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Stories From The Field 

Newsletter, Edition 4

For the fourth edition, we bring to you personal experiences of four women who have travelled across, or lived in, various parts of India to collect data and work with communities at the grass-roots level. We hope these snippets help you understand the challenges of working in the field as women, and think about ways in which we can make fieldwork safer and more rewarding for women. We have also attached some articles that contain perspectives from other organisations and guidelines for data collection in a post-Covid world.

For previous editions and group updates:

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Lipika Biswal, Field Manager, IDInsight

On her experience working as a female Field Manager

For how many years have you been working in the sector?
I have been working in this sector since 2007.

How has your experience as a Field Manager been different from your experience as a surveyor or a state coordinator?
मैंने एक फीमेल FM बनने के बाद यह महसूस किया है कि पहले मेरी रिस्पांसिबिलिटी एक डिस्ट्रिक्ट और एक स्टेट तक सीमित थी लेकिन अब वह रिस्पांसिबिलिटी पूरे आर्गेनाईजेशन के लिए हो गयी है और मेरा अपने आप पर आत्मविश्वास और ज़्यादा बढ़ गया है।  आज मैं बिना किसी सपोर्ट के हायरिंग, ट्रेनिंग, टीम लीडिंग, और फील्ड प्लान कर लेती हूँ, और आज मान लीजिये कि एक इंडिपेंडेंट प्रोजेक्ट लीड कर रही हूँ।  पहले मुझे किसी और पर डिपेंड करना पढता था।  मैं खुद फील्ड बजट प्लान करती हूँ।  मेरे बहुत स्टेट में कांटेक्ट भी बढ़ गए हैं और अब मैं ऐसे मुकाम पर हूँ कि किसी भी स्टेट में मुझे काम करने में कोई परेशानी नहीं होगी।  यह आत्मविश्वास मेरी पर्सनल ज़िन्दगी में भी बहुत मिला है। 

Since becoming a FM I have realised that my responsibilities are not restricted to one district or one state, but apply to the entire ogranisation and this has made me more confident. Now I can run hiring, training, team leadings and field planning without any support, and can lead a project independently. I had to depend on others before. I plan field budgets myself. I have made contacts in several states, and am at a level where I will not face any problems working in any state (of India). I have become more confident in my personal life as well. 

How can projects do better in terms of hiring more women and also improving the experience of women?
पहला कारण जो मैंने अनुभव किया है वह है कि लड़कियां फील्ड लाइफ में बहुत कम समय के लिए काम करती हैं क्यूंकि उनका ज़्यादा तक समय फील्ड पर जाता है और इसिलिये उनका फैमिली टाइम कम हो जाता है। दूसरा , अपनी सेफ्टी के लिए वो हमेशा ग्रुप में या फिर और एक फीमेल पार्टनर के साथ ही फील्ड पर जान चाहती हैं।  अगर हमें फीमेल हायरिंग बढ़ाना है तो हमें फीमेल सर्वेयर को ग्रुप में भेजना होगा या किसी फीमेल पार्टनर के साथ।  हमें उनका ट्रांसपोर्टेशन भी अरेंज करना होगा।  तभी फीमेल सर्वेयर हमारे साथ जुड़ सकती हैं |

The first reason I have observed for why women spend less time in the field is because being on field takes up a lot of their time and this limits their family time. Secondly, in order to ensure their safety, female surveyors prefer to work in groups, or along with another female partner. If we want to increase female hiring, we will have to send female surveyors in groups, or with another female partner. We will also have to arrange for their transportation. Only then will female surveyors join us. 

Would you like to share any particular experience you had that has been important to you being a female FM?
एक फीमेल FM होने पर मेरा एक्सपीरियंस ऐसा रहा है: जब हम रूरल एरिया में जाते हैं तो फीमेल्स के साथ सर्वे बहुत आसानी से हो जाता हैं , सभी लोग आसानी से घर के अंदर बुलाते हैं।  जितने सवाल मेल FM से पूछते हैं उससे कम फीमेल FM से करते हैं।  मैंने यह भी नोटिस किया है कि फीमेल FM के ऊपर भरोसा कर पाते हैं।  सबसे ज़्यादा फायदा इसका यह है कि फीमेल रेस्पोंडेंट से स्वास्थ सम्बन्धी सवाल का जवाब आसानी से मिलता है, जबकि एक मेल FM या सर्वेयर के लिए बहुत बड़ा चैलेंज रहता है।

As a female FM my experience has been that whenever we go to rural areas , surveys are completed with women very easily and people call us into their houses easily. Female FMs are asked fewer questions than male FMs. I have also noticed that people are able to trust female FMs. The biggest benefit of this is that female respondents are able to answer questions related to their health easily, while this is a bigger challenge for male FMs.

From a village in Ramgarh district, Jharkhand, India
From a village in Giridih district, Jharkhand, India

Meghana Mungikar, Princeton University

On her experiences conducting fieldwork as an intern with IFMR and later as an Associate at IDInsight

Describe your field experience across college and work
In college, I did fieldwork as part of my internship with IFMR in Amravati, Maharashtra, where I helped conduct household level surveys for an RCT looking at high ability entrepreneurs using community information. Post college, I was working at IDinsight where I did fieldwork for several projects in Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, and Andhra Pradesh. Most of this fieldwork was conducted in a team, and was short term ranging from 3 days to two weeks. The fieldwork included stakeholder meetings and interviews, household surveys, and school observations. 

What were the biggest challenges you faced as a woman, travelling around and conducting research in remote areas?
As an Associate from my team, I had a solid support team which meant that I was generally never alone anywhere, which was very helpful. I think the challenges I faced as a woman doing fieldwork weren't as many as you'd expect because the power dynamics in the development sector are such that most people are happy to co-operate and help with the implementation of the project. However, there were some challenges related to living alone in hotels in areas where there are generally only men, or where I had to eat alone at particular restaurants or dhabas that are only used to male customers. I think, however, that a lot of these instances (other than a couple bad experiences) were mostly awkward rather than unsafe. But of course, having a team that I was with all the time helped mitigate most of these worries. 

What steps can organisations take to make fieldwork safer for women - both for associates and female surveyors?
I think making sure that women always have teams to travel with in could be a useful way to create safe spaces. I also think having associates be familiar with the language and context of where they're going to be working helps adapt easily. Organizations should push to hire more female surveyors and address the barriers that exist to do that as of now -- the barriers are generally related to mobility since women find it harder to move for work given family constraints, so placing them with projects closer to home could help. Having a female team lead especially when female surveyors are involved would also be useful in flagging any concerns that come up. I also think placing a team member as a safety/security incharge could help since this would serve as a point of contact for team members while they're out. 

Are there any particular instances from your field experience that you would like to share? 
I think the instances that have been hardest to deal with have been when men have persistently tried to talk to me, or have tried to touch me especially when I was working or travelling alone. I don't think these experiences are central to field experiences nor are they unique because they can happen anywhere. However, having this happen when you're in a new place and travelling alone, can be quite scary. In few instances when this happened to me, I was able to walk away from the person who was trying to touch me, and find another place to sit, and also inform my colleague who could watch out for me. For anyone who's experiencing any challenges doing fieldwork, I can also have more detailed conversations about my experience if that would be useful.

Nandani Bhanot, SBI Youth For India fellow

On her experience of spending 13 months in a tribal village in Gujarat, India 

"Going into the State Bank of India Youth for India fellowship, a 13 month long on-ground rural India commitment, I knew I would encounter women's issues and challenges but I couldn't predict the many nuanced ways that the challenges would unravel during the course of the year. I was posted in a tribal district of Gujarat. What little I had learnt from the orientation told me that tribal areas were relatively safer and less judgmental, which in my mind translated to absolutely safer and not judgmental at all. I was over the moon that I could use my time to concentrate on "real" development issues, without it inevitably turning into a women-safety issue that I believed would trigger me into paralysis.

The first observation that broke the tribal-areas-have-strong-independent-
women wall was my meeting with the Sarpanch. I asked around and learnt a
woman named Lalitabhen was the Sarpanch. I excitedly voiced how great it was to have a woman Sarpanch, and tried to use the opportunity to instill inspiration in the kishoris (adolescent girls) who had gathered around. I found out after the "meeting with the Sarpanch" Lalitabhen was just a name; the meeting was with her brother, Manilbhai, with Lalitabhen too nervous to even come out of her room.

In my amateur mind, I recall scheduling 2 meetings to convince the women who attended to start an enterprise, and believing in the obvious power of the enterprise that was the perfect puzzle piece for solving many nutritional and alternate income gaps. Little did I know, I would spend the rest of the year trying to get everyone onboard... Eventually, even with all the many ways I tried convincing them, one of them being an exposure trip to a village where women had gotten together to successfully start and earn from an enterprise, only 3 headstrong women were able to actively participate to start their enterprise, two of which did not have husbands.

From my little on-ground experience in the fellowship, I have come to understand that many development initiatives focus on the economic empowerment of women, assuming self-esteem will increase as a by-product. When, most of the time (from what I saw), high self-esteem is a prerequisite for any steps in the direction of economic empowerment. In fact, higher self-esteem would be a factor in enabling them to take decisions on their own and rely on their own thinking. In addition, if steps are taken with this understanding in mind, development practices could benefit the communities in changing the perception
of women, perhaps leading to create support systems for women in crisis."

Read in detail about Nandani's experience, and her attempts to work with the community here

In a meeting with adolescent girls from the village
Dang district, Gujarat, India (photo by Nandani Bhanot)

Sanya Sareen, JPAL South Asia

On working with a team of female surveyors and collecting sensitive data

"I am currently working on a project to study the impact of the Delhi Government's policy to make all public buses free for women. For this study, we conducted a month-long baseline survey in September in randomly sampled low-income communities across Delhi.

Our team consisted of 30 female surveyors, and 5 male surveyors who were all residents of Delhi. We needed a majority female team because our survey included questions on women's experiences of sexual harassment in public spaces. 

Safety Concerns

Surveyors would often attract some attention among the residents of the community due to their IDs, survey tablets, folders etc. The sampled households would also sometimes be located in multi-storey buildings with unlit stairways. Additionally, there were also cases when a household had only male residents. Hence, the female surveyors, felt very uneasy about approaching sampled households alone.

In order to address their concerns, we needed to scale back our expected productivity numbers (which were based on each surveyor conducting surveys alone) and create a buddy system. We also worked extensively on creating safety protocols for the team, in order to prepare surveyors for any situations in which they feel uncomfortable/unsafe. These included giving each surveyor a whistle.

Collecting data on sensitive issues

We found that the women surveyed were generally comfortable with sharing experiences of harassment. We think this was due to the nature of the household survey which required an interaction of 40-60 minutes before questions of a potentially sensitive nature were asked. When we conducted follow-up surveys with the same sample over the phone, the reported sexual harassment rates fell drastically. Respondents seemed to be more in a hurry, and less willing to share details of incidents they have observed/experienced.

Recommended Readings

Perspectives from other organisations, and guidelines for data collection in a post-Covid world

This blog by IDInsight shares what a typical day in the life of a female field manager or surveyor in Nigeria looks like.

Humans of Field Work features interviews with three Innovations for Poverty Action(IPA) enumerators working on a high-frequency market survey in Rwanda.

Read this spotlight on field officers working with the JPAL-Africa office.

This old article covers the day in the life of an enumerator in Bengaluru, Karnataka, India. 
In this article, Ruth Levine (CEO, IDInsight) lays down concrete guidelines to minimize risks to data collection workers and among interviewees as we move towards in-person data collection in a post-Covid world. 

This blog by IDInsight provides recommendations to help female surveyors stay safe.

This cautionary note by researchers at IFPRI talks about the challenges of reaching women over the phone, and the importance of ensuring safety and confidentiality over the phone. 
Photos have been taken by Prerna Kundu on various field trips, unless specified otherwise.
While compiling resources for this newsletter edition, we realised how little has been written about enumerators, truly the backbone of most of our data collection efforts. If you would like to read more perspectives from the field and send out more newsletters like this one, drop us an email or fill out our feedback form!
All content has been curated by Women In Economics and Policy

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