Marching Ahead: Talking Gender and Development in India
Conversation 03| Devyani S.
Times may feel strange right now in the midst of a global pandemic, but it’s all the more reason that we need to keep Marching Ahead with conversations of hope and learning.
For our third interview in the series, we learned so much from the experience and wisdom of Devyani, an evaluation consultant who has over 14 years of experience in the social sector, with a focus on research and Monitoring & Evaluation (M&E).
Devyani has been a core team member of Niiti Consulting since 2013, and also leads the M&E practice at Probex Consulting. Her clients include Nilekani Philanthropies and Oxfam in India, and IFAD in Afghanistan and Kenya. She possesses a B.A. from Wesleyan University in the U.S., and a M.Sc.Pl. from the University of Toronto in Canada.
Let’s start with a brief introduction to your path in the social sector.
When I was in the 9th grade, I had the opportunity to be exposed to the work of Kutch Mahila Vikas Sangathan in Gujarat. Ever since then, I have known that I wanted to work in the social sector and in particular on the issue of gender! I worked in full-time positions at NGOs until 2010, when I decided to become a consultant. For the last decade, I have been working as an evaluation and research consultant in the social sector.
How did you cross paths with Fieldscope?
I am currently working with a portfolio of organizations supported by Nilekani Philanthropies, that engage young men and boys to further gender equality. I have designed and am conducting research on the grantees’ projects, both to strengthen their own work as well as create an evidence base on engaging young men and boys for gender equality. I hired translators through Fieldscope to both translate project documents as well as the data collection tools for the project.
Great! We’ve been asking everyone we’ve chatted with to tell us what comes to mind when they think of the “gender lens” and how that gets incorporated into your work.
As an evaluator, part of my job is to gather evidence on the extent to which a project has achieved the outcomes and impacts that it intended to. However, it is equally my job to investigate whether the project has created any unintended outcomes and impacts (either positive or negative!). This is where the idea of using gender as a lens becomes very important, because even projects that don’t intend to impact gender relations often do so (again, either for better or for worse). My use of gender as a lens begins with ensuring that I collect sex-disaggregated data to understand how projects are differentially impacting men and women, regardless of the project’s sectoral focus. In agriculture projects, when you ask men and women separately about who makes cropping decisions, you get some interesting answers!
At the same time, I think it is important that donors extend and expand their support of projects that explicitly focus on gender equality. The focus on gender might in fact be diluted rather than strengthened if it is only looked at as a lens and not an issue in its own right, which requires dedicated programs to address.
As an M &E expert, you’re well versed with the challenges of fieldwork. What are some particular challenges when it comes to women’s participation in community surveys?
When conducting surveys or interviews, it’s important for me to be able to speak to the respondent alone so that his or her answers aren’t influenced by neighbors or other family members. As a female researcher, it’s pretty easy for me to speak to women and girls in the relative privacy of their homes. I imagine that this would be harder for a male researcher.
On an evaluation where we were conducting a large number of interviews with women, I partnered with a data collection agency in Delhi that works mostly with enumerators who are female. Since then, I have started hiring these women even for projects where gender is not a consideration, because they are committed, skilled enumerators. In a multi-lingual country like India we need enumerators like them in every region, and sometimes I have thought of starting a women’s data collection agency of my own!
What does sustainable impact mean according to you especially when it comes to women-empowerment or gender-focused programs?
Because evaluation and program funding are usually tied to one another, when the program ends we stop measuring its impact as well. This is very problematic, because this means that most often we just don’t know if a program’s impact has been sustained or not.
Is there any social enterprise/NGO or any initiative that you’ve come across that does this i.e. measure and sustain impact well?
An NGO that I’ve found to be an exception to this rule is Arpan. I find their work to be very interesting for three reasons.
Firstly, Arpan does not differentiate between boys and girls in the delivery of its flagship Personal Safety Education (PSE) program to prevent child sexual abuse and provide counseling. By doing so, Arpan reframes child sexual abuse and challenges the myth that it only happens to girls. Secondly, as part of its commitment to using evidence to improve its programs, Arpan conducted a study to identify what would be the optimum interval after which to provide a refresher to their PSE participants. They have since incorporated this refresher into their program, which is critical to their ability to have sustained impact. Thirdly, while many child sexual abuse prevention programs do not go beyond measuring whether participants remember what has been taught to them, Arpan’s M&E system also tracks cases in which children have used the skills learnt in threatening situations.
Thanks for sharing that. In your experience of working in India in the development sector, how inclusive do you think the sector is in and of itself for women?
I think that the development sector does better than other sectors in recruiting women. However, because organizations are often under-funded and yet are ambitious in terms of their social impact goals, most development professionals in full-time positions are continuously overworked. This is an issue for both men and women, as work-life balance is important for everyone’s mental health. However, for women who are also responsible for domestic work and caregiving, maintaining a full-time position in this sector is often just not feasible.
I meet many more mid-career consultants who are women than men, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence! I believe that if the heads of development organizations routinely considered their employees’ existing workloads before taking on new opportunities (however exciting they may be), it would go a long way towards addressing this issue.
Couldn’t agree more! How important do you think it is to have men on a team especially while working on gender related programs?
For programs like the ones that I am working with now, which engage young men and boys on gender issues, it is critical to have men on the team as role models.
Lastly, we want to leave on a note of inspiration. Is there any story from the field that comes to mind when you think of inspiring women that you want to share with us?
A few years ago, I conducted an evaluation of an agricultural project in one of the poorest and most food insecure regions of Kenya. In addition to farmers, we also interviewed several other stakeholders in the region. To my surprise, the government official, the bank manager, the agricultural entrepreneur we interviewed…all of them were women! As were most of the farmers. While I’m not suggesting that Kenya has achieved gender equality by any means, the presence of women in so many diverse fields even in a remote region was truly inspiring. In the Indian context, where women’s workforce participation is shrinking, this experience was an important reminder that there is another path that our country can take.
That’s a powerful image to leave with! Thank you so much for your time and insights, Devyani. Wish you all the best for the important work you do.
Post Script: Since we’ve been discussing the gender lens in development practice, this article reinstates why applying the lens thoughtfully at the right time can protect those who are most vulnerable in times of crisis.
Views expressed are those of the interviewee. If you want to share a question or reaction to this conversation, please use the comments section or reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org.