Reflections on being a researcher as an indigenous woman from the Global South

The stigma of being selected for a position just because I am a woman, an indigenous national, or from a least developed country is simply not just hurtful, it’s untrue.

Anu Rai

  • Read Time 5 min.

A while back I was in a meeting with a few of my colleagues and some other people. We were discussing a potential proposal and one of them asked: Who among here is a woman of indigenous origin? I happened to be the only one there and immediately the response was ‘you should be the one submitting it as there is a sure chance of getting the grant.’ These kinds of incidents do occur now and then and to those who think it is true, I would like to say please point to all those places where I could use my gender and indigenous card to simply climb up the ladder with no effort.

As an indigenous researcher

A few days back I heard my dad shouting at someone to not burn the invasive weed around a farm. “It’s a sin to kill all those lives. You aren’t just killing the weed; you are also killing the insects that live.” My own upbringing has been away from my ancestral roots and being unable to understand the complexities of my own culture has been a great source of agony but there are instances like these that make me believe my indigenous origins have shaped the way I see the world.

I feel that even though there are worldwide calls for indigenous rights and plans for action, the indigenous knowledge and rights are still not given enough attention as they should. In the words of Indigenous scholar Professor Linda Tuhiwai Smith: “At a common sense level research was talked about both in terms of its absolute worthlessness to us, the indigenous world, and its absolute usefulness to those who wielded it as an instrument. It told us things already known, suggested things that would not work, and made careers for people who already had jobs.”

Research with the indigenous communities provides more enriching knowledge as they have been effective stewards of natural resources for so long.

To put Professor Linda’s words into perspective, let’s have a look at the restriction on Jhul – a kind of mosquito net used for fishing in Nepal. Due to their small mesh size a lot of small fishes get harvested and are thought to be damaging fishing stocks. This has led to calls for ban of use of such nets. But recently researches have shed light on balanced harvest theory which means harvesting species across all life stages based on their relative productivity and suggests supporting some use of small-mesh gears. Not considering the indigenous perspective in fishing and recommending restrictions and bans based on assumptions is not ideal, to say the least.Hence, I believe it should be research with not research on indigenous people.

As a woman researcher

I am a researcher, not a woman researcher. As much as I would love to maintain this gender neutrality, the truth is the division is there. I am one of the few lucky researchers out there who has not actively faced discrimination based on my gender but there have been instances of exclusion. Early on in my career, I have noticed the phenomenon of brotherhood in my workplace which meant by exclusion. Opportunities would get shared and passed on amongst the group and I would be left out.

But I have had one instance of selection because of being a woman. Back in 2021, a group of six male researchers submitted a proposal to the Conservation Leadership Programme. It was commented to include a woman in the team because the program focused on leadership development for conservation across gender. This made the team look around for a woman who had worked in dolphins. The search trickled down to me. And we submitted the proposal and eventually ended up getting the grant. The study is still underway.

Even if you take this instance as an act of hand me down it’s not. Look at the ratio of researchers, it’s 1:6 female to male. And I do have a good deal of experience in dolphin studies. As an intern at IUCN Nepal, I supported the country wide population estimation of the species. I am also now a first and corresponding author to two peer reviewed articles of dolphin research.

Researcher from Global South

Getting right back to my dolphin research, I formed a team of four researchers from Nepal, India, and Mexico.  We are independent researchers not funded by anyone. We are just volunteering in generating interesting research insights. We have no funding and finding the right place to publish is another obstacle. Journals have a selective range of papers and publishing is an expensive process. Most articles charge Article Publishing Charges which can range a lot.  In Wiley publishing, access, for instance, ranges from USD 725 to 5740. But there are also options where publication can be done in a subscription-based model where the papers are only readable for individuals or institutions who pay for the journal, hence the authors don’t have to pay. 

As a researcher, we would rather have an open access article for maximum outreach. But as an independent researcher from the Global South there is no possibility of paying for publication. So, we opt for a subscription-based model.But there are some institutions who will waive our charges. And I have used their service twice in my research journey. Research4Life is a boon for researchers like me.

Combating the stigma

So, how do we combat it? Simple answer, I don’t know. But I can give some insights.

Women are typically represented less in research and having mandates of quantitative participation by international bodies does have an effect. My inclusion in the CLP project is an example but thinking that just because we are women or from indigenous communities and so the benefits have been handed down easily to us is a clear myth. I have had a fair share of struggle to be the researcher I am today.

Platforms such as the Research4Life enabling publication waiver for research from lower income countries are a blessing. Having research that can be read by anyone is quite a strong motivation. Likewise, institutions like IDEA WILD equip and empower environmental leaders through provision of research equipment and I have personally received two grants from them. As I am engaged in a lot of research, I make use of these instruments in multiple projects. Hence, having these institutions in place does support our work and these should be continued with even wider outreach.

A mentor that understands the unique challenges that we face would also go a long way. Likewise, networking opportunities support in paving our research careers. Research requires collaborations which are not easy to obtain. Navigating our research journey becomes clearer with such support.

Besides, it is high time that we consider braiding knowledges of the indigenous and Western knowledge system as a way of co-creation. Research with the indigenous communities provides more enriching knowledge as they have been effective stewards of natural resources for so long.

It’s not true

Don’t get me wrong, most of my experiences are not filled with negative perceptions I have encountered. But the stigma of being selected for a position just because I am a woman, an indigenous national, or from a least developed country is simply not just hurtful, it’s untrue.

If you feel that you have lost an opportunity to a person of this identity look at yourself before making judgements. Maybe the person does have more skill and experience than you.

Anu Rai is a researcher.

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