The projects that are helping Zambian women get better access to land

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A female farmer in Zambia tends to her crops.
Margaret W. Nea/Bread for the World/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Cynthia Caron, Clark University

When a woman has access to and control over land and its revenue streams, she and her family benefit. Multiple studies have shown how women invest their land-based earnings in the health, nutrition and education of family members.

But for this to happen, customs that favour granting land to men must be altered. This requires both structural change, through for example government policies, and socio-cultural change.

The Zambian government has worked with civil society organisations to create a gender equality and land governance framework. Civil society organisations have used their social networks and through capacity building programmes pursue gender equality in the allocation of land in customary tenure systems.

I set out to study some of these programmes. In a recent article, I documented how women gain access to land in areas of Zambia where access is governed by traditional leaders and local customs. I was specifically interested in the role that civil society organisations play in strengthening women’s land rights in these areas.

Civil society organisations and their donors engage in five key activities that help women get access to land. They build and maintain regional and national networks; they document customary land rights and they train chiefs about gender equality. They also support men and women to work collectively within the home, and empower women to work together on pieces of land.

These activities show how civil society can support and expand the space for women’s land rights. Working with inter-generational family networks also might expand women’s access to economically-productive resources such as land.

Women’s rights organisations in other countries might draw on the Zambian experience, tailoring it to the local socio-economic and historical context within which they work.

Customary law

Zambia has two categories of land, state land and customary land. State land includes land in urban areas and land used for mining or nature conservation.

Customary land is administered by traditional leaders, such as chiefs and headpersons, according to customary law that is unwritten and based on local customs. Customary law is valid under the Constitution. Any customary practice that contradicts the constitution is illegal.

Women in customary tenure systems have what are called secondary land rights. This is because Zambia’s 288 chiefs, and village headpersons, handle land issues and generally grant occupancy and use rights to men because they’re considered the head of household. A woman tends to get access by asking her husband, or another male relative, to use a portion of the allocated land.

Gender activists are working to increase the prevalence of women as primary land rights holders. Their work is being helped by the fact that Zambia has a supportive policy environment thanks to the 2016 Constitution and the government’s gender policy.

The policies, together with a network of women and gender-oriented civil society organisations, have created momentum for legal reform and new measures to promote gender equality in the land sector. Chiefs, court officials, and men and women at the grassroots level have access to new tools to reconceptualise how men and women might work, live and develop their communities together.

Documenting and training

Changing the land use pattern faces a number of challenges. One of them is that there isn’t proper documentation of boundaries, or even of who has rights to what.

For example customary land in Zambia is neither systematically mapped nor registered. This leaves boundaries between individual plots unclear.

International organisations are working with chiefs and community groups like the Zambia Land Alliance to create what are known as Traditional Land Holding Certificates. These recognise land rights at either the individual or household level. Certifications clarify rights, verify claims through boundary demarcation, and end with the issuance of a certificate. The certificates allow a woman’s name to be listed as the land’s “primary” rights holder.

The certificate is designed to reduce property grabbing and the common practice of expelling a woman from a piece of land after her husband’s death. Establishing a system that registers these certificates and makes rights public would mean that women have a better chance of being protected.

Another major gap is knowledge. Chiefs don’t always know what the country’s policies and laws entail. Civil society organisations routinely hold provincial-level training for chiefs to explain women’s land rights. This isn’t always easy. One chief stated that “men need a bigger area” of land to cultivate than women do.

Gender rights activists try to identify more progressive chiefs who are willing to change local practice and tell men not to deny their partners’ land.


Getting men and women to work together when it comes to land is also a valuable intervention.

In many communities, husbands instruct their wives where to plant their crops. And when the cropping season is over, a woman might not be allowed to cultivate that same plot again and the husband will take it for his own cultivation.

One civil society organisation brings husbands and wives together and encourages them to own land and cultivate together. Bringing men and women within the household rather than maintaining separate fields closes the gender gap in land.

Another type of programme works through village-level groups that promote women’s collective access to land. Groups might ask their chief for a piece of land for growing crops or other income generating activities such as pig or goat rearing. If a widow’s relatives grab the property after her husband’s death, group leaders can intervene and help her keep her house and then allow her to cultivate a plot on the group’s land.

The ConversationSome organisations offer training in financial management, legal awareness, and leadership. Women then use these skills to organise, to obtain and maintain control over land and to be less dependent on men. Access to resources is based on relationships. Sustainable land rights programming and gender-equality initiatives must change not only how women think and behave but men too.

Cynthia Caron, Assistant Professor, Clark University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Why I teach math through knitting

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Math in yarn.
Carthage College, CC BY-SA

Sara Jensen, Carthage College

One snowy January day, I asked a classroom of college students to tell me the first word that came to mind when they thought about mathematics. The top two words were “calculation” and “equation.”

When I asked a room of professional mathematicians the same question, neither of those words were mentioned; instead, they offered phrases like “critical thinking” and “problem-solving.”

This is unfortunately common. What professional mathematicians think of as mathematics is entirely different from what the general population thinks of as mathematics. When so many describe mathematics as synonymous with calculation, it’s no wonder we hear “I hate math” so often.

So I set out to solve this problem in a somewhat unconventional way. I decided to offer a class called “The Mathematics of Knitting” at my institution, Carthage College. In it, I chose to eliminate pencil, paper, calculator (gasp) and textbook from the classroom completely. Instead, we talked, used our hands, drew pictures and played with everything from beach balls to measuring tapes. For homework, we reflected by blogging. And of course, we knit.

Same but different

One crux of mathematical content is the equation, and crucial to this is the equal sign. An equation like x = 5 tells us that the dreaded x, which represents some quantity, has the same value as 5. The number 5 and the value of x must be exactly the same.

A typical equal sign is very strict. Any small deviation from “exactly” means that two things are not equal. However, there are many times in life where two quantities are not exactly the same, but are essentially the same by some meaningful criteria.

Imagine, for example, that you have two square pillows. The first is red on top, yellow on the right, green on bottom and blue on the left. The second is yellow on the top, green on the right, blue on bottom, and red on the left.

The pillows aren’t exactly the same. One has a red top, while one has a yellow top. But they’re certainly similar. In fact, they would be exactly the same if you turned the pillow with the red top once counterclockwise.

Rotating two square pillows.
Sara Jensen

How many different ways could I put the same pillow down on a bed, but make it look like a different one? A little homework shows there are 24 possible colored throw pillow configurations, though only eight of them can be obtained from moving a given pillow.

Students demonstrated this by knitting throw pillows, consisting of two colors, from knitting charts.

A knitting chart for a throw pillow.
Sara Jensen

The students created square knitting charts where all eight motions of the chart resulted in a different-looking picture. These were then knit into a throw pillow where the equivalence of the pictures could be demonstrated by actually moving the pillow.

Rubber sheet geometry

Another topic we covered is a subject sometimes referred to as “rubber sheet geometry.” The idea is to imagine the whole world is made of rubber, then reimagine what shapes would look like.

Let’s try to understand the concept with knitting. One way of knitting objects that are round – like hats or gloves – is with special knitting needles called double pointed needles. While being made, the hat is shaped by three needles, making it look triangular. Then, once it comes off the needles, the stretchy yarn relaxes into a circle, making a much more typical hat.

Knitting to learn.
Carthage College, CC BY-SA

This is the concept that “rubber sheet geometry” is trying to capture. Somehow, a triangle and a circle can be the same if they’re made out of a flexible material. In fact, all polygons become circles in this field of study.

If all polygons are circles, then what shapes are left? There are a few traits that are distinguishable even when objects are flexible – for example, if a shape has edges or no edges, holes or no holes, twists or no twists.

One example from knitting of something that is not equivalent to a circle is an infinity scarf. If you want to make a paper infinity scarf at home, take a long strip of paper and glue the short edges together by attaching the top left corner to the bottom right corner, and the bottom left corner to the top right corner. Then draw arrows pointing up the whole way around the object. Something cool should happen.

Students in the course spent some time knitting objects, like infinity scarves and headbands, that were different even when made out of flexible material. Adding markings like arrows helped visualize exactly how the objects were different.

Different flavors

An infinity scarf.
Carthage College

If the things described in this article don’t sound like math to you, I want to reinforce that they very much are. The subjects discussed here – abstract algebra and topology – are typically reserved for math majors in their junior and senior years of college. Yet the philosophies of these subjects are very accessible, given the right mediums.

In my view, there’s no reason these different flavors of math should be hidden from the public or emphasized less than conventional mathematics. Further, studies have shown that using materials that can be physically manipulated can improve mathematical learning at all levels of study.

The ConversationIf more mathematicians were able to set aside classical techniques, it seems possible the world could overcome the prevailing misconception that computation is the same as mathematics. And just maybe, a few more people out there could embrace mathematical thought; if not figuratively, then literally, with a throw pillow.

Sara Jensen, Assistant Professor of Mathematics, Carthage College

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Capturing the shadow of Saturn’s moon Titan from right here on Earth

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NASA’s Cassini spacecraft captures Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, passes in front of the planet and its rings.
NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

David Coward, University of Western Australia

Titan is Saturn’s largest moon, and it is more like a planet than a moon in many respects.

It has a thick atmosphere as well as wind, rivers, lakes made of hydrocarbons such as methane, and a liquid water ocean. Understanding its atmosphere may help us in the search for life on other planets.

Hence the excitement this July when a rare opportunity was available to further study Titan, from right here on Earth. On July 18 at 11:05pm (WAST, Western Australian time) Titan passed in front of a faint star, as seen by observers across most of Australia.

Read more:
The secrets of Titan: Cassini searched for the building blocks of life on Saturn’s largest moon

This event, known as an occultation, lasted only a few minutes and about 2% of the star’s light was blocked by Titan’s atmosphere.

The effect was so small it required large telescopes and a special camera to record it. But the data gathered should have profound implications for our understanding of an atmosphere on another world.

Saturn’s moon Titan compared (by diameter) to the Earth and its Moon.
Wikimedia/The Conversation

Examining Titan’s atmosphere

Scientists have developed a very clever technique to examine Titan’s atmosphere using stellar occultations. As Titan enters and exits an occultation, the star’s light would illuminate the atmosphere from behind, but be blocked by the moon itself.

Scientists then record subtle changes in brightness of the star over a few minutes, which represents a profile of the atmosphere’s density with height.

This method was used to study Titan’s atmosphere before, during a stellar occultation in 2003.

Artist’s concept of Cassini’s June 4, 2010, flyby of Saturn’s moon Titan.

But in 2005, when Cassini’s Huygens lander arrived at Titan and descended to its surface, the atmospheric profile measured from its instruments did not match that derived from the 2003 occultation. This fuelled the question of how variable is the state of Titan’s atmosphere.

Composite of Titans surface taken by Huygens at different heights.
ESA/NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Since the Cassini mission ended in 2017, NASA’s Karsten Schindler said there was keen interest in any new atmospheric observations from occultations:

Occultations remain the only means to study Titan’s upper atmosphere and its evolution for the foreseeable future.

Countdown to the July occultation

So how were the latest observations made, and how was the data gathered?

From the air, the plan was for the July 18 occultation to be recorded by a camera mounted on a telescope of the Stratospheric Observatory of Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) on board a Boeing 747 aircraft.

SOFIA takes off from Christchurch International Airport in 2017.
SOFIA/ Waynne Williams

That’s right: a telescope mounted inside a modified passenger plane imaging an object more than 1 billion kilometres away! SOFIA would fly above the clouds between Australia and New Zealand.

From the ground, several facilities across Australia were to attempt to record the occultation.

The University of Western Australia’s Zadko Telescope, located about 80km north of Perth (see map, below), was identified by NASA as a ground facility sensitive enough to contribute to the project.

The most obvious deal breaker was the weather. July is one of the wettest months at the Zadko telescope site. But, as we found out, there were other unforseen challenges.

Three days to occultation

NASA’s Karsten Schindler arrived at the UWA research site, at Gingin, on Monday July 16, armed with a case filled with delicate cameras, cables and electronics.

The camera was the key to record the event. The current Zadko telescope camera cannot record fast enough to capture the rapid changes in brightness of the occulted star.

The Zadko Telescope was fitted out with a fast shooting (a frame every few seconds), NASA camera, more like a movie camera than a standard astronomical camera. After hours of installation, the new imaging system needed to be tested.

Ground occultation team: John Kennwell, Arie Verveer, Karsten Schindler with the Zadko Telescope in the background.

Unfortunately, the observatory roof would not open because of a faulty sensor. No Monday test, but hey, we still had Tuesday to test the system? Onsite engineers scrambled to fix the sensor ready for Tuesday.

Two days to occultation

On Tuesday, I received the following text message from the site.

11:07pm: Rain sensor working but clouded out … cheers Arie. So no chance testing the camera and weather forecast for Wednesday was bleak.

The day of occultation

Despite the cloud and nearly constant rain showers, team occulation (Karsten, Arie and John) were on site ready to start pointing the telescope and activate the imaging.

“Up to 10pm it was still raining,” Karsten told me the next morning. “Then a miracle happened.”

Less than an hour before the event, and he said the weather changed.

“The clouds seemed to vaporise away, leaving a totally cloudless sky with 100% visibility. I have never seen anything like it.”

The team swung into action, pointing the telescope at the target star, focusing the camera. At the designated occulation time 11:05pm, Karsten hit the image acquisition button, enabling the camera to take hundreds of images over a few minutes.

Read more:
What Cassini’s mission revealed about Saturn’s known and newly discovered moons

Eager to see if the data contained the signature of an occulation, the team performed a preliminary analysis within minutes. Yes, there was a clear occulation signature, a big dip in the brightness of the star at exactly the predicted time of the occulation.

Next morning I was informed that SOFIA had also captured the event.

The data recorded from the Australian ground stations and by SOFIA will be analysed over the coming weeks and published in peer reviewed journals.

The ConversationBut one thing the journals won’t highlight is the excitement of the observation, and the enormous effort by a few individuals who helped acquire this data that should hopefully give us a better understanding of the atmosphere of Titan.

David Coward, Associate professor, University of Western Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.