A Questioning Mind Is A Researcher’s Mind: A Conversation with Ravi Verma



Dr. Ravi Verma serves as Regional Director of the International Center for Research on Women’s (ICRW) Asia Office. ICRW Asia is a key partner of the 3D Program in India, and Ravi leads the ICRW 3D team, with a focus on data, research and evaluation.

With a 30+ year career focusing on family planning, reproductive health, gender mainstreaming and HIV/AIDS, Ravi’s passion is most evident at the intersection of research and women’s empowerment. On a recent visit to Washington DC from New Delhi, Ravi sat with Vanessa Coello of 3D to discuss what inspires him, the status of women in India, and why convergence is key for successful women’s empowerment programming.

Q: What led you to become a researcher?

I’ve always had a curious mind; I like to know why things happen the way they happen. This led me to study philosophy for my undergraduate degree. At university, I also discovered methods and science of social research through my exposure to psychology and social demography. Where philosophy focuses on “why?”, empirical research focuses on finding answers, some kind of real life ‘connects’ which in turns lead you to more questions. There’s always more to know; one can never stop learning, and I see research as an extension of this process.

Q: What contributed to your focus on gender issues in your research?

Both my personal and professional trajectories. I grew up in a male-dominant family; my mother was the only woman in a family of six members. When I was young, my father worked in sugar factories in remote areas and had to move every few years for his job. My older brothers stayed with our grandparents to attend school uninterrupted, but my mother, younger brother and I accompanied my father for his work. During this time, my brother and I were all our mother had. Despite being so young, I became aware that our mother existed in a man’s world. Seeing  her experience must have struck a chord even though I didn’t realize it for too long. I also somehow understood my mother’s experience was not unique in the larger world around us. I think of the lasting impact of my mother, having gone through the pains of being a woman in a man’s world and this has strongly influenced my work as a researcher and an advocate for women’s rights. At the same time, my father’s hard work often in isolated and extremely difficult conditions was never lost on me. He was inspirational in some ways and mother was inspirational in other. I grew up seeing these distinctions and wondering why.

I pursued my PhD on sex-stereotyping across cultures and went on to work on men and masculinities especially how they define risks, vulnerabilities, violence, relationships and sexuality.

Posted with permission from ICRW Asia.

Q: What is the link between research and women’s empowerment?

Research has been used as an instrument to look at gender differences. Historically, behavioral research on young children focused on the difference between girls and boys; what makes girls, girls and boys, boys.  However, soon research began to move away from the  binaries as they discovered that girls and boys are “straight-jacketed” into gender roles at an early age with very little choice what happens to many who grow up with mixed or alternate gender identities. I found myself especially curious by boys’ behavior because at a certain age, boys begin to restrict themselves and begin to move away from what they define as girlish or woman-like, and in many circumstances, tend to become aloof or ‘go alone’. These are the messages passed on to them, but why? And how does this impact girls? What happens to many girl’s, their potentials and aspirations, when they realize that they are not allowed to do whatever is ‘naturally’ entitled for boys!

Over the years research and evidence have strengthened the case for multiple and multi-level programming and have pressed for comprehensively addressing the issue of empowerment rather than working in isolations. Research have also helped clarify that empowerment is a complex and contextual process and can’t be achieved only by counting how many women and girls are educated or living longer.

Photo taken by 3D Program for Girls and Women, 2017.

Q: The status of girls and women around the world appears to have improved, can the same be said in India?

Well, in many ways, especially in numbers, yes, women’s status in India has improved- there are increasing numbers of nuclear families enhancing women’s resources, more access to education and jobs for women, and more women are present in public spaces than ever before. However, women’s subjugated status remains. For example, more women are working, yes, but to supplement their husband’s income and often not in the formal sector. The attrition from the work force is rapid and huge especially in recent times. Women have more access to education, yes, but because an educated mother is seen better for her children and family. A woman’s own right to education and work is not as important as her primary role to care and support family and children.. Women must have justification to gain access to the same entitlements as men.

Q: What can help the situation for girls and women? What is the role of convergence in improving women’s status?

Women’s empowerment has become a mainstream idea- everyone talks about it, but in effect there are few that have had some significant effect, most have long way to go . To better serve girls and women, programs must consider both vertical and horizontal programming: horizontal programming are likely to be holistic, efficient and sustainable because of the complementarity and cross-learning  , whereas vertical programming  are likely to be instrumentalist and short-lived but if done well with definite impact. The 3D Program is finding the balance between the two- you don’t want silos, but you don’t want everyone to do everything either. Think of the SDGs [Sustainable Development Goals]: each goal has gender worked into it, and Goal 5 is a standalone goal for gender equality as well. This ensures accountable, measurable programming- when programs work in synch, they don’t negate each other. I see 3D as a catalyst to situate balance between sectoral and intersectional programming.

Ravi's reading list:

  • The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of a Learning Organization, by Peter Senge
  • The Interpretation of Dreams, by Sigmund Freud
  • Annihilation of Caste, by B. R. Ambedkar
  • The Individual in Society: A Textbook of Social Psychology, by David Krech, Richard S. Crutchfield, and Egerton S. Ballachey
  • Towards Equality:Report of the Committee on the Status of Women in India, by Vina Mazumdar

March 2018

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