Research Agenda — Women Internationally

Vanette Schwartz, Social Sciences Librarian, Illinois State University
Jane Nichols, Head of Teaching and Engagement Librarian, Oregon State University

The explosion of research on women’s information seeking behavior internationally has been focused around three key areas: health issues, agricultural issues, and violence and discrimination against women. Themes related to the importance of preserving and disseminating indigenous knowledge, and the centrality of oral cultures were woven throughout these three areas.

Research on women’s information seeking for health needs internationally has focused on HIV/AIDS (Adekannbi and Dada, 2017; Shabi, 2012), family planning/contraception (Adekannbi and Adeniran, 2017), maternal/child health (Obasola, 2017), breast cancer (Zaid, 2016), and chronic diseases (Bernard, 2017). Various studies showed that for health information, women preferred to get information from direct or personalized sources such as family, friends, health workers or those they viewed as more knowledgeable and with whom they could converse and ask questions. However, studies also explored the use of mass media and online options as sources of information. Media such as radio and television were often mentioned in studies, but actual use varied widely. Shabi (2012) noted that women in her study saw mass media as a luxury item just for men. Obasola’s 2017 study dealt specifically with information technology usage for maternal and child health using radio and television but also cell phones and internet access. Preference was for information that could be listened to rather than read. Barriers or impediments to media and IT usage were irregular power supply, unreliable mobile phone networks and the cost of IT devices. Additional overall barriers were illiteracy, poverty, distrust of government sources of information, and a lack of basic access to information in more remote, rural areas. Women preferred and used personal, local sources that were easily accessible.

Research on rural women’s information seeking for agricultural production has centered around planting, fertilizing and marketing crops, animal husbandry, gardening, food and nutrition, financing, availability of funds and how to acquire loans. Information on agricultural topics was most often disseminated through mass media, radio, television, newspapers, and magazines with some studies focusing specifically on information technology. Agricultural information also often came from government agencies. Inyang’s (2015) study of women vegetable farmers in Nigeria showed information from government agencies on planting, fertilizing and marketing, but often this information did not include practical lessons to help women understand what needed to be done or how something should be done. Local information from family, relatives, friends and fellow farmers were still often the most trusted and accessible way to get the information they needed. Barriers to information for rural women mirrored those discussed earlier for health information, namely lack of consistent and reliable access to a power supply, cost of equipment and lack of developed mobile networks for cell phones. Social barriers of low literacy, poverty, lack of sources for basic information and women’s lower status in rural society were also discussed. Studies by Lwoga and Chigona (2017), Tijjani, et. al. (2017) dealt specifically with information and communication technologies for rural areas.

Ugboma’s (2014) study specifically focused on rural women’s use of indigenous knowledge. Issues of family health, food processing and food preservation, and local culture were most often related to indigenous knowledge. Ugboma advocated documenting indigenous knowledge and promoting initiatives to store and disseminate the knowledge. Ukwoma and Njoku (2013) focused on women in rural cooperatives as a means of providing farming information. The cooperatives offered seminars, radio programs, workshops and visits by extension workers to communicate information on sources of funding available to women farmers. Ukwoma advocated for local librarians going out to meet with rural women and providing personalized services for them, rather than focusing on constructing library buildings. Within what is often seen as an ‘oral society’ in which listening is the equivalent of reading and speaking is the equivalent of writing, a personalized, conversational approach may be a better means of conveying the information rural women need. Zaid and Popoola’s (2010) study of the quality of life among rural women in Nigeria also reinforced the view that face-to-face contacts with family and friends were the most useful way for rural women to convey information.

The use of information gathering as a means to reduce and prevent discrimination and violence against women is another emphasis in women and gender studies research internationally. Anaeme’s 2012 article looks at the possibilities of library services to combat female genital mutilation, child marriage, prostitution, domestic violence and trafficking in Nigeria. Gisele Rocha Cortes, et. al., (2012) conducted a study on women in João Pessoa, (the capital of the state of Paraíba in Brazil) who were victims of violence from 2007-2011 and made use of the services available at the Women’s Reference Center “Ednalva Bezerra” (CRMEB). The Center provided a welcoming place for women to begin recovering from abuse while also gathering data to affect changes at the policy level.

Strategies for meeting women’s information needs must be contextual and sensitive to the potentially personal nature of the information need. For example, health information is often more individualized and personalized than agricultural information. Hence agricultural information may more easily lend itself to being disseminated via mass media sources. Health information, on the other hand, often deals with privacy issues and women may not want to have such personal issues discussed in public venues or via mass media sources. Libraries in cooperation with women’s centers and shelters can form a valuable partnership to provide women with the information and skill development to deal with issues of health and violence in their homes and communities.

Future research on women’s issues internationally is vitally needed. How might libraries make information more readily accessible for essentially “oral societies”? How might local venues provide more personalized and gender sensitive information for women? How might libraries advocate for and assist in infrastructure development to provide better ways of information delivery? How might libraries work with rural women to develop their knowledge and skills in agriculture and business practices? How might libraries capture, store and disseminate indigenous knowledge and what training is needed for librarians to develop this service? How do studies of women’s health and agricultural information needs in Africa compare with other areas of the developing world?

Full citations for all works cited in this essay can be located on the Bibliography of Scholarship on Women and Gender Studies Librarianship.