Marching Ahead: Talking Gender and Development in India

Women’s Day Conversation 01| Gauthami Penakalapati

Fieldscope Blog
5 min readMar 8, 2020


The month of March witnesses the celebration of International Women’s Day on the eighth and is also marked as Women’s History Month in the United States. Globally, we will likely see many celebrations and momentous calls to action to advance the agenda for women’s development at this time. Locally, at Fieldscope, we decided to ask some real questions around gender to real change-makers we’ve had the opportunity to support: our clients.

We’re so excited to kick-off our series with Gauthami Penakalapati, a PhD student at UC Berkeley. Her research focuses on social networks, social epidemiology, social norms, global gender development, and gender equity. In particular, she is interested in using insights from gender and feminist theories to develop meaningful programs and metrics to improve women’s and girls’ empowerment in global development programs. She has extensive international research experience working with UNICEF and Innovations for Poverty Action. She completed her B.S. in Biology from Georgia Institute of Technology and her MPH from Rollins School of Public Health, Emory University.

Can you start by sharing a bit about your background and interests?
I’m currently a PhD student at UC Berkeley. I have a public health and global development background, and I see myself as an academic activist. I’m passionate about gender equity and adolescent health in India. There’s so much energy and potential among young people in India, and I’m looking forward to see how they engage with global challenges! From all the events happening in the past few months, I’m very hopeful.

How did Fieldscope factor in for your work ?
I couldn’t have done my research without Fieldscope! I conducted 43 interviews regarding adolescent empowerment in Uttar Pradesh, and I was able to find “Fieldscopers” who were fluent in regional Hindi. In addition, a translator I worked with had experience working on gender research, and so she was able to flag interesting points and provide context (to the work).

As you know March 8th is celebrated as Women’s day around the globe and we wanted to focus on what this means for development practice. There has been an emphasis on including the “Gender Lens” in the sector over the recent past. What does this really mean according to you?
The “gender lens” is so expansive! And unfortunately, it means different things for different actors. For some, it means that they’ll disaggregate their data; for others, it means repacking existing programs. Regardless, a true “gender lens” doesn’t mean making men and women “equal” — it requires careful consideration of the multiplicities of power dynamics and structures at play.

Fieldwork usually comes with a lot of its own challenges from ensuring ethical data collection, logistics, reaching a desired response rate etc.
What are some of the challenges that you’ve faced when it comes to women’s participation in community surveys?
As researchers, we expect women to be immediately comfortable and
honest with surveyors. I think it’s important to build a relationship with
women before diving straight into data collection. Everyone does this differently, but I think a primary challenge is making women feel safe and
comfortable. They’re busy women after all!

How do you think the gender of the program staff factors into this, if it does?
While I think gender of the staff is an important consideration, this varies
considerably depending on the research participants and context of the
research. Moreover, gender of the program staff is hardly the only consideration: age, caste, and dialect among others requires serious justification.

What does sustainable impact mean according to you especially when it comes to women- empowerment or gender-focused programs?
Consistency, patience, and trust in women! Girls and women don’t become “empowered” overnight or within a 6-month program. Community focused approach requires investment of time, energy, and resources. Girls and women already know what they want and need — we just need to listen and follow through.

Are there any specific programs or social enterprises that you think are doing this (designing for sustainable impact) well?
I’ve really enjoyed working with Milaan Foundation. Their two-year Girl
Icon Program provides leadership training for adolescent girls by creating
a safe space for girls to build confidence, self-esteem, and simply, to be
themselves! After the program, it’s amazing to see girls lead community
meetings, discuss initiatives with village elders, and even travel all over
the country. These educated and college bound-girls are making waves in
their homes and communities! Change starts there first.

How important do you think it is to have men on a team especially while working on gender related programs?
They’re absolutely important! What’s good for women is good for them too — they just need to believe it. There’s room at the top for everyone.

We want to leave on a note of inspiration. Is there any story from the field that comes to mind that you want to share with us?

Picture Credits: Gauthami Penakalapati

When I was working in rural UP on an evaluation of an adolescent-empowerment program, I was lucky to meet some incredible girls there. One in particular sticks out for me. I met Sita (name changed) when she was about to park her motorcycle outside her house. Struck by the rare sight of that, I started a conversation with her. She told me her father taught her how to ride before he left to be a rickshaw driver in Delhi. She had to learn how to ride (a motorcyle) because her school is tens of kilometers away. At first, people talked behind her back about riding a motorcycle and her short hair. Not the “good Indian girl” her community expected her to be. But she had since taught three other girls in her village how to ride motorcycles. She told me it helped that she had thick skin because no one could bother her much anymore. Can you imagine the amount of energy and persistence it took for Sita to be herself?!

That is so powerful. Thanks for sharing that . It was an absolute pleasure to hear your insights. Here’s to hope and more power to the Sitas of the world! Happy International Women’s Day!

Views expressed are those of the interviewee and not Fieldscope. If you want to share a question or reaction to this conversation, please use the comments section or reach us at



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