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Women are overlooked

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Poornima Thapa in an alleyway in Bonn. In her research, she explores the experiences of women affected by water-sanitation insecurity in urban slum settlements in Jaipur, India. “Bonn is especially attractive for students from the field of development studies since it hosts the UN Campus and other prominent international non-governmental agencies.” Photo: Volker Lannert. 

“In my research, I focus specifically on the everyday experiences of women, which usually tend to get overlooked or under-examined within the development discourse.”

8_8_2.jpgPoornima Thapa is doctoral candidate at the University of Bonn’s Center for Development Research (ZEF). Poornima initially studied dentistry in Agra, India. While working in a district hospital, she became interested in public health and policy: “I experienced first-hand that poor health was closely associated with socio-economic conditions and a narrow focus on treatment alone was grossly inefficient”.

That was when she decided to do a Master’s in Public Health. Now she is at ZEF for her PhD in Development Studies, exploring how women in urban India experience pregnancy in a water-sanitation insecure environment. “I have always been drawn towards issues affecting the health of women in vulnerable communities”.

The 2011 Indian census shows one in every six urban Indians lives in a slum, in water-sanitation insecure environments. It is especially problematic for women, as they are traditionally responsible for fetching water in the household and, without toilettes, are exposed to danger "Everyday they must locate isolated spaces where they can relieve themselves with dignity and safety, often experiencing sexual harassment and sometimes even violence."

Photo Gallery

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Photos by Poornima Thapa taken during her research trip to an urban slum neighborhood in the desert state of Rajasthan in north-western India in 2016 and 2017. (c) Poornima Thapa

"I am especially eager to make my research available to agencies and organizations in India involved in the area of urban public health."

In her third year at ZEF, Poornima is currently in the process of analyzing her data and writing her dissertation. In the absence of public infrastructure, the women negotiate, make arrangements, strike alliances and use various other approaches to achieve access to water-sanitation for themselves and their families. This also influences the experience of pregnancy for these women.

With her research outcomes, she wants to shed light on these everyday negotiations that millions of women living in informal settlements across India undertake to accommodate their pregnancy in an water-sanitation insecure environment. “The ultimate aim is to inform policy and practice about women-centric development issues that have direct and indirect links with health and well-being."

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Center for Development Research's (ZEF) Doctorate Program

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Full Q&A

Why and how did you get into this area of research?

I have always been drawn towards issues affecting the health of women in vulnerable communities. While working in a public hospital in New Delhi, I experienced first-hand that poor health was closely associated with socio-economic conditions and a narrow focus on treatment alone was grossly insufficient, especially in resource poor contexts. This motivated me to apply for a Master’s degree in Public Health. Following that I worked as a Monitoring and Evaluation Officer for a national health program in New Delhi for about a year. For my doctoral research I wanted to explore Water-Sanitation in urban slum settlements in India because it forms the very basis of health and well-being, an issue encountered by one in every six urban Indians. In my study, I focus specifically on the experiences of women which usually tend to get overlooked or under-examined.

What would you like to achieve with the research you are doing at ZEF?

I would like to bring to light some aspects of the everyday negotiations - specifically to achieve access to water and sanitation - that are a part of the lives of millions of women living in informal settlements across India. The ultimate aim is to inform policy and practice about women centric development issues that have multiple direct and indirect links with health and well-being.

Do you have any advice for future doctorate students?

Although the research proposal undergoes a lot of changes from the application stage to the time when the students leave for the field for data collection, it is prudent to have a thoroughly researched proposal at the time of application. It allows one to adhere to the timelines of the doctoral program. 

What motivated you to come to Bonn and join the ZEF doctoral program?

I got to know of ZEF through the Working Papers published by the Institute. I found the interdisciplinary nature of the Institute very appealing and decided to apply for the doctoral program. Real-world issues require transcending disciplinary boundaries and ZEF offers just that. Bonn is also especially attractive for students from the field of development studies since it hosts the UN Campus and other prominent international non-governmental agencies.

What are you most exciting about in your research?

I am currently in the process of analyzing my data and I look forward to the results of my study. I am especially eager to make it available to agencies in India.

What and where did you study before coming to ZEF in Bonn?

I started with a Bachelor’s degree in Dental Surgery from Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar University in Agra, India, followed by a Master’s degree in Public Health (in Social epidemiology) from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.

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