August 27, 2021

Facebook Fellow Spotlight: Breaking barriers for women and girls in rural India

By: Meta Research

Each year, PhD students from around the world apply for the Facebook Fellowship, a program designed to encourage and support doctoral students engaged in innovative and relevant research in areas related to computer science and engineering.

As a continuation of our Fellowship spotlight series, we’re highlighting 2020 Facebook Fellow in Social and Economic Policy Gauthami Penakalapati.

Gauthami is a PhD candidate in the Energy and Resources Group at UC Berkeley, advised by Dr. Isha Ray. Her research explores how social connection and gendered norms impact adolescent girls’ well-being in India. In particular, she is interested in using insights from gender and feminist theory to develop meaningful programs and metrics to improve women’s and girls’ empowerment in global development programs. She has extensive international research experience working with UNICEF and Innovations for Poverty Action, and she has worked in Ghana, India, Kenya, Rwanda, and Zambia. She received her bachelor’s degree in biology from Georgia Institute of Technology and her Master of Public Health from Rollins School of Public Health, Emory University.

Before Gauthami pursued her PhD, her career was instrumental in helping her think beyond traditional public health questions. “I was motivated to understand the ‘whys’ of circumstances,” she says. “For example, why are we as researchers only just realizing the importance of incorporating data from women and girls in global development programs?” This led her to question how colonial history of public health and data in India has contributed to the continued marginalization of women and girls. “My fields of study are interdisciplinary. My research involves the intersection of global health, climate adaptation, and human-computer interaction. I’m constantly pulling from decolonial and feminist theories as well as science and technology studies because my work is simultaneously scientific and social,” Gauthami says.

Gauthami takes a holistic, activist-oriented approach to her research, engaging directly with adolescent girls within their communities in Northern India. “We talk about gender equity, but how does the concept incorporate empowerment and agency when we know this varies from individual to individual, community to community?” Gauthami says. Since a real-world approach to gender equity is tied intimately to local norms, Gauthami focuses on researching local approaches to gender equity so she can propose meaningful solutions. Though it requires a long-term commitment in one particular area, Gauthami feels her approach has a positive impact on the communities she works with.

“In India, binary gender norms are strong,” she says. “And the same gendered norms often dictate access to resources and technologies. When considering access to mobile devices with internet capabilities, there is a digital divide between men and women — 71 percent of men in India own a mobile phone, while only 38 percent of women do.” According to Gauthami, these statistics underpin a larger problem: In many rural Indian communities, women and girls who own or use mobile phones are viewed with distrust and suspicion. In her current research, Gauthami explores this phenomenon more deeply by investigating how reliable access and usage of smartphones supports girls’ individual agency and aspirations.

Because Gauthami has not been able to travel to India during the pandemic, she has spent her time collecting data for a systematic review on adolescent empowerment programs and has focused on publishing articles and reworking lectures. However, she looks forward to being able to return to her field sites in Northern India because she prefers to connect directly with the communities she works with, with the ultimate goal of creating and implementing programs and technologies that empower adolescent girls. She is also working on a creative project that elevates the stories of people in India through photography and prose.

To learn more about Gauthami Penakalapati and her research, visit her Fellowship page and her website.

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