InsuResilience in conversation with: Janot Mendler de Suarez


Janot Mendler de Suarez has co-designed the Climate & Gender Game in cooperation with the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre: A participatory activity to support experiential learning and dialogue on the differential vulnerability of women and men facing climate variability and change.

She is currently working as a Climate Centre Technical Adviser with the Partners for Resilience Alliance in Haïti and the wider Caribbean, building on her last six year’s work with Togo Red Cross, the National Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction, and the German Red Cross piloting forecast-based financing. Janot also consults with the World Bank disaster risk management team including co-designing a game on disaster risk financing and insurance options for national governments. Adding to her extensive past experiences in the field, Janot served as a judge for the MIT Climate Accelerator InsuResilience challenge last year.

Why is gender an important topic in the climate change adaptation discussion?

Gender is an important topic for climate change adaptation for many reasons. Yet, the simplest one is that people of different gender experience the impacts and effects of climate change in different ways. Hence, it is important that we make an effort to disaggregate our data and to understand what these differences are.

For example, in a Caribbean regional Red Cross meeting in Trinidad and Tobago, women in the audience pointed out that during flooding, women generally take care of the children and try to secure household items. However, there is a higher percentage of women who have never learned how to swim in comparison to men. Therefore, women are in more danger and less equipped to save themselves and their children during a flood. Nevertheless, there are more nuanced reasons why we need to understand the differentiated vulnerabilities of women, children and other marginalized groups. Addressing the specific vulnerabilities of women is probably, from our data and understanding, the single most effective way to address vulnerability to climate impacts. The best use of our resources, time and assistance capacities would be to focus on gender inequality and inequity. If we address those, we will have fundamentally better strategies for adaptation.

What purpose does the Climate & Gender game serve?

Initially, the game was designed jointly with Kenya Red Cross at a time after a long period of drought. We used it in the region of Kenya that had been most severely affected by this extended drought. Consequently, many farmers had lost their harvest for three or four years and gotten to the point where their only remaining asset was their land – or their young people. Many families had sent their sons and daughters off to the surrounding cities to find work. Girls would try to find work as domestics and boys as labourers, but of course, young people from farming communities are vulnerable to exploitation in the cities. Below the surface, there are many layers of vulnerability that are exacerbated by climate shocks.

Kenya Red Cross had introduced improved cassava cultivars in this region as a drought-resistant crop, however, most people thought they did not like cassava. We wanted to encourage farmers to think about planting decisions as a way to adapt to a changing climate, so we made the choice between planting maize, their preferred crop, with cassava, as a more climate-resilient alternative. The Kenya Red Cross saw a game as a great way to carefully open up conversations about the ways in which climate impacts gender.

These are delicate as one consequence of communities and households suffering under extended hardship, such as in droughts, is that the rate of violence against women and children tends to increase. Thus, we did not want to engage in a conversation focused on blame and shame, which could potentially aggravate an already sensitive issue, instead of on eliciting empathy and enabling people to talk about what is actually changeable. Thus, when the game begins it is not explicitly about gender – the issue is sneaked in as a surprise while we are talking about climate.

How does the game work?

The game is about planting decisions. The currency of the game is beans. You start out with a few beans which you can either plant or exchange for a climate-resilient variety. Players have three options: plant a flood-resistant crop (e.g. rice), a drought-resistant crop (e.g. cassava), or the traditional crop, which in this part of Kenya is maize. Every player makes their planting decision depending on their own perception of risk. Yet, the game is set up so that there are two ways to win: as an individual or as a team. To win as an individual you are competing against your teammates, making your planting decision under time pressure. At the same time, your team represents your community, village or farmers’ cooperative. To win as a team, we encourage people to confer with each other so that they can discuss how they can best manage their collective risk. Ideally (and usually) a strategy for distributing risk within the team emerges.

A six-sided dice is used as a randomizer to represent the “historical probability distribution function of rainfall”. Tossing the dice, a one represents very little rainfall: Drought. With one, the maize would fail, but cassava would still produce a crop. Rolling a two, three, four or five, represents the range of normal rains that would be okay for maize as well as the climate-resistant varieties to succeed. Rolling a six represents extreme rainfall, and no maize or cassava harvest, as all seeds would be washed away. However, if you chose to buy rice to plant, it would still succeed under flood conditions. In the game, it becomes apparent how some people may be more risk-averse and conservative. Yet, it is not about right or wrong choices, but rather how to hedge their choices, ideally, to be able to distribute their risk with a mix of planting decisions across the team.

Generally, some people will begin to do well in the game, accumulating more and more beans as they are able to harvest. For example, when good rains are rolled, you earn a bean whether you planted maize, cassava or rice. However, if one is rolled, anyone who bought rice to plant that season will succeed and earn a bean, while anyone who planted maize or cassava will have no harvest and will also have to spend beans to feed their family. Like in the real world, if players do not get their harvest, they have to spend their reserve, depleting assets to support their families and buy food in that year. Consequently, when multiple droughts or floods happen, people’s resources can get depleted very rapidly. If they run out of beans altogether, they must migrate – in the game, they join the other team. Without resources, migrants become pressure on the other team. The game is quite dynamic and as it goes through multiple seasons, people begin to learn from their decisions and adjust their choices trying to better manage their climate risk.

How did gender-differentiated vulnerabilities to the impacts of climate change influence the game design?

To introduce the gender dimension, as soon as players have grasped how to make planting decisions based on their understanding of climate risks, we offer a blind random distribution of bracelets. There are only enough for about half of the players, so anyone who wants a bracelet can have one until they run out. Then we reveal that, if you have a bracelet, regardless of your actual gender, you are now going to play as a man. Everyone without a bracelet, independent of their actual gender, is now going to play as a woman. We explain that in this new round of the game, men and women begin with different assets. In Kenya, we happened to know that, at the time, 7% of land ownership was female, while the number of females as head of households was growing. We do not however discuss it at this point; we just say that men will start with three beans, and women will start with one.

How did participants react after hearing the different starting positions of men and women in the game?

There are of course many different reactions, but generally, when we reveal the meaning of the bracelet, for many people their gender just changed, and the surprise makes the game even more fun. People gasp, look embarrassed or laugh. We explain, if you are a woman and you have a bracelet, you just became a man. If you consider yourself male by birth, you get to stay a man, however, there will now be many women playing as men, and men playing as women. There is a lot of laughter and humour is infused into the roleplay. I have seen people stand up and mimic what they think is the other gender’s way of walking and gesturing. Nevertheless, there is usually a big groan when we announce that as of now, female players start with fewer assets, ergo fewer beans, than their now male counterparts.

By this point, we praise the players for having all become experts in the game – ready to rise to this new challenge. Their decisions in the game have nothing to do with gender, yet knowing that bracelet “men” started with an advantage, and by playing out the imposed gender differences, it becomes increasingly clear that gender inequality is a very important factor in the outcome of the game. Interestingly, having played this game many times in many different countries, in general, I can say that men tend to take riskier decisions whereas women tend to take more prudent decisions and are more likely to invest in protecting themselves from a possible climate shock. However, we let the players draw their own conclusions.

We have a standard, quick way to debrief the game and move towards defining a gender-sensitive approach to climate change adaptation. First, we ask people what emotions they felt in the game. The game is like learning to fly in a flight simulator. You get into the story of the game. Let’s say you put your last beans into planting, you have no more assets. Whether or not your decision is successful, and you can reap a harvest or not, is going to determine whether you can even stay in your community. Part of it is making a prudent decision; still part of it is just luck. The climate is never a fixed probability. Even those who are making the best decision are subject to an extreme event and can get their assets wiped out. Your heart rate can even go up – waiting for that dice to land!

The issue is that when people think about what they feel, they give themselves permission to connect their head and heart, their emotions to their objective. Letting people validate their emotions enables players to value their whole experience of the game, including their intuitive or emotional intelligence, while also taking a step back trying to think about climate-smart actions for the community and how gender contributions and barriers need to be part of the discussion on climate change adaptation.

The second question is what insight players can draw from the Climate & Gender game, particularly, about how the game relates to reality. While the game is close to reality, it is not a representation of reality. The discussion on gender is detached from people talking about their specific households, and rather on how in this general community the scenarios would play out in reality. As the game facilitator, we do not know necessarily where they want the conversation to go. We ask people to tell us, to tell each other really, how women and men are vulnerable in different ways. What could we do about it in a real situation like what we simulated in the game? This gives a practical, simple way to allow people to connect the narrative, dynamics and risk system of the game to their own experience, concerns and opportunity. We think of the game as a dynamic system model that players actually inhabit. How people define their own reality steers the conversation to what can be done to manage their risks: what are the risks that could be avoided, how could they do that, what risks could be reduced when impacts cannot be prevented, how to reduce them…how to be better prepared for the risks that can not be avoided. People come up with practical ideas that they can work on, and that brainstorming is what we want the game to stimulate.

How does the game contribute to a gender-sensitive approach to climate change adaptation?

The gender-sensitive approach to climate change adaptation that emerges in the game is very contextual, and because it involves emergent complexity, each particular game and players result in different strategies. In the debriefing insight part of the game, it is important to be sensitive to the fact that a game is not going to solve the problems overnight, and also to avoid putting female players at risk, especially when playing with vulnerable communities under a lot of pressure facing very real risks. Because in some situations physical violence against women for being outspoken could be a very real potential consequence, we try to be very careful not to put women on the spot, to be respectful that people may not want to have conversations that could trigger punishment later at home. Meaning conversations that would put, for instance, a husband, in a position of feeling publically shamed by a wife. It is more useful to keep the conversation about the community. What could you do differently, how could you do better as a community? We allow people to pose their questions to each other about how these vulnerabilities affect them as a household and community.

Debrief discussion is part of the game. First, by asking if the game is a good representation of reality, people reflect on their climate risks and it makes the positive contributions of women and other differently vulnerable people in the community come to light, as well as the constraints and barriers resulting from gender inequity. To engender deeper dialogue we ask how the game could be made even more realistic. In this way the game is a subtle means to enable community members, or members of a community of practice, to draw very clearly from the game experience that one’s gender does not determine who makes better decisions. The human data in front of us in reflecting on the game tends to show that women are making winning decisions no matter if they are wearing a bracelet or not, playing as a man or not. We want to praise the decision making of everyone in the community, and especially highlight the good decisions of women whenever women have generally not been involved. For example, in decision-making on planning or mobilizing early action and risk reduction action.

Hence, the exact turnout of game discussion very much depends on the specific group we are playing with as well as the background risks, especially for women, girls and other disadvantaged members of a community. For example, in Kenya, a key social issue in need of a national conversation is the importance of talking with young people around building respect between boys and girls. Climate change impacts bring the issues of social cohesion, and female-headed households into focus, such as barriers resulting from traditional land tenure systems. These are appropriate conversations for their context.

Given the current context of gender-differentiated vulnerability and adaptive capacity, which opportunities do you see in regards to coping with climate change?

After a plan emerges from the brainstorming, we ask more concrete questions: Are you actually able to carry out the risk reduction plan that you just outlined? In the game, sharing resources is not allowed. Yet, in the discussion on what they can do in reality, they can and want to help each other. Maybe they want to create a community reserve, a little granary or a seed bank. That is an important adaptation decision. How is this to be managed? Do women have a say in how it is allocated? What do you actually need for this plan: do you need resources, technical assistance, equipment? Who will do what and when? How does this plan address the needs of women and men? How does the plan utilize the capacities of women as well as men? We want to allow the conversation to show how the decision-making capacity and ideas of women, as well as men, are necessary to have a robust contingency plan. The plan will reflect the things women can do better, more efficiently, or with more precision. These are the roles that should be acknowledged. The emerging adaptation plan and how it positively addresses as well as uses gender roles is relative to the group that is playing, but to the extent that gender differences are talked about and integrated, it will be a better plan.

In reality in the farmers’ coop in Kenya where we launched the Climate & Gender game when talking about Kenya Red Cross having introduced them to drought-tolerant cassava in the game dialogue, everyone began with how excited they were that this new crop was starting to do so well, but they were wistful because they really liked to eat maize which was their staple food. Then someone reflected that it was not so much that they did not like the taste of cassava, just that they were not used to it. Then an older man shared that he remembered his grandparents talking about the many different things they used to grow before maize was introduced and that in fact, they used to eat cassava, millet and sorghum – all more drought-resilient than maize.

Today, that farmers coop has reinvested proceeds from its cassava crop in machinery to produce flour, which they sell at a higher price than raw tubers. The men are very proud of this, but the women have also become entrepreneurs. They discovered they could make chapatis from cassava flour, opened small roadside eateries, and began selling chapatis to restaurants in the city. Then they started making pizza dough and began selling pizza crusts to the Red Cross hotels in Nairobi. We cannot claim that a game did all this, but it helped to cultivate the idea that the likelihood of more episodes of extreme drought is such that going back to maize is risky. With cassava here to stay, both women and men are working together as never before, creating livelihoods that enable young people to live with dignity on their traditional land, however, the entrepreneurship of women in creating new innovative and income-generating use of cassava is a hallmark of a climate-adaptive new way of life that is addressing both poverty and inequality, literally at the roots.

In Vietnam, during the first debrief after introducing the game to Red Cross facilitators from around the country, players completely re-wrote the game narrative. The game takes place a special part of the country “famous for its beans”, the staple crop. Other provinces pay well for these special delicious beans. You can already see how invested they became in making the game real, but also fictitious and because of this new twist to the game story, even more fun. Interestingly to localize the adaptive choices available in the game, they made maize the crop to buy to plant as a hedge against drought, when there was not enough rain for rice or beans. There was absolute refusal to accept migration with its implications of destitution and becoming a burden on the other team; instead, in the Vietnam Red Cross version of the game, if a farmer has spent all their beans and their crop fails, they are “sent to skills training”. After sitting out one round, they come back to the other team, with one bean to get started, representing the new capacity they have gained. It was very important to the Vietnam Red Cross, where gender issues are very closely linked to ethnic prejudices, that they return as a benefit to society, not a burden, and dialogue focused on addressing inequities associated with gender and marginalized groups holistically.

What sort of impact and repercussions does the game have in reality on the ground?

In Kenya, we actually saw extraordinary and ongoing results with a large farmers’ cooperative of middle-aged to older farmers who played the game. In the game, it emerged that there was one real female leader, who everyone turned to. There was also the male president of the cooperative. In the game, the woman was more powerful than the man. In reality, I suspect, she also is. She acted as a sort of spokesperson for the community. She stated very clearly that she did not personally experience any gender inequality, which in a way proclaimed herself as a role model. She did not however imply that inequalities do not affect women; she was an outspoken advocate for addressing the issues raised in playing the game: considering the different vulnerabilities of female farmers, especially female heads of household.

Game dialogue highlighted how a female farmer and head of household has many responsibilities. Take for cooking, women are the ones who collect the firewood, get up early to set the fire, start to boil the water and to cook, feed the animals, get the children ready for school, find time to do the laundry. This leaves little time to tend to her field, which she may not even own. Generally, if widowed, she would be dependent on the in-law-brothers’ lands. She may not even be allowed to keep what she grows on the land that she does not own. In the context of a community conversation, these become advocacy points that the community can come to a consensus around. It is not saying that this particular woman is vulnerable and that this widow is not in a position to stand up to the brothers of her dead husband. Yet, the farmers’ cooperative is in a position to agree on the need to look at how women in our community and within our cooperative can cope with the growing pressure of a changing climate. How can the community exert their capacity to support women as well as address inequity and unfairness?

Taking this perspective towards a collective understanding is possible as it first can be seen in the context of the game as something that could be changed. Everyone can share the conclusion that “our team could have won” if women were not subject to arbitrarily imposed constraints! As it is revealed that then everyone does better, the community asks themselves how they can overcome the constraints. The beauty of the game is that it compresses time; if we play 10 cycles, it allows you to see how over 10 years the socioeconomic status of the entire community could really change if we foster equity. We do not actually simulate equity. Instead, we allow players to tell us that if gender inequality were addressed, the community would have done a lot better. Hence, they hold great ownership of their belief and understanding of how addressing gender inequality would significantly change outcomes for the whole community.

Why do you think playing this game is important?

Having played the Climate & Gender game on several continents, I learned that it allows people anywhere to weave their own story into the game. When the country facilitators adapt the game’s narrative to their context, that retelling of the story makes the game feel fun and draws all the players into the narrative. They feel as if they are part of telling the story. This also brings the deepest conversation around their gender issues into a more immediate context. While the rules of the game should not be changed, locally tailoring the narrative allows you to go further in terms of identifying the basis and the new contributions to strengthening a community contingency plan into an early warning early action plan that is more tailored to anticipate the kinds of climate shocks that people do and will experience again.

The game is also important in terms of understanding how climate variability relates to long-term climate change, that the extreme event that you experienced last year is very likely not a once in a lifetime anomaly. In a visual and experiential way, the game allows us to explain both what climate pressure is, and how it connects to issues of social cohesion. Experiencing an extreme event once does not mean you will never see it happen again and indeed with climate change the likelihood increases. To reflect that, we sometimes change the probability. For example, to explain the way the probability of certain risks changes in an El Nino year, instead of tossing dice, we flip a Frisbee to reflect the increased probability of extreme events as more of a 50-50 chance. In-game discussions, we can think about how a future with more of these extreme events affects women differently and how we could address that in the community’s climate adaptation plan.

In general, I think using games is a great way to open conversations. Again, if you are not part of the community, coming in as an external visiting expert to play the game, it is very important to understand that gender is a sensitive topic. Much as you may be curious to hear the “real” gender stories of what goes on in women’s lives, if you are going to press that hot button, you have to take responsibility for potentially risky outcomes of the conversation that come out of the game, with possible repercussions beyond the game. When local women go home, they need to be safe in their households and not more unsafe because we have opened a conversation that puts them at risk.

If this responsibility is taken into account, the game enables a safe space for what can be highly charged conversation. The game offers a simulated reality, where I am not talking about me, but rather about our community or a community just like ours. The game is like a dynamic system, where the only thing players cannot change is how the system works: their decisions are going to have critical consequences based on the probability of rainfall, and their ability to manage those risks is not equal among all players. As immersive systems models, games give us a uniquely suited way to link cascading issues of climate vulnerability and gender. Because we enter into a narrative and invite the players to fill in that narrative themselves, the specific issues to define in a concrete gender-sensitive climate change adaptation plan come up very easily in the discussions. How these consequences play out in their society and what they want to do about it, are changeable opportunities and the conversation we want to have.

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