Tap into women’s indigenous knowledge to tackle societal ills

Women farmers. 'Women are consulted when choices are made as to the appropriate grazing and/or breeding strategies.'

Photo credit: File I Photo

What you need to know:

  • Such knowledge is getting more attention in climate change research.
  • A team from Kenyatta University is working on building gender-responsive climate-resilient communities in South Sudan.

The World Intellectual Property Day was marked on April 26 under the theme ‘Women and IP: Accelerating Innovation and Creativity’ to draw attention to women’s roles in scientific work, art, business and general societal transformation.

This brings to mind the concept of indigenous knowledge – the system of ideas, technology, innovations and practices generated, preserved, applied and transmitted over generations by communities for management of their ecology and economy.

This knowledge is gender-differentiated as a result of the division of labour. In an article on the subject, Maria Fernandez and Akke Tick note, for example, that in the Andes, “women have much more knowledge of livestock management practices than men, [who] know much more about soil classification criteria.”

Logically, “women are consulted when choices are made as to the appropriate grazing and/or breeding strategies.” Bernadette Montanari and Sylvia Bergh (2019) observe that “women are widely recognised as the gatekeepers of traditional knowledge linked to natural resource management” by virtue of their roles in “providing daily subsistence for their families”, which enjoins them on “ecological knowledge, and interest in environmental protection and management”.

Climate resilience

Such knowledge is getting more attention in climate change research. For example, a team from Kenyatta University is working on building gender-responsive climate-resilient communities in South Sudan as part of the Supporting Pastoralism and Agriculture in Recurrent and Protracted Crises Programme funded by Canada’s International Development Research Centre and the United Kingdom’s Foreign Development and Commonwealth Office.

One objective of the research is to examine women’s versus men’s indigenous knowledge in enhancing climate-resilient livelihoods and community-based natural resources management among the Dinka of the Jonglei Region.

Studies show that women have significant traditional knowledge about the uses of herbs, roots, fruits, nuts, berries, vegetables and barks for medicinal and culinary purposes. This knowledge is handy for survival in times of deprivation and in treatment of measles, cuts, dysentery, gastro-intestinal upsets, worm infestation, unhealthy skin, sexually transmitted diseases, boils, headache, haemorrhage and snake bites.

Related is knowledge on the nutritional and medicinal value of traditional vegetables, held by women for centuries, and now validated.
Among the Turkana, women have expert knowledge of the use of herbs to extract retained placenta, hence saving the lives of mothers going through difficult labour. Some such knowledge on management of maternity is sometimes misunderstood.

In West Pokot, for instance, pregnant women are discouraged from consuming fattening foods. While this may be treated as nutritional discrimination, it is actually done to control foetal mass and weight, hence saving women from difficult births, which is critical in contexts with few conventional maternity services.

In the traditional community, women play a critical role in seed identification and preservation, as well as threshing, winnowing, fumigation and storage of cereals and drying and milling of vegetables and tubers for use during lean times. They have intimate knowledge about processing of milk into yoghurt, butter, cheese and ghee as well as diversification of carcass into various meat products.

Food security

Among fishing communities, women are specialists in processing of landed fish. This traverses cleaning, de-scaling, gutting, chopping and cooking the same. They are also adept at salting, sun-drying, smoking and frying fish for preservation, which is important for food security, minimisation of wastage and stabilisation of prices.

Brewing of traditional beverages, alcoholic and otherwise, is largely exclusive to women, whether it is uji, mnazi, busaa, chang’aa or muratina in Kenya, Areke in Ethiopia or Amarula in Swaziland.

In most Kenyan communities, women are the traditional practitioners of crocheting, pottery and basketry. The ciondo automatically comes to mind. That this world-famous indigenous basket was patented by foreigners is something worth pursuing with the World Intellectual Property Organisation.

The production of bead products is another indigenous industry specific to women and one currently being used for their economic empowerment in northern Kenya.

With regard to pottery, the products are not only aesthetic, they are also climatically appropriate for the tropics whether talking of refrigeration pots, earthen cutlery or cooking ware. Another realm is that of hair styling, textiles and dyeing, largely a women’s domain in various parts of Africa, Asia and the Caribbean Islands.

When it comes to architecture, one example of women’s indigenous knowledge is visible among the Gabra at Kalacha Cultural Centre in Marsabit County.

The art and science in these activities is highly intricate and qualify them as ethno-mathematics. If such knowledge were to be used as foundations for teaching, girls would have a head-start in mathematics and science.

Of course women also play a primary role in the generation and perpetuation of morals, values, customs, philosophies, wisdom and history through oral literature.

In summary, there is no shortage of examples of women’s indigenous knowledge. Such should not only be celebrated but also monetised, preserved and adopted for use in tackling current and future problems.

Dr Miruka is an international gender and development consultant and scholar ([email protected]).