietnamese and Australian researchers is key to the project’s success.
Feminism in Vietnam doesn’t necessarily have the same connotation or history as it does in many developed countries. Dr Spencer recalls their first in-country training session on Feminist Participatory Action Research. The Vietnamese translators animatedly discussed finding the correct and appropriate word to describe “feminist” where all the participants became involved in spirited debate. ‘We quickly became aware a key concept underpinning our project was somewhat contentious and problematic for gender analysis training,’ says Dr Spencer.
It turns out that the literal translation of “feminist” or “feminism” into Vietnamese sounds heavy and violent, which easily fosters misunderstandings in local communities, explains Dr Ngo. ‘For those who are unfamiliar with the terminology, they might imagine feminists as people who are very strong [and] violent and do not respect good traditional practices,’ she says. ‘That perspective might negatively impact our work. Of course, we still use that translation, but we try to frame it in more friendly terms when speaking with the public.’
The translation of “feminist” becomes much more challenging when working with ethnic minorities, as this project does, because the mainstream Vietnamese translation does not exist in the many different dialects of the ethnic minorities.
‘So we usually use Vietnamese words and explain their meaning,’ says Dr Ngo. ‘The vocabulary we use to explain feminism is new to our beneficiaries so in our training, we created the context and situation where the words appear and are used so they can understand its meaning better.’
Tailoring language and the expression of ideas to suit a cultural context have proven effective strategies to communicate gender equity concepts to local communities. Giving voice and words to the idea of gender equity within a culture is an important step in people increasing their understanding of the issue and taking steps towards improving gender equity in a way that resonates with local men and women, as have the other strategies used by the project team. Together these are opening the opportunity for the development of self-directed strategies to maximise the involvement of women and their equitable treatment.