Originally posted on the BBC Media Action [Insight] blog by Katy Williams, Research Editor, BBC Media Action, on January 6 2017 - International development organisations need to understand the viewpoints and experiences of women and girls if they are to improve opportunities for them. 

BBC Media Action’s research editor Katy Williams spoke to Ahmad Tamim Sharifzai, the organisation’s senior research officer in Afghanistan, about the challenges of conducting formative and evaluative research with women in the country.

Q What are some of the broader challenges you face when conducting research in Afghanistan?

Research is not a new phenomenon in Afghanistan, but I find that when I am out in the field, especially in rural areas, people can be somewhat suspicious of it. They sometimes think it’s a form of spying – that researchers will pass covert information to untrustworthy foreigners who may then attack them.

It’s also difficult to travel to remote areas because of the mountainous terrain, bad roads (or even no roads at all), harsh weather, long distances and insecurity. In addition, since there is not much reliable up-to-date population data (the last census was carried out 40 years ago), it’s hard to ensure that research participants are representative of the public-at-large.

Q What specific challenges do you confront when gathering information from women?

Women often aren’t permitted to talk to any member of the opposite gender who isn’t a close family member. So we always need to use women researchers to talk to women. But finding female researchers isn’t easy, as education levels are low among Afghan women – just 3% of women over the age of 25 have completed any formal education. Ideally, researchers also need to be able to speak both Pashto and Dari - which are spoken by roughly 35% and 50% of the population respectively - if they are to be able to communicate with the majority of female interviewees. But of course it’s hard recruiting researchers with such language skills.

Then we have the problem of finding women researchers who are able to travel to other provinces, as their travel tends to be more restricted. It’s not just practical obstacles that prevent women from travelling alone, there are cultural reasons too. Women face considerable resistance to taking on roles outside the home, as demonstrated by the recent killing of five female airport workers, who had previously received death threats because of their jobs.

On one occasion, we spent a whole week trying to hire a female researcher in Kandahar province. The search eventually came to an end when we managed to recruit two women from the same family so they could travel together. They had some experience conducting research for other organisations, but none in media research. This is the kind of compromise we have to make in our work.

Often the best way of finding female researchers is to ask village elders to identify local women who may be able to help us – then we can train them.

Q Tell me why conducting focus group discussions with women is not really an option in Afghanistan.

To take part in a focus group, women need to leave their homes to go to a neighbour’s house or to a public space. For many, this is culturally unacceptable. What’s more, they often feel inhibited in a group and many do not feel comfortable sharing information or speaking publically.

Due to these constraints, we tend to opt for in-depth interviews, rather than focus group discussions. When they’re not in a group, women tend to be more confident about sharing information.

Q How do you go about arranging in-depth interviews with female participants?

First of all, we have to get permission from a male relative – typically a father, husband or brother. We also have to allay the fears of village elders and other influential family members, such as mothers, grandmothers and other older female authority figures. We have to convince everyone that we aren’t trying to extract information that could compromise anyone’s safety or cultural practices.

To pave the way for a smooth interviewing process, we discuss the questions with the women and their families in advance and reassure them that we won’t reveal any names, addresses or take photos. People are sometimes suspicious about why we want to interview certain women and not others, so we show them that we use random sampling techniques, such as drawing matchsticks, in order to determine who will be spoken to.

Q What are the most effective techniques you’ve found for ensuring you can record the views of women in Afghanistan?

Our main technique is to explain to everyone involved – village elders, husbands, fathers and the female interviewee herself – exactly what we are doing and why, which helps dispel their fears and suspicions.

On one occasion, in Laghman province, one of our female researchers was attacked with stones as she came out of a house. This was because we had failed to ask the permission of the interviewee’s husband. Once I had spoken with him to explain what we were doing and why, it was all OK. The attack was prompted by fear, which could be addressed with information.

Often, people want money for participating in an interview. On these occasions, we explain that our research has development goals – that it ultimately aims to improve specific aspects of their lives – and that we cannot pay them for their time.

Most of the time, we manage to persuade women to take part in our surveys – as long as we don’t attempt to contact them directly. However, it can sometimes take some time to recruit women that match the profile we’re looking for.

In addition, it’s often worthwhile to train local women to carry out our research because they’re already known and trusted in the area and more easily able to go from house to house. However, it can be challenging to find women in rural areas who are educated or who have any experience conducting interviews.

Q Are some topics particularly hard to discuss?

Gender is the hardest. There’s a perception that this is all about how to take a stand against a man. Some topics related to governance and local politics are also tricky to cover; some women (and men too) are just not ready to talk about this – they are too frightened of local power-holders, the government and/or their husbands.

Q What’s the most surprising experience you’ve had conducting research?

One time, while working for BBC Media Action in Laghman province, I was approached by local Taliban officials who were very suspicious about what I was doing. They held me in a car. The situation was finally resolved when local women came out and explained that I was doing research that aimed to improve the lives of ordinary people. The Taliban listened to them and released me. Women are very much respected as negotiators in Afghanistan.

Katy Williams is a Research Editor at BBC Media Action. Ahmad Tamim Sharifzai, is a Senior Research Officer at BBC Media Action, Afghanistan.


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Image credit: BBC Media Action

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