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ICRW interviews Dr. Soumya Gupta, Winner of the Paula Kantor Award

By Erin Kelly

Erin Kelly is a Communications Specialist at the International Center for Research on Women. This interview originally appeared on the ICRW website.

On January 20th, ICRW awarded Dr. Soumya Gupta with the inaugural Paula Kantor Award for Excellence in Field Research, which honors the work of an up-and-coming research focused on alleviating gender inequality. Dr. Gupta’s work focuses on the linkages between agriculture systems and women’s empowerment and in turn, how these affect nutritional outcomes. 

Dr. Gupta is a post-doctoral fellow with the Tata-Cornell Agriculture and Nutrition Initiative. Below, is ICRW’s interview with Dr. Gupta.

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Why did you choose to focus on agriculture and nutrition? How are these two connected and what impact do they have on women’s lives?

I became interested in linkages between agriculture and nutrition because there is very little empirical evidence for India that connects farming systems and women’s empowerment in agriculture to their own micronutrient status. My research looks at three different farming systems in the Chandrapur district of Maharashtra to identify what aspects of these systems are important for women’s empowerment, dietary diversification and women’s iron status.

Agriculture-based approaches are increasingly being propagated to tackle micronutrient malnutrition. Of the five main pathways between agriculture and nutrition identified by the World Bank, women’s empowerment is the least studied agriculture-nutrition pathway. Women constitute 30 percent of the agricultural labor force in India, but their access to productive resources, inputs and services for agriculture reflects a ‘gender gap’ that is most often rooted in social norms specific to a given geography and culture. The nature of the farming systems in which women practice agriculture may be important for determining the extent of this gap. Moreover, while women’s empowerment influences choices made in the realm of agriculture, it can also influence intra-household dynamics that can result in improved health and nutrition outcomes for themselves and their children. 

What are some of the biggest challenges you faced in gathering data for your research?

In terms of designing the survey there was a lot of back and forth with our collaborators in India. I worked with economists, nutritionists and medical professionals, all of whom brought their extensive experience and insights to the table. It was, however, a fine balance in designing a survey instrument that was concise and specific to the research objectives, and not give in to the temptation of designing a questionnaire that would collect “as much data as possible”.

Logistically one of the biggest challenges was setting up the blood-study. Building trust with the communities and convincing women that we would in fact return with detailed blood reports (which we did) took a lot of effort. Once the samples were collected they had to be centrifuged in the field itself. For this we had to have electricity and a functional centrifuge machine. We were fortunate that both those aspects worked in our favor for the most part.  

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What assumptions did your research help overturn? What impact does that have on how we understand agriculture and nutrition among women?

We find that women in households with a more diverse production system do not necessarily have lower rates of iron deficiency. This suggests that production (and diet) diversity by itself might not be sufficient for improved micronutrient outcomes. Rather the emphasis needs to be on production and/or consumption of nutrient- dense crops. Women’s empowerment too is key for distinguishing women with iron deficiency from without. In addition to empowerment levels, an important role is also played by home gardens and iron supplementation. This suggests the need for a food-systems approach when leveraging agriculture for improved nutritional outcomes. 

Which part of your research are you most excited about?

Given the interdisciplinary nature of my research I am glad that we were able to incorporate the Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index (WEAI) developed by IFPRI and its partners. At the time of the survey it was the first time the WEAI was assessed in an Indian context. The multi- dimensional nature of the WEAI allowed us to identify not just the key contributors to women’s disempowerment in agriculture, but also allowed us to compare women’s empowerment levels to those of men in the same household. The other aspect of my research that I am very proud of is the blood study to assess prevalence of iron deficiency. We gathered data on multiple iron assays and the non-response rate for the study was less than 2%. Being able to use the WEAI and iron results for three different farming systems brought out several differences, some which were explained by the data we had and some from the qualitative information collected during the fieldwork.  

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How do you hope your research informs policy/practices?

Each farming system result from the WEAI (i.e. areas in which women are disempowered) can be used to inform the design of policies targeted at women who practice agriculture. Similarly, information on dietary intake suggests that behavior change communication, as well as iron supplementation, can be important to tackle stubbornly high rates of anemia seen in the region. From a data point of view this research highlights the need to have detailed biochemical information to assess both the prevalence and severity of iron deficiency. 

What’s next for you?

I am continuing my work with the Tata-Cornell Initiative on Agriculture and Nutrition (TCi) as a post-doctoral fellow. TCi has recently launched a new project, funded by the Gates Foundation, called the Technical Assistance and Research for Indian Nutrition and Agriculture (TARINA), that aims to promote nutrition-sensitive food systems by providing technical expertise, building an evidence-base for policy reform and institutionalizing a nutrition sensitive agriculture in India. This project provides me a good mix of fieldwork and research and I’m excited about what lies ahead!