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As we celebrate International Women’s Day 2022 and pursue “gender equality today for a sustainable tomorrow,” find out how three IWMI researchers are translating those words into action.

By Clara Colton Symmes, Isis Palay, and Samurdhi Ranasinghe (Communications Team, IWMI)

While global efforts to improve academic and professional opportunities for women are progressing, gender inequality statistics remain staggering, including in the science sector. For example, women now account for 53 percent of undergraduate and graduate degrees in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), but at the current rate of progress on wage equality, women will not receive equal pay until 100 years from now. In an attempt to forge gender equality and raise awareness on these issues, organizations, institutions, and individuals join the United Nations every March 8th in celebration of International Women’s Day (IWD). For the International Water Management Institute, marking IWD is imperative not only because the gender gap persists in the fields of science and research, but also because gender and water issues are deeply intertwined globally.

In developing countries, for example, women and girls continue to spend a collective 200 million hours a day collecting water, when this time could be spent in school or on more profitable tasks. In many places, traditional gender roles complicate women’s lives and can sometimes cost households money, time, or resources — including water. Water security, as well as economic and social well-being are therefore fundamentally dependent on diversity, equity, and inclusivity.

Saida Usmonova from Central Asia, Charity Osei-Amponsah from West Africa, and Khadija Begum from South Asia

To honor this year’s theme and remediate the lack of positive narratives, we are highlighting the work of three bright researchers who are championing and advancing IWMI’s vision for a water-secure world — Saida Usmonova from Central Asia, Charity Osei-Amponsah from West Africa, and Khadija Begum from South Asia.

For us, “Gender equality today for a sustainable tomorrow” means showcasing the brilliant minds that make IWMI a leader in research for sustainable development. Having overcome the hurdles that women and girls face in many regions of the world, these scientists have joined the ranks of women who make up less than 30% of researchers worldwide. In their own words, here is what they want to say about their experiences.

SAIDA USMONOVA, Research Officer – Small-scale Hydropower Energy Specialist (IWMI-Central Asia)

Interviewed by Isis Palay, France

Having joined the IWMI office in Tashkent, Uzbekistan in December 2021,Saida Usmonova is the one of the youngest research officers at IWMI.

Can you tell me about your background, and where your love of science comes from?

My father is a physicist. When I was a teenager, I used to visit his lab, where my interest in science started growing. My favorite lab experiment was to decompose light with a prism. It was fascinating to see the white light separate into individual colorful rays. I started appreciating science as a way to find answers to the mysteries of natural phenomena. After high school, my interest in physics led me to do a Bachelor’s degree in Mechanical and Energy Engineering. As a young girl in STEM, it was sometimes difficult to distance myself from traditional gender expectations, but I had always wanted to study energy engineering. So I did a Master’s in Environment and Energy Engineering, and later started working in this field.

What led you to work on water-science projects, and to IWMI?
“It was sometimes difficult to distance myself from traditional gender expectations, but I had always wanted to study energy engineering, so I did a Master’s in this field.”
When I went to study abroad, I realized the extent of the global impacts of climate change and other environmental issues. When I came back to my home-country, I worked to create positive change in the climate, water and energy sector. As a landlocked, downstream country with limited access to water, Uzbekistan is also highly dependent on water flows coming from its upstream neighboring states. Water scarcity is common, and often impacts local livelihoods. So, if we can better manage water to create energy, both our water and energy needs can be more efficiently fulfilled, meanwhile our dependence on natural gas can be reduced.

What projects are you working on now at IWMI?

I recently joined the Tashkent office to work on a variety of IWMI projects implemented in Central Asia, including the five-year Hydro4U project which was launched in June of 2021, and is funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation program. Our goal is to build small, sustainable hydropower plants in Central Asia, and to analyze the potential of several locations for sustainable hydropower. Local contexts — landscapes, biodiversity, communities’ needs — are central to our design and building approach. This is why we are now leading surveys with local stakeholders, and designing a framework to analyze the complexities of the Water-Energy-Food nexus in Central Asia, where data is scarce. We are hoping that our work will promote more sustainable transboundary water management practices, and generate policy changes in the region.

What are you proudest of in your professional and personal life?
“I am equally proud of my academic achievements as a female scientist in Uzbekistan, where traditional gender roles are especially embedded.”
I was proud to work at the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), where I had the chance to learn about the impacts of a transition towards sustainable energy on a global scale. I am equally proud of my academic achievements as a female scientist in Uzbekistan, where traditional gender roles are especially embedded.

Writing my Master’s thesis while working was challenging, but is now one of my greatest achievements. I also recently started horseback riding, and my goal is to get into horse jumping. I love the sport because it makes me feel confident and strong.

I am very interested in working on improving renewable energy technology, especially semiconductor markets for solar panel cells. Research is still quite new in this domain, but I would love to participate in efforts to improve efficiency (conductivity) and reduce the cost of solar panel cells through the use of new materials, some of which could be synthesized in a lab. I am also curious to see if we could find new highly-conductive materials to improve solar cells’ efficiency!

Where are you finding hope for the future of water security?
“The signs of climate change are already visible through water.”
Our global situation is bleak, and it is often hard to feel hope. The signs of climate change are already visible through water. At the same time of year in my hometown, there is less snow on the ground than there was when I was a child. However, without water, life cannot exist. But if we can find a way to save and manage water on a regional scale, we can also help reduce our local greenhouse gas emissions by producing hydropower.

Do you have advice for young people who want to get into science?
“We have the knowledge and technology to mitigate environmental challenges. We just need to make it happen.”
I think young people in Central Asia should take ownership of environmental solutions, and push for changes in the way we do things.

It is sometimes complicated to talk about real hope, but we have to study, do more research, and work hard to find it. We have the knowledge and technology to mitigate environmental challenges. We just need to make it happen.

 


CHARITY OSEI-AMPONSAH, Regional Researcher (IWMI-West Africa)

Interviewed by Clara Colton Symmes, USA

“As a social transformation researcher, it is my job to look at data, talk to people, and to understand what has driven this change.”
Dr. Charity Osei-Amponsah joined IWMI’s team in West Africa three years ago to work on the Social Transformation Research and Policy Advocacy project in Ghana. The project focuses on understanding how social transformation is influencing climate resilience in Ghana’s northern regions.

Why did you want to become a social scientist?

I have always had this curiosity, a passion for understanding the things that happen around me. As a child at school, I would investigate why people would do the things that they do. At first, I thought I would become an investigator or forensic scientist, but I ended up studying agricultural economics at university and eventually went on to complete my PhD in rural development sociology and agricultural innovation systems.

Talk more about social transformation research. Why are you passionate about it?

Social transformation research is unique because it is primarily focused on understanding abstract processes. For example, 10 years ago a lot of women lacked access to education in the northern part of Ghana, but today we see many more educated women and girls. As a social transformation researcher, it is my job to look at data, talk to people, and to understand what has driven this change. Was it government policies or socio-cultural changes? What does this shift mean as far as bridging gender inequality is concerned, and what policy strategies must be put in place by development agencies to continue the positive transformation pathway? By understanding these dynamics, I can then predict what access to inclusive education will look like in the future, and what gender equality interventions could promote further growth.

How has being a woman affected your journey as a researcher?
“I was passionate about school, so I went for it.”
In secondary school, as I focused on the natural sciences, my mother kept asking when I would stop studying abstract things and focus on what she saw as a more practical job, like teaching in a primary school. She thought that staying in school longer to complete my university education would prevent me from having a family. But I was passionate about school, so I went for it. I did not know many female social scientists until university, where I met many contributing to national development who inspired me. Later, I participated in the two-year African Women in Agricultural Research and Development fellowship in partnership with the CGIAR Gender Platform. That gave me access to senior female social scientist mentors, which helped me gain a lot of confidence.

Charity participating in early morning yam fufu pounding at Poyentanga Community, Wa West District of the Upper West Region of Ghana.
Charity participating in early morning yam fufu pounding at Poyentanga Community, Wa West District of the Upper West Region of Ghana. Photo: Esther Wahabu / IWMI
What are you proudest of in your professional and personal life?

I am so proud of my ability to combine my academic life with raising my children. Keeping a balance is a challenge because if you spend too much time taking care of your family, then you may lose out on your profession, and if you spend too much time on your profession, you can lose out on your family. I started my family early when I was still completing my Bachelors. When I was going to school and when I was a fellow and a researcher in the field, I had younger children and I still had to be travelling, but I was able to manage it. During the week, I would stay focused at the office, and in the evening, I would keep working after my children had gone to bed. But on the weekends, I would leave the office and make sure that I did not carry work home so I could focus on family time. I am proud of myself and of my family.

Do you have any advice for young people looking to get into the sciences?
“Pursue your passion because, at the end of the day, that is what will empower you.”
The important thing I would say to young people is that you must know who you are and what you want. Young people may feel tempted to follow what their friends are pursuing, but they should know themselves, and pursue their own dreams. And if you are passionate about researching, then go to school, study hard, and grow your interpersonal skills because you cannot do social science research alone — you need to interact with people. Find mentors to guide you and help you expand your network. Work hard to generate high quality research outputs, and your peers will respect you as an expert in your field. That is what I tell my children: Just pursue your passion because, at the end of the day, that is what will empower you and make you happy.


KHADIJA BEGUM, Gender and Youth Specialist (IWMI-Pakistan)

Interviewed by Samurdhi Ranasinghe, Sri Lanka

Khadija Begum is a Gender and Youth Specialist working with IWMI in Pakistan. With over two decades of experience in the development sector, Khadija has worked with a diverse range of national and international organizations. She has a Master’s in International Relations from Pakistan and earned a scholarship to complete her Master’s in Development Studies from University of Melbourne, Australia. Smashing gender stereotypes, Khadija shares with us how she has made her passion her profession. Dynamic and self-confident, Khadija is now in her third year at IWMI.

What is a piece of work you’re proud of as a gender and youth specialist?

Well, I have years of experience working with rural communities in Pakistan. And I have helped women in these rural farming communities to develop leadership skills and form their own organizations. My greatest joy is to see them grow and come out as strong agents of change doing great work to improve the quality of life for their families and communities. It’s exciting that some of these women have started their own business and some have even emerged as political leaders contesting at the local elections.

What drew you to this field?
“Know your rights and stand up for yourself. Don’t let anyone bring you down. Be yourself and ignore the negativity.”
It has always been my passion. As a student I used to volunteer for different social organizations, working on community development and social welfare. So it started from there. But I grew up in a conservative community in Pakistan, and at the time when I joined the development sector it was not acceptable for the women from my region to be engaged in this type of the work. When I completed my education, my mother encouraged me to become a teacher and join the education sector. It was the more culturally accepted profession for females. But I knew I had a calling beyond the classroom. And looking back, I am happy with far I have come.

Kahdija speaks to a group of female farmers in Dera Ismail Khan, located in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, Pakistan, to understand the issues women are facing in the rural agriculture sector. This was carried out as part of a needs assessment for development of gender action plan for the region.
Kahdija speaks to a group of female farmers in Dera Ismail Khan, located in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, Pakistan, to understand the issues women are facing in the rural agriculture sector. This was carried out as part of a needs assessment for development of gender action plan for the region. Photo: Nosheen Khan / IWMI
In the present day, what are the challenges and opportunities you see for working women?

Things have surely changed a lot over the past two decades, with better opportunities. But I believe we still have a long way to go. Still, the education and health sectors provide the easier career choices for females. Working in other sectors remains a challenge and is not widely accepted as it should be. At the organizational level, whether it be government or non-government, women barely make it to mid-level management positions and are hardly ever recognized at a higher level. It’s especially rigid in government institutes where there are very few women because of the organizational culture. It is not a conducive work environment for women and there aren’t policies in place that promote gender equality. So, I admire the women who still choose to work in other sectors, women who are pushing through the obstacles.

What is your career dream?
“My dream is to become a lead researcher on gender, especially in relation to women and water.”
Most of my professional efforts have always been related to the implementation side of work. But now that am with IWMI, a research organization, my dream is to become a lead researcher on gender, especially in relation to women and water. I have already started researching on types of financial investments in the agriculture water sector of the country. I am looking into the gender disparity in financial inclusion. I hope my work will contribute to making more well-informed decisions and encourage investment in rural women to narrow the gender gap in Pakistan.

What drives you in the morning?

My determination to work and achieve my goals. I am full of energy when I have started work on something I love. I have a set of goals and they drive me. I evaluate my progress daily. If on certain days I feel like I’m falling behind on things, I remind myself to keep pushing through and stay focused.

“Despite progress, women are still expected to bear a heavier load than men in balancing work and family”
Despite progress, women are still expected bear a heavier load than men in balancing work and family. There is an expectation to prove ourselves to be a perfect professional as well as a perfect mom at home. But surely your own determination for your work and career gives you the strength to keep moving but family support is the key to achieving a good work-life balance. Sometimes when this support is not available, often women have no choice but sacrificing the career for managing family responsibilities.

What is your career advice to women and girls?

Believe in yourself. And if you have a particular career goal, stick to it. Know your rights and stand up for yourself. Don’t let anyone bring you down. Be yourself and ignore the negativity.