Marching Ahead: Talking Gender and Development in India

Fieldscope
Mar 31, 2020 · 13 min read

Conversation 04| Anoop Jain

For our fourth and final conversation of this series, we spoke with the very smart and very fun Anoop Jain! Even a few minutes into chatting with Anoop will reveal his infectious zeal for social impact and his gusto to improve the status quo of development practice. With his years of experience on the field in Bihar, he shares with us what he thinks it takes for a program to be truly inclusive for women.

Anoop Jain is the founder and director of Sanitation and Health Rights in India (SHRI). SHRI was founded in 2011 to alleviate India’s sanitation crisis. As an organization, SHRI believes that all humans deserve to live a life dignified by improved access to toilets. Anoop graduated from Northwestern University in 2009 with a degree in Environmental Engineering. After working as an engineer for a year, he quit his job after raising $30,000 to build a community soup kitchen for Tibetan Refugees in northern India. It was then, in the summer of 2010, that Anoop realized the importance of improved public health as a means of empowerment. He continued working in rural India before ending up in the state of Bihar, where SHRI was born. SHRI now operates eight facilities in two states serving thousands of people every day. Anoop received his MPH from Tulane University in 2013, and his Doctor of Public Health from U.C. Berkeley in 2019.

The staff and community in a village in Bihar where Anoop’s organization SHRI operates. PC: Anoop Jain

Note: The conversation below has been edited from an audio transcript for conciseness and flow.

Let’s start with a general introduction of yourself and your path that led to you doing the work you do now.
My path in the social sector, like many other folks, started somewhat randomly. I graduated from my undergrad in 2009, and was miserable while working an engineering job, even though I always knew that I wanted to do social justice work in India. While I was working, I raised $30,000 to build a soup kitchen for Tibetan refugees in Himachal Pradesh. Shortly after raising that amount, I quit my job and moved to India to work with the community there to build the soup kitchen, which is still going on today. The point of that project was that it was always going to be managed and owned by the Tibetan refugee community there. And so, I somewhat immediately knew, and was okay with the idea of wanting to start something of my own.

That’s when I met my colleagues who are from Bihar, and we decided that we wanted to do health work together in Bihar. Initially, we thought of doing something nutrition related with children there, but soon we realized the massive problem of open defecation, sanitation and justice in the state. Around the summer of 2010, we decided to make the shift together to the sector of sanitation, which we have been doing ever since. We provide direct services in the form of community and shared sanitation facilities, and we don’t believe that there is any one silver bullet to India’s sanitation crisis. As an organization, we want to understand the sanitation needs for each community, and that has been our approach for the past 10 years.

That’s quite a journey! Can you share how you crossed paths with Fieldscope?
Fieldscope helped us specifically during the summer of 2019. As part of our work, we were doing a lot of qualitative surveys to understand the ways in which our facilities have benefited folks in our communities where we work, and also the ways in which people feel as though their sanitation needs have still been unmet, despite our facilities being there. We did a qualitative survey, and Fieldscope was instrumental in helping us translate and transcribe these surveys in an incredibly timely manner, quick enough so that we could almost go through the data daily or every two days, thereby helping us adjust our questions and strategies very quickly!

As you know, March 8th was 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?
This is a really important question and it rightly identifies a major gap in development practice. I think gender gets payed a lot of lip service as something that needs to be incorporated and considered, but as a field of development practitioners, we still haven’t pin pointed the specific ways in which gender needs to be accounted for in our work.

Using sanitation as an example, one of the very common ways in which gender is talked about is the way in which lack of sanitation is problematic for women. Having to defecate in the open, walk long distances to the fields, can increase a woman’s susceptibility to sexual assault, verbal abuse, and physical abuse. However, when the time comes to designing toilets, to ensuring that women are able to use toilets within the home, ensuring that women aren’t the only ones responsible for cleaning toilets, that is all lost. So we have focused on this very specific problem, and it is a problem of women safety, but we have failed to consider the broader implications, which I find to be a very big problem. The reason I think that that problem has emerged is because we don’t understand the specific ways in which gender manifests, or gender differentials manifest as a problem, so we need to be doing more to understand the ways in which gender affects and influences different outcomes, and the various pathways through which gender operates, and I don’t think that we’re doing this. In our work, we try to consider this by looking at how we design our facilities, employment opportunities, education opportunities, but still I think there’s a long way for us to go. One of the specific ways in which we integrate this is the ways in which we hire and promote women. That’s really important to us- having women be decision makers, especially within our organization in terms of them making decisions on behalf of the organization about the ways in which our facilities are designed, how our services are rendered etc. Simply building a toilet, and saying “okay, we solved a problem…this is equity for women” is not enough for us.

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?
This is a huge consideration particularly in rural India, and generally speaking we have found that women are eager to participate in surveys, answering questions etc., but it is harder to organize efforts to speak with them. Once we’re able to organize a women’s or focus group discussion, women are extremely eager and willing to speak, but the difficulty is in that first effort to organize. We have not found, by any means that women are not able to, or not capable of responding. That simply isn’t the case. Women have incredibly rich experiences and perspectives, and by and large women are willing and able to address that. The issue is in how to organize that. In particular, in very socially conservative communities in rural India, men often put barriers to that organization. For example, you have a group of men standing around, listening in, and as women are the primary caregivers, their children are also there. This makes it a complicated thing to run logistically, because you have to separate the men, the children, and that makes it difficult. However, when you’re organizing a group of men, they’ll be the first ones to shoo everyone away. They feel that “someone’s here to take my perspective, so it’s my turn to speak”. Whereas with women, their responsibilities continue even in the midst of a focus group discussion and the men just hover around. So that’s what makes it difficult- the logistical side of things.

I’ve seen some really awful ways in which men in other organizations try to run focus group discussions with women- yelling at women, and saying “ why are you not speaking? We’re giving you this opportunity to speak now, and you don’t take it!”, and really demeaning them. That’s not the way it should be done- there are always going to be some people who are more shy than others, and if one ends up in a focus group meeting with women who are quiet, that’s not different from doing a focus group discussion as in the U.S. It is incumbent upon the facilitator to find ways to encourage all the women to speak as much as they can. And if women are not participating, that is a reflection more on the facilitator in my opinion, than it is on any single woman in the group.

How does your team try to minimize such experiences and improve the quality of fieldwork?
When we are doing focus groups, we typically have a number of people with us as organizers, so if we’re doing a focus group with women, we literally will have one person who we know and trust with us whose almost like a bodyguard or bouncer whose helping insulate the focus group: keeping men and children away. We also have one person whose a primary facilitator and another person whose sitting there as an internal bodyguard in case children or someone comes in, and these are the ways in which we feel as though it is necessary for us to preserve the integrity, confidentiality and feeling of safety for women participants in our groups.

What does sustainable impact mean according to you especially when it comes to women-empowerment or gender-focused programs? Also, do you have any specific program that comes to mind that does this well?
This is a great question! I’m going to pick on something that I think is not doing very well: Jeevika in Bihar. Jeevika has organized tons of women self help groups throughout Bihar. Different versions of this have come up throughout India now, with all state governments advocating for them. They’ve espoused this participatory method that they use where the women of these villages come together and form self help groups and equally participate to make decisions about savings, livelihood and the like. The issue is that it isn’t really truly participatory.

We talk about sustainable development goals, eradicating poverty, and understanding the need for decisions to be made by women etc. If you look at these big NGO’s, and big government initiatives, they are all run by men, and so you have a bunch of men who come into the field and just start yelling at these impoverished, often times undereducated women, trying to coerce them into responding or participating, what it ends up being is just forced complicity in whatever scheme was cooked up by this government, program, or funder. So it truly isn’t participatory, and because of that, it isn’t sustainable. So I really think that there needs to be more female leadership in government and NGOs, who truly understand what it takes to organize women and encourage them to participate in activities. Also because there’s so many women we’re dealing with in so many places like Bihar, Jharkhand, because they have been deprived of education, services, and opportunities, we cannot expect them to just take a group and run with it or manage it on their own. That’s not a concept that they are necessarily aware of or understand. So there needs to be certainly more hand holding at the beginning and more initiative taken by the implementer at the beginning in order for something like this to be sustained.

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 again, it gets paid a lot of lip service. If you look at laws that say that X% of women seats in a local assembly are reserved for women etc.- that’s all fine. What I wonder about is the extent to which women have voices when elected to power and when given authority? It’s one thing for a woman to occupy a seat, but if no one is listening to her, then to what extent is it inclusive? And I do think that reserving seats for women is a very important step, but now we need to move beyond that, in terms of what we mean by inclusive. The first step is granting access, and now the second step which I would argue, requires an even greater shift is when men are honestly and earnestly listening to women, and that is going to take time, but India in particular needs that. You can look at Sarojini Naidu, who was the first female President of the Indian National Congress- all the way back in 1925, meanwhile in Greater Britain, Margaret Thatcher became the first woman Prime Minister way into 1975! India has had a female Prime Minister, when the United States has never even had a female President! So its a tough question- in some ways we could say that India is ahead, but on the ground, in the field, in the local communities, I wonder, even if 33% of mukhiyas are female, or 33% of assembly seats are for women, are men listening? I think that’s the question that needs to be asked now, and so the extent to which its inclusive really depends on what are we measuring here as an indicator of inclusivity. That’s what needs to happen next now.

How important do you think it is to have men on a team especially while working on gender related programs? Why or why not?
I absolutely think it’s important for men to be on teams, but men also need to be focussed beneficiaries of programs. If we work in a world where all we do is work on women’s empowerment, and yet there is nothing being done to shift the mindset of men, I wonder just how useful women’s empowerment programs are going to be. For better or for worse, we live in a world in which there’s a deeply entrenched patriarchy, and as long as men are running women’s empowerment programs, and men are calling the shots and designing infrastructure and all these different services, we can talk about women’s empowerment all we want, but I don’t know if these changes are really going to benefit all women the way they should. I do think it’s important for men to be involved, although I think it’s more important for women to be in decision making positions. To reiterate, in terms of when we talk about “empowerment” programs, we very much need those for women, but it is equally important to have more “mind-shift” programs for men- programs that really address gender norms, and sort of break that down in the minds of men, so that the empowerment programs for women can really take root and establish themselves.

A village woman leaving a sanitation facility built through SHRI. Picture Credit: Anoop Jain.

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?
Of course! They are countless such stories where we have been inspired by women. For me, what has always been most inspiring is the extent to which women have to work twice, five times or even ten times as hard as men, and in many cases just to survive. When we talk about the poor, particularly the rural poor, then a lot of us working in this sector would agree that the poor, by and large are a testament to the human capacity to endure and habituate to wretched conditions. When we talk about that, we’re doing a disservice to specifically women, because often times its the women who on top of whatever wretchedness the men are enduring, have to endure something far worse than that, simply as a consequence of their sex and gender. I can think of countless women in the communities where we work, who work a full day in the fields, and then come home to care for their children and cook their meals. To me, that is inspiring because it makes me want to work harder to make sure that we’re designing services to improve the lives of these women. What I mean by that is increasing their access to opportunities, education, and living a self- determined life. That to me is what really matters.

Couldn’t agree more! Anything else you want to say on how the sector can Do Good Better when it comes to inclusion and diversity in general?
I think that we have to be very specific about what inclusivity means. Having a group of women sitting in a circle on the floor and then taking a photo of that and showing it as a participatory event or gathering is not good enough. Because I’ve sat in those meetings that are run by other organizations where the women are not speaking- they aren’t given space to speak. Its usually just a man at the helm, or another woman- a high caste or educated woman just yelling at the women. So our definition of inclusivity and participation needs far greater granularity, and far greater nuance for us to really be able to say that something is truly participatory or inclusive. Until that happens, we’re all going to just look at these photos of women sitting on the floor in circles and applaud whoever organized this as evidence that we are now including women, when in actuality, we’re not. We’re just having women sit in a circle on the floor. And also, we need chairs! This may sound like a nitpicky point, but I’m very sick and tired of women being asked to sit on the floor. That’s not beautiful, its not rugged, its just further demeaning in my opinion, and I really dislike the practice. I would say we need more chairs, more nuance, and specificity when we talk about inclusivity and participation.

Thank you so much for taking out the time to go in depth and speak so honestly about your views on this complicated subject, Anoop! We hope that there are more practitioners like you who think critically about these dynamics and seek to design solutions that are as holistic.

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 community@fieldscope.in.

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Fieldscope Blog

On a mission to transform social sector operations in India using technology. Follow our journey of building India’s first remote-work platform exclusively for social impact collaboration.