The Impact Initiative has closed. This website has now been archived and will no longer be updated.
The Impact Initiative has closed. This website has now been archived and will no longer be updated.

Blog: Vaginas, the UN and social science: making evidence count

Image © Jorge Martin 2018.

Mar 2018

It was with some trepidation I travelled to the 62nd session of the UN Committee on the status of women (CSW62) last week armed with a large bag of striking black and yellow flyers asking: “Is your vagina holding you back?” These were the brainchild of the Impact Initiative communications team in IDS, who wanted to use provocative questions to interest people in our side event. I think they may have also been testing my feminist credentials. I am glad to say that this strategy worked, with people’s surprise and curiosity resulting in a packed panel event in New York and my reputation as a feminist activist secured.

Frame research evidence for your audiences

As well as discovering you can hand out flyers about vaginas in the UN’s Headquarters without getting thrown-out, I learnt an even more important lesson from feedback from our event. It became very clear that for a non-academic audience of activists, NGOs, government officials and UN staff, development research makes far more sense when it is framed around issues that resonate with them and draws on multiple studies.

Since 2015 the Impact Initiative for international development has been seeking to increase the uptake and impact of research from two research programmes jointly funded by ESRC and DFID: the Joint Fund for Poverty Alleviation Research and the Raising Learning Outcomes in Education Systems Research Programme. We identify synergies between the programmes and the projects, now totalling over two hundred, and support them collectively and individually to exploit influencing and engagement opportunities. 

Our approach to profiling research funded by the ESRC DFID Strategic Partnership at CSW62, which was focused this year on achieving gender equality and the empowerment of rural women and girls, was to identify a group of projects that all spoke to this broad topic from different geographic and sectoral perspectives but shared a common underlying theme. This was Women’s life choices, a concept which has become increasingly central to the policy discourse on gender equality.

Studies as diverse as the prevention of early pregnancy, increasing access to transport, improving sanitary care for girls in school, improving women’s access to health services and exploring a gender neutral education curriculum, could all be framed around women and girls life choices. This was not about bringing the health research and policy specialists together or just the education experts or the anti-poverty campaigners. It was an event and an accompanying policy report, relevant to everyone who cares about lifting barriers and improving women and girl’s lives. 

Transport, education and health services define women’s choices

Just take for example Gina Porter’s study of girls’ mobility in Ghana, Malawi and South Africa. She found that because girls could not afford public transport and were discouraged from riding bicycles, they struggled to get jobs and escape household work. This has far reaching implications for their futures. A study by Nicola Ansell in Lesotho, India and Laos found that when asked what they wanted to be, girls were highly likely to say either nurses or teachers, whereas boys invariably said soldiers or policemen. School curriculum and the attitudes of teachers and parents where leading to these gender stereotypical and ultimately unrealistic aspirations.  

Even in access to health services women’s choices seem pre-determined. Sally Theobald found that poor women in rural areas were far less likely to attend tuberculosis diagnosis services because they were stuck at home with the main caregiving duties and of course a lack of transport options. Given these kinds of examples you can probably see how we arrived at the provocatively phrased question about women’s gender holding them back printed on all those flyers.

The session itself was a lively discussion of the research and the work of development agencies in these areas with lots of audience participation. It seemed just about everybody had a story to tell that related to the studies presented. Some were quite personal, like the panel’s Chair, Thokozile Rudvidzo, announcing that she still could not ride a bicycle having faced exactly the kind of prejudice described when growing up in rural Zimbabwe.

For some of the participants who fed back afterwards from an international NGO, a UN agency and an East African government’s Ministry of Gender, it was the combination of research that attracted them to participate in the event and made it particularly relevant to them. As one said: “Our ministry welcomes evidence from across a variety of themes that connect around a core policy issue.” It also appeared that by combining studies we were able to raise awareness of factors that may have otherwise remained under their radar. As one UN official put it: “…it [the research] looks at some of the critical areas that we often miss such as girls access to transport.”

Community based research fills the evidence gap

However, it was not just the diverse combination of studies around Women’s life choices that made an impression. Crucially, it was the community focus of the research that provided the kind of qualitative evidence that they were looking for. It was suggested during the session that whereas UN agencies and governments are able to acquire national and regional data on poverty, equality, economic growth and a range of other development factors, there was little capacity to do research at community levels. This is where the ESRC DFID research appeared to fill a gap.

As one participant told us: “You can have policies and government programmes but ordinary people look to traditional leaders and communities for advice so when research is community based it is very valuable. Your research can help us understand what girls want and need... because the research is both qualitative and quantitative it can really add value to our understanding of the policy challenges we face in government.”

Although I have written before (as many others have) of the limited impact of single studies and the need to support communities of researchers and research users, I was particularly struck by this example of the policy relevance of social science projects looked at collectively. The slightly edgy flyers may have filled the room but it will be the diversity of the projects in the ESRC-DFID portfolio of research and their use of mixed methods that will keep them coming back for more.

See the ESRC DFID Research for Policy and Practice report on Women’s Life Choices

Join the conversation on twitter and put forward your suggestions for policies: #Policies4 Improving Life Choices for Women.


The Impact Initiative blog posts are either from individual researchers or from major research programmes. Some of the blog posts are original source and are written by researchers and experts connected to the two research programmes jointly funded by ESRC and FCDO: the Joint Fund for Poverty Alleviation Research and the Raising Learning Outcomes in Education Systems Research Programme. Other blog posts are imported from related websites and programmes. 

The views expressed in these blogs reflect the opinions of each individual and may not represent the Institute of Development Studies, the University of Cambridge, ESRC or FCDO.


The Impact Initiative welcomes comments.  To enable a healthy environment for discussion we reserve the rights to remove comments if they are considered abusive or disruptive. All comments are reactively moderated. This means that comments are usually only checked if a complaint is made about them.