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Fulbright Grant Sends Alumna to Benin

Climate change discussions have revolved around myriad issues - including energy consumption, greenhouse gases, the world's food supply, and rising sea levels - but Emily Johnson '08 felt one question was being ignored: How will it affect gender roles?

It may not seem like an obvious concern at first, but Johnson says the changing climate's impact on health problems in developing countries - nations that also sometimes exhibit gender disparities - could create different effects for men versus women.

Johnson's curiosity about this issue won her a prestigious Fulbright Grant to spend the next year in Benin, where she will conduct an ethnographic research project on malaria, a disease sensitive to climate change. Johnson is one of three people from Willamette to receive a Fulbright this year.

"There is strong anecdotal evidence suggesting differential effects of climate change on women and men, yet few systematic studies have been conducted to confirm or refute these claims," says Johnson, who majored in French. "I plan to interview residents and health care providers in Cotonou to understand what is unique about men's and women's experiences with malaria, and discover what challenges individuals face because of their gender and relationship with the surrounding environment."

Mosquitoes transmit malaria, and other research has shown that the higher temperatures, humidity and added rainfall expected from climate change could extend the range where the insect can survive - resulting in increased spread of malaria.

"Some scholars suggest that the anticipated consequences of climate change will be much more devastating for women because they are already in a position of reduced power," Johnson says. "This position stems from the fact that women in developing countries often belong to the poorest and most marginalized groups of society and have limited access to resources.

"Another study conducted in Benin established that women's responsibility for child care rendered them more aware of malarial risk, yet men traditionally control the family's income, so the women had to use their own limited resources to purchase items like bed nets to protect from mosquitoes. This study demonstrates that unbalanced power dynamics lend a gender dimension to climate change."

This is not Johnson's first time exploring international health and gender issues. While at Willamette she won a Carson Undergraduate Research Grant to interview North African women immigrants in France about clashes between their Muslim religious beliefs and the French health care system.

The summer after she graduated, she worked as a research assistant for Joyce Millen, an associate professor of anthropology and an expert on world health issues, particularly in Africa.

"We traveled to Switzerland together to attend the Geneva Health Forum," Johnson says. "I also accompanied her to interviews for her own research, where I had the opportunity to see some of the anthropological methods I had studied in practice. Through this experience, I learned that it is important to never stop approaching the world as your classroom.

"Joyce Millen has been a mentor to me both academically and personally, and she has provided me with amazing opportunities to learn. She inspired not only my love of medical anthropology, but also a deeper interest in the world around me."