Need for more data where women are visible – with Bidisha Barooah

Need for more data where women are visible – with Bidisha Barooah

About the episode

In episode 5 of the Swashakt podcast, 3ie evaluation specialist Aastha Dang speaks to Bidisha Barooah, who led the gender and livelihoods portfolio at 3ie before moving to the International Fund for Agricultural Development as Lead Economist.

She speaks about women’s care work – taking care of children and senior family members at home – and how there is a new push from researchers and organizations to measure it. She talks about the importance of and need for more data where women are visible – to facilitate data-driven decision-making.

This podcast series has been produced by the International Initiative for Impact Evaluation (3ie) and is inspired by our Swashakt evidence program and our Rural India Livelihoods Project. The views expressed are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect positions or policies of 3ie.

Host: Aastha Dang
Production team: Annie Vincent, Durgadas Menon, Kirthi V Rao, Shailendra, Tanvi

Disclaimer: The podcast has been edited for clarity.

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  • [Intro]


    Aastha: The world is not on track to achieving the Sustainable Development Goal #5 on gender equality and women's empowerment. Where have we reached and how far do we need to go? While data can throw light on this question, there is no substitute for the wisdom of practitioners. Join us for this podcast series as we try to understand empowerment better and explore the pathways towards economic empowerment, in particular, self-empowerment for women who are part of collectives in low- and middle-income countries. We are talking to a series of women whose training and experience can act like beacons on this journey. I am Aastha Dang, evaluation specialist at 3ie. Today we are with Bidisha Barooah, who was leading 3ie's Gender and Livelihoods portfolio before moving to the International Fund for Agricultural Development. Hi Bidisha. Thank you so much for joining us today and I'm going to dive deep into the interview. So, my first question to you is whom do you see as an empowered woman?

  • [Independent decision-making]


    Bidisha: Thanks Aastha. You know it's really, really great to be here and you just started off with the with the most difficult question. Yeah. But I must say that, and this is really my understanding of women's empowerment in particular, I view as an empowered woman, one who has the opportunity and the ability to take decisions independently on matters that affect her life and her livelihood and these decisions could be related to her own personal space, her role vis-a-vis the community, her role within the family, her children or you know her decision to whether or not to have children. I think all of this really go into into making an empowered woman.
    Aastha: Thanks Bidisha. I personally loved your answer as to what goes into you know defining an empowered woman. So I have another question for you then. What are some common beliefs about women's empowerment, you know, that are normally existing that you would question.
    Bidisha: Yeah, I mean Aastha, you know what I find quite frustrating in my understanding and in my reading of where the field of women's empowerment has reached today is that, you know, often people tend to take a very tunnel vision.

    And I would not say this of all people who are perhaps interested in women's empowerment, but I think the generic view of empowerment is a woman who has a paid job, perhaps basically, who is earning an income of her own. That is how, you know, the society or even the media presents an empowered woman. What we don't know - and this is where I would really like to question, you know, these views of or I would rather say these general common views of what makes an empowered woman - is we really don't know what drives the choices that we may make. Perhaps given the choices that are available to a woman, she is making the right decision. She is making her optimal decision given the choice set that she has.

    For example, I was actually, I tend to be on social media and I saw someone making a very flippant comment about how a woman who stayed at home taking care of her children is actually disempowered. What I found very intriguing about this comment was that we really do not know how these decisions were made by the woman. Perhaps you know the only options for, say, work or working outside the home is the worst of the options for her. Maybe stepping out of your home, working outside her home may put her at certain health risk. Maybe she does not have access to dignified work and given the choice set that she has, her optimal decision, her optimal response is actually to stay at home and take care of her children. So when I see these very flippant comments or very, you know, top of the head reactions, I tend to, you know, step back and reflect. And this is also something that I would really like to challenge you know, on the notions of what makes an empowered women or what empowers women.

    The bottom line that we want to reach as researchers of gender is that women need to have opportunities and you know, the opportunities that are equal to men. And then based on that, they should be free to take the decisions that they eventually do end up taking.

  • [Dynamism in research on empowerment]


    Aastha: Very true Bidisha. Optimal opportunity, optimal choice and you know, agency to be able to make that choice. I think you summed it up beautifully. My next question is more personal. You have been working in the sphere of, you know, promoting women's economic empowerment for quite some time. So what is it that excites you about this work?

    Bidisha: Definitely there are a lot of these really, really innovative, you know, projects and approaches that have come in in measuring women's empowerment and precisely taking into account all of, you know, the constraints that women face. As well as you know the options that are open to women to understand really women's decision making better. So that's a field that is very exciting for me.

    The other really exciting area of research in women's empowerment around women's care work, I just love the fact that you know so many seasoned researchers and so many organizations are actually now pushing that the care work that women do at home, taking care of their children taking care of, you know, dependents that needs to be accounted and how do we measure that. I think that's a very exciting field of work that's coming up. I also love the fact that I would call it, you know, that its some kind of a movement, solidarity, some kind of a solid show of solidarity that women across continents across geographical areas and across different class barriers are showing towards being counted. The push that data which is so important to understand, and you know we are all for data driven decision making, that women need to be visible in the data. I do see a lot of exciting work that's happening there and yeah just overall.

    I see a lot of energy, a lot of dynamism in the research around women's empowerment.

  • [Bias within spaces and mobilization of women]


    Aastha: Thanks Bidisha. I think the point that you brought forth about data is so critical because women and I mean gender as a category has been missing from data. And I think now that there are synergies going around you know working towards it is a potentially great contribution for the cause of women's empowerment. So my next question is more also about the work that you've been doing.
    In your view, how does mobilising women into groups helps to strengthen their voice or agency?

    Bidisha: You know, we have been and when I say we, I mean me and my team we have you know, looking at all the literature that exists on group-based livelihoods, related work projects for and how they work towards improving women's economic empowerment and we find that you know what is the perhaps the most critical component of that really comes with mobilization and that adds towards the empowerment process is solidarity. Really the formation of a network of women who can act as a support system or a peer network that enables women to actually challenge and bargain with spaces And I have been, for the lack of a better word I'm using the word spaces, with spaces where previously they probably as a single lone woman would not have been able to deal or compete in those spaces. And these spaces could be say vis-a-vis the state, the markets and the institutions. These places are primarily biased, you know they're gender biased. A group of women bargaining in these spaces may actually be more effective than a lone woman.
    So I do see that, you know, that actually is where I see the biggest contribution of women's groups.

    Aastha: I mean you outlined the contributions but what according to you are stumbling blocks also to these collectives that are empowering women.
    Bidisha: Precisely these. The problems of cooperation still exist you know and how do we get a group of women, and they may have been mobilised into a group, into a livelihoods group, into a collective, into a company, into a self-help group. But how do we get them to cooperate, and you know take up collective bargaining. I think this is really a challenge and this is also conundrum. I think that it requires a lot of in-depth, you know, research into group dynamics, into the intersectionality that exist within these groups. What are the barriers that could come up as these women as groups engage with other agencies. I think that that is actually quite a huge barrier.

    And you know and since you are saying it, you know Aastha, I kept thinking about again, you know, this was a common thing I overheard about the overturning of the Roe versus Wade in US. How is it that you know, the pro-abortion movement did not pick up as much steam or strength as one would have expected it to. Is it because, you know, there was a lack of cohesion, there was a lack of concerted effort, or where they just.. Why did it not become a revolution for something that I thought about and I don't have any answers to that at the moment though. It's really about what are the principles of cooperation within these groups that that require more thinking about.

  • [Self-help groups moving the dial]


    Aastha: Your point about these movements is very cogent because I remember reading about some Latin American movements also about women coming together and how revolutions can happen. So the strategies around collectivisation can be very, very critical and also they can lead to weakening of these groups. Bidisha my next question is, are there some women empowerment interventions that you feel like we know enough about but they are yet to be seriously implemented?

    Bidisha: There is enough evidence on women's self help groups which are based out of India and there have been certain models that have been tried out in other countries. But what I found that was very different about the groups operating in other countries, particularly in Africa, is that it's really around credit and savings. It's not so much around solidarity, which is the basis of self help groups in India.
    And there is actually very strong evidence now that the self-help groups in India have really been able to move the dial, I would say, on women's economic empowerment. Whether they have been transformative or not, that remains to be seen. But definitely you know these have been able to move things along. So I do agree that you know that is one type of intervention, that one model that needs to be taken seriously and needs to be tested in other contexts as well.

    Aastha: Bidisha, my final question to you is we would like to understand from you what type of trainings or capacity building is most important for collectives as they embark on the process of entrepreneurship?

    Bidisha: I would say that you know the type of training that would work for women would be actually learning on the job and also, definitely more hands on. Which is less theoretical, less classroom based. One has to understand that you know, women's time is really, limited, right? Particularly for a woman who has a family to look after, she cannot be expected to sit for hours in a classroom training setup. So they have to learn on the job and that is where I see a lot of potential. And there have also been certain studies that have said that it is this experiential learning that is actually the way to reach out to women and build their capacity. And you have also mentioned how can we know more about trainings.
    I would love to understand how digital trainings and educational technology would work for women, because with with digital training and educational technology, you are really trying to… You are giving women more control over the pace of the training and they can pace it out according to their requirement, according to their schedules and it’s also something that they can do from their homes while they are doing many other chores. I see a lot of potential in that for women.

    Aastha: Thanks, I couldn't agree more with you Bidisha. Thank you so much. This was so insightful and it was wonderful chatting with you.
    Bidisha: Thank you, Aastha, and thank you for inviting me for this podcast. A pleasure.