Women and Fieldwork: Reclaiming public spaces and transgressing curfews


Women’s Day brings into focus women situated at various intersections of class, age, caste, race, education, culture, and geographical location. The narratives and perspectives of these women are as diverse as they are essential. Despite these differences, a common pursuit—of exploring public spaces in individual terms—is what binds women from multiple backgrounds together.  Access to public spaces outside the home—whether in commercial farming, fishing, daily wage work, corporate, media, politics, or even activities as seemingly ordinary as ‘hanging out with girls’—comes with a history of struggle and stigma. 

The quest of claiming and reclaiming public spaces is the narrative of all women cutting across locations, issues, and intersections. In this light, discourse on the closing gender gaps is correlated to increasing women’s participation and comfort in public spaces. For women in research, our own mobility gives us an understanding of other women’s movement and boundaries. Recently, the UNESCO Institute of Statistics (UIS) brought to attention the low percentage of women researchers in the world, only 30%. Fieldwork for most researchers—located especially, in the environmental, climate change, and mountain discourse—is essential and necessary. Hence, I took on an informal discussion with a few of my fellow young women researchers from the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) on their experiences of empowerment, learning, and contributing to the larger discourse on women in research. 

Trishna Bhandari collecting data in Mustang, Nepal. (Photo Credit: ICIMOD)

Trishna Bhandari has been working with the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) Initiative at ICIMOD for three years on all aspects of data collection, from conducting baseline studies to conducting workshops and trainings, to writing blogs and articles. Of her field experience, she says:

“My first experience of fieldwork was a soil study in Mustang, Nepal. It was nerve-wracking and empowering at the same time because my role was not only limited to the collection of samples or data, but also included discussions with communities. Over time, I overcame that anxiety and now I can easily communicate with community members. I can understand their backgrounds and sentiments, and conduct my fieldwork accordingly. Not only have my knowledge and skills strengthened, I have also learnt to understand social behaviours. Working in the field, alone, was quite a challenge in the beginning of my career as a researcher, but it has brought good growth in my skills and work output. I feel that women working in any capacity in any organization should take up fieldwork. It brings out the confidence which deep within them.” 

Deepa Basnet at a local household in Hanlong village, Yunnan, China.
(Photo Credit: Yang Jianmei, Southwest Forestry University, China) 

Deepa Basnet works with the Landscape Initiative for the Far Eastern Himalaya (HI-LIFE) initiative as lead of bird watching tourism research. Of her experiences in the field, Basnet says:

“I have been working in the field for eight years now. Although the experience has been wonderful, there have been some challenges as well. My method of conducting fieldwork and analysis has evolved over time. I have learned to work with different communities and navigate my way into their contexts and structures as a young woman researcher. Years of struggle to prove myself in a team have enriched my self-confidence and helped build better professional relationships with my peers. When your contributions are valued and appreciated by the team, your work becomes all the more fulfilling and empowering.”

Nuvodita Singh at Hakeempur Turra, a village in Haridwar, Uttarakhand, India
(Photo Credit: HI-AWARE)

Nuvodita Singh works on monitoring and evaluation with the Himalayan Adaptation Water and Resilience (HI-AWARE) initiative. She has worked and carried out fieldwork in Rajasthan, Uttarakhand, Bihar in India, and Rangpur in Bangladesh since 2013. Of her experiences in the field, she says:

“Overtime, I have come to understand that apart from the prescriptive questionnaires, fieldwork involves using your instinct a lot. I have gradually tried not to let the questionnaire or note taking distract me or the interviewee from the conversation, and to stay invested in the other person’s story. Wherever I have ventured out for data collection, whether in rural communities or local government offices, each interaction has been a reality check. Being a woman, I think I definitely contribute by bringing my own perspective and experience to the table. I contribute by adding to the numbers of female development professionals, in office spaces as well as out on the field, so that another woman may benefit from it. And I hope these numbers and women’s solidarity grow in times to come.”

To sum up the points made by my colleagues, to women researchers such as us, access to field sites and unrestricted mobility are as crucial to research as  they are to our personal growth. It is in the field that we learn to shed our inhibitions and explore beyond sets of questionnaire and data to bring in perspectives and narratives. Most importantly, fieldwork gives us space to become explorers and adventurers. 

Chhaya Vani Namchu


Vijay wrote on 2018-03-08 20:30

Cheers for the unbounded explorers :)

Jeff Peterson wrote on 2018-03-10 17:36

Thoughtful and timely article. Fieldwork outside one's familiar cultural setting is always challenging and often enlightening. Inspired to hear from a younger generation sharing their experiences of overcoming longstanding obstacles uniquely associated with gender.