Addressing Inequalities at Home and Abroad: How the Gender Impacts Lab’s work cover continents

Published by Emile Creel on

“Gender and health disparities cut across all of our work, and we constantly see so many similarities even though the people we work with are living in very different countries and cultures,” said Kathleen Ragsdale, co-director of the Gender Impacts Lab and a research professor at the Social Science Research Center (SSRC).

Ragsdale and Mary Read-Wahidi, co-director of the lab and an assistant research professor at the SSRC, have been working together for years on how gender impacts health and well-being. With the support of the SSRC in 2020, they had the opportunity to bring their research in the U.S. and sub-Saharan Africa under one umbrella – the Gender Impacts Lab. Launched in the spring of 2020, the lab’s website was developed by students in Mississippi State University’s Department of Communication under the supervision of Terri Hernandez. 

“We’re very proud of our lab’s site and the online presence Dr. Hernandez’s team built. In fact, the site recently won awards at the Public Relations Association of Mississippi,” said Ragsdale.

The site details the mission and scope of their research program, which focuses on on-going and completed projects in the U.S., Ghana, Mozambique, and Zambia. It is purposefully designed to highlight the lab’s work and – equally importantly – to serve as a learning tool and vehicle to showcase the common themes of their work – whether in Mississippi or sub-Saharan Africa – and the importance of gender-responsive approaches to improving health and well-being.

“We conduct hands-on research in the U.S. and globally to address gender equity to improve community development, health, and to empower women and men, boys and girls,” said Ragsdale.

For example, as part of their United States Agency for International Development (USAID)-funded work with the Feed the Future Soybean Innovation Lab, Ragsdale and Read-Wahidi are currently working on a project in Ghana to support ownership of low-cost and locally fabricated mechanized threshers among smallholder women farmers.

In many parts of rural Ghana – as in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa – smallholder women farmers are expected to thresh both their own fields and their husbands’ fields, which is a tremendous physical and time burden for women as mechanized threshing is rarely available. But preliminary results from their thresher evaluation project clearly shows that mechanized threshing impacts women’s agricultural productivity, food security, profits, and empowerment. In fact, their team found that mechanized threshers have the potential to reduce the labor need to thresh one acre of the crop from two weeks of hand-threshing (beating with sticks) to only four hours using a mechanized thresher.

Men fishing in Zambia

As part of their USAID-funded work with the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Fish, Ragsdale and Read-Wahidi are currently working on the FishFirst! Zambia project to develop ComFA+Fish products that are biofortified to improve nutrition for infants in the “first 1,000 days of life,” which is a critical time for brain development in young children. In fact, this project is called, FishFirst! Zambia to highlight the important role that fish can play in optimizing infant nutrition in those first 1,000 days. ComFA+Fish stands for Complementary Food for Africa + dried fish powder, and Ragsdale and Read-Wahidi will be working with colleagues at WorldFish and the University of Zambia to develop and test ComFA+Fish products/recipes that can be used by women entrepreneurs to start or expand businesses while filling an important gap in high-quality, low-cost, and locally available weaning foods for infants.

Their work in Zambia began in 2018 with funding from the Fish Innovation Lab– which is based at MSU– to conduct a one-year project, Fish4Zambia. As PI of this project, Ragsdale conducted fieldwork at Zambia’s Lake Bangweulu in 2019. She was accompanied by Laura Ingouf, a senior anthropology major at MSU and undergraduate student researcher with the Gender Impacts Lab.

“Participating in fieldwork as an undergraduate has exposed me to some of the issues and complications that may arise during fieldwork and has helped me to become more prepared for the constantly evolving nature of fieldwork. I learned how to plan and coordinate teams of researchers, but also how to adapt to whatever circumstances arise,” said Ingouf. 

She continued, “I think the most memorable thing for me was working with our Zambia partners, including staff from WorldFish, a professor and students from the University of Zambia, and the translators and enumerators who had experience working in the fishing villages where we conducted our research. Even though we were only in the country for a short time, it was good to know that they would still be there, continuing this work and applying it to their local context.”

During the Lake Bangweulu fieldwork, Ragsdale and Ingouf interviewed men, women, and youth who are small-scale fishers, fish processors, and sellers/traders of fresh and dried fish to better understand how gender equity and other socioeconomic factors impact food security, nutrition, and economic development in the region. Ragsdale recounted that being on the lake felt exactly like being on the ocean, as the lake is so vast. In fact, Lake Bangweulu is locally known as the place ‘where the sky and water meet.’

The Fish4Zambia research team conducted 397 surveys and completed 21 focus group discussions. The data they collected provided valuable answers to many of their research questions.

As Read-Wahidi explained, “With the Fish4Zambia, we had a lot of questions about the different roles of men and women fishers across the fish value chain, and how that impacts the livelihoods of all members of fishing families. In terms of food security, we ultimately wanted to understand the extent to which the fish that were caught at Lake Bangweulu made their way into the poor inland households where they’re needed most.”

Ragsdale added, “We saw that getting fish into poorer households as a food source – even among fishers – isn’t always happening because fish have such a high value and are an important source of cash income for vulnerable families. And so, the benefits of nutritious fish don’t always go directly to the family because of economic issues.”

Translater and field workers in Zambia

Preliminary analysis of the Fish4Zambia data shows that, although women are equally as likely to pursue fishing, processing, and selling or trading as livelihoods, they are less likely to have ownership and control of fishing assets critical to their economic success. They also found that husbands and wives make different decisions concerning the use of income earned from fishing.

Men typically earn more than women, and women’s income is typically channeled towards household needs. As Ragsdale explained, “Men have more economic power and more capital, and they may spend money on something like a basic cell phone, which leaves women at a technology disadvantage and with less autonomy over different decisions. At the same time, women tend to target their extra income toward making sure children’s school fees are paid, healthcare needs are met, and food is provided for the family. Those are their priorities.”

The team is now looking forward to continuing their work in Zambia with the FishFirst! Zambia project. With this three-year project, the Gender Impacts Lab will shift its attention from Lake Bangweulu to Lake Kariba to continue to investigate men and women fisher’s roles and ways that fish can improve nutrition for infants in their first 1,000 days of life, through easy and accessible products like ComFA+Fish.

Work from Fish4Zambia is currently being disseminated via reports, journal articles, and webinars for the Fish Innovation Lab, USAID, Feed the Future, and the broader scientific community. Additionally, the Gender Impacts Lab plans for the coming years’ projects to include the development of online courses, workshops, and webinars.

“We’re trying to take the tools we’ve developed and the things we’ve learned and package them into workshops or courses because we want to have a suite of tools that can be utilized by others. We’re looking into a really effective way to get our research out in ways that will make a real impact with a broader audience,” said Read-Wahidi.

Whether a short drive from MSU or a days-long flight, the Gender Impacts Lab continues to aim to impact the people with whom they work.

“Gathering information by directly engaging with the people who are impacted by this work is so important because, otherwise, it could fail to address people’s actual needs,” said Ingouf.

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Story by Emile Creel, Kathleen Ragsdale, and Mary Read-Wahidi.

Photos by Kathleen Ragsdale.