November 3, 2021

A Q&A with Veda Patwardhan (PhD ’21)

Veda Patwardhan recently finished her Ph.D. at the Evans School with expertise in household economics and gender. We caught up with her during a break in her day at the Institute for HealthMetrics and Evaluation (IHME) to talk about her dissertation project.

Your dissertation research focuses on how policy interventions and contextual factors shape the roles of women within households in India and Malawi. How did this project emerge over the course of your training at the Evans School?

As a Research Assistant for the Evans Policy Analysis and Research group (EPAR) during my first year as a doctoral student at Evans, I worked on a project conceptualizing the pathways through which empowering female farmers in low and middle-income countries may yield economic benefits. Thinking about the theory behind why gender differences AND inequalities have real consequences for individuals and families piqued a long-term research interest in this area. As that work progressed, I knew I wanted to focus on the intersection of public policy and gender inequality.

I also was motivated by the fact that women’s economic empowerment is an important policy objective internationally. Multi-lateral organizations, foundations, and several governments worldwide are making substantial commitments to gender equality and women’s economic empowerment. Many low and middle-income countries have implemented female-centric social protection and financial inclusion programs. For example, cash transfer schemes, self-help groups, microcredit, bank account provision and public works programs often explicitly target female beneficiaries.

Early in your dissertation, you powerfully note that “control over income is a crucialaspect of women’s economic empowerment.” What were some of the most importantinsights you discovered about factors shaping how women have control over householdincome and what having that power means for them and their families?

There are many important findings in my work. One that stands out relates to how the source of household income matters for women’ control over income (WCI). My work in Malawi finds that women have higher sole decision-making for income from public transfer sources like cash and food transfers, as well as remittances, compared with salaries, wages, and farm income. This is very interesting, as research on women’s economic empowerment hasn’t so far considered how the source of household income can really matter for who controls it! My findings in Malawi show women have higher control over transfers than other income sources, even when men are present in the household, suggesting that targeting transfers to women may yield benefits. This also helps unpack why maternal cash transfers like the Mamata Scheme in India (which I examine in another one of my dissertation chapters) have positive effects on children’s health.

This project analyzes data from two quite different settings. How might insights from your dissertation work shape your approach to comparative policy research in the future?

This is a great question. I think that conducting comparative policy research is important for the international development field, as generalizing across regions is difficult and may not always be desirable or accurate. The underlying theme of my work in India and Malawi is similar, but in India, I analyze the effect of a maternal cash transfer program on child outcomes, while my work inMalawi looks at the household and contextual drivers of women’s control over income. Over the course of my dissertation writing, I also realized that analyzing different types of research questions in these two geographies helped solidify my understanding of the existing literature, theoretical perspectives, and research gaps on women’s control over income. I look forward to conducting cross-country analyses in my future research.

What would you say are the biggest takeaways from your work for policymakers and nongovernmental organizations working to empower women in different contexts around the globe?

Policy design is incredibly important. For instance, while examining the impact of a maternal cash transfer scheme in India on child nutrition, I find that children in the poorest households benefit significantly less than those in wealthier households. This suggests that marginalized populations may face obstacles to participation and suggests changes in policy design. For example, policymakers may wish to modify eligibility criteria, or behavioral requirements — such as receiving prenatal care – that could hinder access for marginalized groups.

Paying attention to what drives women’s empowerment is important as well. In Malawi, I find that women’s decision-making over farm income increases following drought. However, this may not reflect an improvement in women’s well-being, if women have a higher workload on the farm and at home. Female farmers tend to have less access to information on climate change and climate-smart-agricultural practices, leading to lower adoption rates compared to men. So, we need policy to recognize the role climatic factors play in women’s farm decision-making. Interventions to improve women’s land tenure security, access to agricultural inputs, and safety nets like cash transfers can play an important role here.

Tell us a little about what’s next for you.

I am excited to start a Postdoctoral Scholar position with the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), which is a global health research center based at the University of Washington. My work will focus on examining gender inequalities in health.