Renu Khanna talks with co-hosts Patricia Maguire and Jessica Oddy. Renu is a trailblazer in participatory action researcher, particularly in women’s health and human rights. In the early 80s, she began using PAR as part of her broader work with the Social Action for Rural and Tribal Inhabitants of India or SARTHI. Its overall purpose was to give women a meaningful voice in their own health care. Renu is one of the co-founders of the Society for Health Alternatives in Badadora India. SAHAJ created feminist-inspired maternal health programs. She's worked mobilizing traditionally marginalized groups in the tribal areas of Gujarat, the urban poor, and subsequently on health issues of sexual minorities, people living with disabilities, and adolescents. She has over 40 years of experience as a trainer, an action researcher, and evaluator, and a policy analyst in India. In this podcast, Pat, Jess, and Renu talk about Renu’s journey thru participatory training, participatory research and evaluation, and work with a feminist coalition developing innovative gender transformative research and evaluation.
6/29/2022 PODCAST Transcript
Participatory Action Research Feminist Trailblazers and Troublemakers
Renu Khanna – Participatory Research to Gender Transformative Evaluation
Patrica Maguire – Welcome. You’re listening to the Participatory Action Research Feminist Trailblazers and Good Troublemakers Podcast. I'm Patricia Maguire. I'm a longtime advocate of feminist-informed, participatory action research and teacher action research. My co-host is Jessica Oddy.
Jessica Oddy: - Hi everyone. My name is Jess. I'm a PhD student at the University of East London Center for Migration, Refugee, and Belonging. And I'm passionate about feminist informed and critical participatory action research,
Patricia Maguire- Our guest today is Renu Khanna. Before introducing Renu, I want to tell you a little bit about the series. Our intention is to amplify the contributions of early feminist and women trailblazers in PAR. We’re going to talk about their work, their struggles, and their successes bringing feminist values and ways of being to participatory action research and hopefully together, then all of us can revision a participatory action research that's deeply informed by intersectional feminisms. I mean after all, given its liberatory and transformative intentions, without feminisms, what would PAR liberate us from and transform us into?
Today it's our pleasure to welcome Renu Khanna, a feminist women's health and rights activist. And I'm going to tell you a little bit about her career.
Renu is a trailblazer in participatory action researcher, particularly in women's health. In the early 80s, she began using PAR as part of her broader work with the Social Action for Rural and Tribal Inhabitants of India or SARTHI. Its overall purpose was to try to give women a meaningful voice in their own health care. They did groundbreaking work in gynecological and psychological health related to gender-based violence.
For example, they incorporated traditional health practices and modern allopathic health practices and to do that, they did some really innovative work. They trained pre-literate women health workers who became known as the barefoot gynecologists. And they provided gynecological services for tribal women.
Renu is one of the co-founders of the Society for Health Alternatives in Badadora India. She's worked mobilizing traditionally marginalized groups in the tribal areas of Gujarat, the urban poor, and subsequently on health issues of sexual minorities, people living with disabilities, and adolescents. So she has over 40 years of experience as a trainer, an action researcher, and evaluator, and a policy analyst in India. She's on governing boards and steering committees of national and international organizations. She's a Joint National Convener of the People's Health Movement of India. And a founding member of CommonHealth Coalition of Maternal, Neonatal Health and Safe Abortion. And finally, she's part of a coalition of feminist evaluators who are promoting gender transformative research and evaluation. And as we go through the podcast, today, she's going to tell us about what this gender transformative research means, how that works. So Renu, welcome. We’re really thrilled to have you with us today.
Renu Khanna: Thank you. It's wonderful to be here with both of you.
Patricia Maguire - Jess is going to get us started.
Jessica Oddy- Yeah, it's great, great to be here with you both as well. Renu, your first position in 1977 I believe was with the Voluntary Health Association and you're addressing management issues faced by the rural hospitals and health centers.
Could you tell us a little bit about that project and how it kind of informed your developing beliefs around participation, participatory projects, and participatory research in general?
Renu Khanna: Thank you so much for giving me this opportunity to remember my own history, 40 years is a very long time. I was very young, straight out of a management school. This was my first job. And I was part of a consulting group to advise rural hospitals on modern management practices. How could we incorporate management systems and processes to these hospitals located in remote, rural areas and catering to the country’s rural poor.
Our team leader was a Catholic sister. And she was incidentally the first PhD in the country in hospital management. And it is from her that I have learned about participatory approaches. What I lacked in credibility as a very young woman, you know, thrown into the throes of advising very senior people on how to manage their hospitals, I made up by sharing what I knew about management and drawing out solutions from those hospital teams.
I learned about consensus building from Sister Carol and the teams, the people in the hospitals owned the solutions. I watched her and I learned from her about trusting, first myself and trusting group processes. I don't have all the answers – the best solutions come from affected communities, the affected people. And what I learned was that my role is to build a safe space - help them to reflect, facilitate open discussions and this I feel is the essence of participatory approaches. And this is a lesson that I've been practicing all of these years, 40 long years, and it just stood me in very good state.
Jessica Oddy: Thank you. That's such an interesting insight into how you got into participation and participatory projects. I wonder if you could tell us a little bit more about the work that you did in the early ‘80s with working class women who kind of introduced you to or taught you about feminisms.
Renu Khanna: So this was really very, very interesting - after my eight years in the Voluntary Health Association of India where one of the things that I learned was that health is a very low priority for the rural poor. What is important for them is livelihoods - earning their daily wage and feeding their families. And I was a bit disenchanted with the work that I was doing in management consulting in the healthcare domain.
At that time, because of my experience and my degree, I was invited by an urban women's collective from central India, a city called Jabalpur. And this women's collective was making spices and marketing these spices. The person who was sort of coordinating this group and helping them felt that I may have something to offer. And so I went across to, you know, traveled across the country into this city, town. It was in central India and I met these women. And well, meeting these women is actually the most transforming experience of my life.
Here with was this group of urban poor women struggling but with smiles on their faces and such a spirit of collectiveness and solidarity. And, you know, the whole day I was with them and in the evening the group leader invited me to her home. And her home was in a very poor neighborhood. It was barely a structure. I mean it was so rudimentary. And as we approached her house, I saw a bed outside her little dwelling and on that bed was this man, emaciated, and you know, sick. And she introduced me to him. She said, “He's my husband, and he is a tuberculosis patient, a long-time tuberculosis patient. I spend that evening with them. We ate together. And I was just so moved. I was so moved by the courage of this woman, by her cheerfulness, about her dedication to the work that she was doing with this collective of equally poor women and the way she was looking after her husband and her family.
So, I spent the next week with this group. And every day my admiration for them increased. And I think that one week that I spent with them was the beginning of my commitment to women's issues, women's empowerment, economic empowerment, collective action. I didn't have the words at that time. I didn't have the language, but I think this was my introduction to feminism. So since then I have been working very, very consciously with women, with disenfranchised, marginalized women on issues that are important for them and trying to be of support to them.
Patricia Maguire You said that when you first started working with these women, that they weren’t really interested in health issues because their economic livelihood issues were much more critical. Now, is that what led you to co-found the Society for Health Alternatives? Tell us about that sort of shift of where you very specifically then started working with the Society for Health Alternatives. I know you did some very innovative work where you started working with women who were walking very long distances to collect wood for cooking. So you introduced them to smokeless stoves and then that evolved into essentially feminist-inspired maternal health or the barefoot gynecologists. Tell us how all that came together.
Renu Khanna: I think, you know while I got engaged in sectors other than health, I also started owning my affiliations to health. The only thing is that I started seeing health not just as a physical issue, not only to do with body, but also to do with emotional, social health and also started realizing the structural factors in health. All of this now, you know, in subsequent years has been, for instance articulated by WHO as social determinants and structural determinants of health. But when we founded SAHAJ, the Society for Health Alternatives, what we wanted to do was not just look at health as physical health, but trace back the roots of physical health to psychological stress-related factors, to economic and political factors and people's position in society. So, that was the basis of the founding of Society for Health Alternatives.
At that time, as I was saying, you know, with my management degree which I actually discounted. But people thought that, you know, having an MBA degree after your name gives you a lot of credibility and gives you a lot of power. And so I was being called to different places and one of the organizations where I was called, was this organization SARTHI which was working in a tribal area - very, very resource poor area.
When I went there again some of these images remain in your mind. So my first visit to SARTHI was, I saw these denuded hills. It's a very rolling landscape. Tribal areas they have this hilly sort of terrain and so I saw denuded, depleted hills and I saw women in groups and clusters digging away. There was nothing to dig. We stopped the vehicle and we asked them, “What is it that you're doing?” And they said; this was a time when there was a very very severe drought in western India. The forests were depleted. There was no firewood for them to cook food. And what they were doing was that they were digging roots, roots of trees which had been felled or bushes and that was going to be the fuel to cook that evening's meal. Scarcity of resources, basic resources in that area, just struck me and was driven home.
This friend of mine was an architect who had been actually dealing with and helping people in other areas, women in other parts of the country to make these improved cook stoves, as they were called smokeless chulas. And so this organization then asked us to come and make these chulas where women wouldn't have to expend so much of fuel wood and these chulas, or these stoves would take the smoke out of the house. So they were energy, efficient cook stoves.
So we spent about two years training local women in principles of physics – how the wind sucks up the fire; and how if you just light one stove but create a tunnel, you can actually put two pots on that stove and cook two things at the same time. So things like that. The principles of physics were demystified. All of this work masonry work, this was all skilled masonry work and this was done by men traditionally. So here we were teaching women to understand physics and to acquire skills that so far were only the privilege of men. And so we were doing something very, very radical and which we didn't really realize. But that's the way it emerged.
So these women became these chulas technicians and they were there was so much demand for them they were able to earn money from making these cook stoves in other villages. All of this was happening. And then when these women were going into villages to make these stoves, other women started approaching them and started speaking about their health issues. And so these women, we had monthly meetings with these discarder of smokeless Chula technicians as we call them Chula mysteries. In these monthly meetings, these women started speaking of health problems of these rural women in these areas, and that gave birth to our community-based women's health program, and that's how it all started.
Patricia Maguire What I'm really struck by it, is that this work took time over a couple of years and I think that's one thing for our listeners to think about - how participatory action research projects evolve over time and you created spaces where women could talk about one kind of issue. And as trust was built, they talked about other issues - and the importance of creating the kind of spaces and relationships where people have a voice - which I think is one of the, the main premises really of PAR and feminisms where those overlap.
Renu Khanna: Absolutely. That's the most fundamental aspect of participatory engagement. It is not top-down. It evolves from the needs of the affected people. I mean we didn't have any agenda; we were responding to what the local women were telling us. Our only agenda was to support them in their search for solutions, that's what it was.
Patricia Maguire: What I wanted to explore – I wondered if there was any push back over time to the work that SARTHI or the Society of Health Alternatives was getting to your very openly and avowedly feminist view of women’s health and health reform. Did you get push back and if so, what was that like?
Renu Khanna: Of course. I mean feminism is not a very easy word. It is not a very acceptable label. I think feminists end up threatening a lot of people. In addition to the feminist pushback, there was pushback also from the biomedical community, doctors and husbands for instance and also from those who don’t accept human rights approaches. So pushback in the context are plenty. But we do what we have to do; we change our strategy. Our work and mission are what important to us, not the imperative of using labels like feminism or human rights. So we don’t need to say feminists or human rights. We can be more explicit and use terms like equality, like dignity, like non-discrimination. Who’s going to fight with these terms or with these values? So I think what we’ve learned to do is to be subversive in the way we go about our business and the way we go about our mission.
Jessica Oddy: I think it's so interesting. And the work that really changed and actually began to challenge kind of this dominant paradigm of maternal health research, which I think usually discounted women's voices and experiences. Given that, why do you think that the Society for Health Alternatives using PAR in health research was able to reach kind of policy making arenas and influence both the local and then later, the national health systems?
Renu Khanna:The thing about health is that the dominant paradigms of health are so so biomedical. The way medicine is taught is based on a very clinical paradigm, very biomedical. And that's why a feminist approach to women's health is very different - because what we emphasize is women's experience of their bodies and women's understanding of their own health, their cultural beliefs and practices. So this is how it is so different.
I'll just give you an example. When we first started working with these tribal women in this, as I was saying very, very resource poor area, we asked them: “How do you know that you're pregnant?” And the answer that we expected, I expected was that our menstruation stops, our period stops, and I know that I'm pregnant. And their answer was that when I can't see at night in the evenings, then I know I'm pregnant. And it took us a while to understand what that meant. It meant that their nutritional status was so depleted, they were so low on reserves of vitamin A, that in pregnancy the first sign that they recognize of their pregnancy was night blindness. And Western allopathic medicine, I mean, we were coming from the Western allopathic medicine paradigm and it took us such a long time to figure this out and responses to women from that paradigm if they did not take into account this reality of the depleted nutritional status, then it was so off the mark - all the treatment that the hospitals or the subcenters were providing - which was actually precious little at that time - was so off the mark because it was not looking at women in their context. So this was our first lesson in understanding women's cultural and contextual experiences.
Now, quality of care in allopathic medicine in the discourse is defined by technical care, by administrative systems, and things like that and there's one little part of it which says patient satisfaction. If all these four elements are there, there's somebody called Judith Bruce who's done some remarkable work on quality-of-care frameworks. And this is what they talk about.
Now we explored with the women what kind of maternal health care would they want? What would be their concept of very good, excellent maternal health care. And the responses that came up were a mosquito net, food served in the hospital, gentleness and caring at the time of labor. I would love to have somebody with me in the labor room when I'm in labor. Now many of these things at that time, you know, in the 1990s, these did not figure in the concept of quality of care.
So, we started emphasizing that women's perspectives of quality of care are very important, and they will be contextual. This was a malaria endemic area, and so there were lots of mosquitoes and the primacy that the women gave to a mosquito net is not something that the health system, the standard one size fits all approach will have. So, using their voices and testimonies and their concepts, we highlighted and amplified these through our engagement with feminist movements, both nationally and globally. So that is what we do, we engage with local communities, affected groups and give them that space to articulate their concerns, their perspectives, and use their voices through our engagement and our very, very active collaboration and the solidarity that we've built up over the years with movements - the People's Health movement, with the feminist health movement, with the social accountability community, the feminist evaluators community all of these. And we transmit the voices of affected groups to policy-making arenas both nationally and globally.
Patricia Maguire I think it's powerful though what you're talking about is how this happens over time and that you stayed engaged with women's health but that you become part of other coalitions, other networks. So tell us about that - about how over time you became part of a feminist coalition that started using and promoting these participatory evaluation of health programs.
Renu Khanna: Okay, so becoming part of this feminist coalition was very recent. And what had happened was that, as I was developing my skills as a facilitator and trainer and also, resultantly my reputation as a facilitator and trainer and as a management student, I was supposed to know about monitoring and evaluation. So I was invited by women's empowerment organizations to come and do evaluations of their programs. And because I've, as I told you, I’d internalized all of this participation and participatory methods so much, it all came, very, very naturally to me. And so I made these evaluations into participatory self and collective reflection workshops.
I remember the first time that I did this was in the late 80s or early 90s and this was a rural women's empowerment program and so I asked them to draw. I said, “Draw a picture of how your life was before this program and draw another picture of how your life is today.” And they were sheets of paper and there were crayons and colors in the room. They came up with these drawings, which are absolutely mind-blowing. Again these are so vividly etched in my brain. So one of these woman had drawn this picture of a parrot in a cage as a preprogram status and another picture of a parrot flying with its wings flapping. And that was so amazing for me. And so gratifying.
So these kinds of things were what I was doing. And it's only later that I learned that some of these have been codified into participatory rural appraisal or participatory learning approaches, you know PRA techniques and PLA and all of that. I had been doing all of this very, very intuitively. So over years, I kept doing these sorts of evaluations. For example, I did one adolescent girls health program evaluation, one midwifery program, a government reproductive and child health program evaluation. So while I learned so much about the issue at hand, I realized that basic approach to these evaluations was to create spaces for whoever, within quotes “the beneficiaries” or the subjects, or whatever you want to call them, to evaluate the program themselves. What change has it resulted in? What it could have been done better? What did not work? You know, so that that sort of thing.
I had other friends in the feminist movement, somebody working on education, somebody working in livelihoods, and these were feminist friends. And so one of them said, “Why don't we get together and write up our experiences on the evaluations that we've been doing in our different sectors.” So this was the first initiative of a group of us. They were about eight or nine of us who got together and wrote up our experiences which then got published in a Special Journal in Indian Journal of Gender Studies. And it came out as a special issue of that journal was on feminist evaluations. That group then stayed together and we were funded by IDRC and Ford Foundation and the anchoring organization was a feminist organization called the Institute for Social Studies Trust. And that's how this community has actually grown. I have to say that, I did not know anything about theory of evaluation until I joined this group because some of them were professional evaluators, feminists who were evaluators. And it is from them that I learned about theories of evaluation and different schools of evaluation.
Jessica Oddy: How does gender transformative evaluation and research differ from some of those different theories that you measured, maybe you could just break it down to us. Like, what is that makes something gender transformative? What makes an evaluative process gender transformative?
Renu Khanna: for this I would first have to say what is gender. And then I would have to describe to you what is gender transformation or gender transformative approaches. So gender to me is a continuum beyond the binaries of the biological male and female, a continuum that accommodates people of diverse sexual orientations, gender identities, and expressions. So gender in common parlance in my country and I think in many places globally gets reduced to women. But it’s not only about women. And it's not only about women and men. It has to go beyond that. So that is point number one.
Now, what does gender transformation mean to me? Gender transformation to me means changing for the better gender norms, accepted gender roles, unequal power relations, moving away from gender stereotypes, moving towards gender equality. So gender transformative research - what does that do? So again, when you talk about gendered research, generally it gets reduced to sex disaggregated data to compare male and female differences. Let's say if you're talking about health, anemia, lifespans, mortality, but gender transformative research goes beyond just analyzing sex segregated data to look at how gender roles, division of labor, differential access to and control over resources affect gender power relations which impact on health status of different groups.
Gender Transformative Evaluations, I think, examine how gender was integrated into health systems as well as into health programming to result in gender transformation. For example, will health budget allocations increased to develop more women leaders within the health system. Were human resources policies changed to accommodate women's reproductive needs or towards positive discrimination towards people of the SOGI groups? How did health program strategies attempt to change community norms?
I'll give you an example here. Menstrual Health and Hygiene Programs. These days everybody's talking about adolescent health means menstrual health and hygiene. So how is this issue framed? Is it simply a water and sanitation and hygiene issue? Or is it framed as a dignity issue? Does it attempt to dismantle harmful practices and stigma around menstruation? Or does it not? How does it actually involve adolescents and young women in designing, implementing, monitoring, and evaluating the program? A gender transformative evaluation would look at all of these.
Patricia Maguire In terms of your gender transformative evaluation and research, I was wondering – because it’s transforming not only gender norms for woman and LGBTQ+ community, but I wondered if you could talk about any projects you evaluated where the projects were transforming cis men’s performance of masculinity.
Renu Khanna I don’t even need to go to evaluations. Our own (SAHAJ) work in the low-income neighborhoods in Gujarat with young boys over the years has revealed some very powerful results. I can give you a few examples of those. Many years ago, I think it must have been ten years ago, we did a weekend retreat with boys in which we facilitated them to write their own life stories from masculinities perspective. The stories of these 15-18 boys were then written up and compiled into a book. On October 2, which is Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday, we did a launch of this little book. It was a public ceremony. We asked the boys who had contributed their life stories to speak about what Mahatma Gandhi’s masculinity meant for them. This was such a powerful rendition of their understanding.
One of the boys said that what he learned from Mahatma Gandhi’s masculinity was non-violence. What he learned from Mahatma Gandhi’s masculinity was speaking truth to power. Don’t close your eyes. Don’t close your ears. Let your tongue speak out when you see injustices anywhere. So these were so, you know the way they had internalized Mahatma Gandhi’s masculinity. It was a very moving position of transformative masculinities. This was one such example.
The other example that I want to give you is one of our young peer leaders from these low-income neighborhoods grew up and became a young man. He’s now the father of two little girls. We were actually celebrating our 35th anniversary of SAHAJ and it was a public function. This young man came up on the stage and gave a public account of the kinds of pressures he faces in this patriarchal society and within his own family because he has two daughters. He is pressurized by family members to force his wife to undergo more pregnancies, and not just more pregnancies but also sex determination and sex selection so that they give birth to a baby boy. So he stood there and said how being with SAHAJ and learning about gender equality and gender justice, he has not just developed the perspective but also the courage to hold off his family and to actually dialogue with them. To explain to them that for him daughters are as important as sons would be. And he sees no difference between daughters and sons. I thought this again was in individual personal change which goes beyond individuals to influence their families, their community, their cultural norms. This is the beginning of the journey of actually social change.
These sorts of examples, these are dramatic examples are everyday examples in our community work. So we see this happening as a result of the gender sensitization sessions that my colleagues and team members conduct in the community with these young people and also their families. It’s not just only with the young people.
Patricia Maguire Those are very power examples and I think it will help flesh out for our listeners that when you speak about gender transformation it’s for people across the range of gender identities and sexual identity – that it isn’t just for women. So often I think in projects about gender it gets truncated to only mean women’s gender.
One of the most challenging parts of participatory action research is getting the participatory piece. You described various methods, approaches, and values around participation. And that takes time over time, it's not a compressed, short approach to research. And I think those are really helpful things that you've highlighted for our listeners.
So, to bring some of this together, what are some of your own feminist values and ways of being that have informed your approach to research, to evaluation, and, I think, to the Society for Alternatives to Health.
Renu Khanna: Inclusion of the most marginalized groups within a context is very important, their participation and their substantive participation, not tokenistic participation, their voice. How are power relations changing? They subjective experiences. Creativity. Joy. Empowerment. I think all of these are extremely fundamental, core, central to the notion of feminist evaluation.
Data, evidence, research is how hierarchies are created. For instance, quantitative data is the data which is considered to be the most legitimate. Qualitative is fuzzy – duddy; it's sort of “soft data” within quotes. And feminists, many of us, while we talk about testimonies and stories and narratives, we are trying to highlight the importance of qualitative data.
But one of the things that I have learned over time is that we as women, as feminist activists, also need to learn to master quantitative data and quantitative paradigms because that is what will contribute to our empowerment. This is in one way turning tables on some of my earlier beliefs. And I think that what is important is a combination of quantitative and qualitative when we're talking about research, So while we are sort of debunking the authority of the randomized control trial as a gold standard paradigm and trying to create legitimacy for stories, testimonies, and techniques like photovoice and videography. These are participatory techniques. I think that we also need to shun our resistance to quantitative paradigms and embrace those.
Jessica Oddy: I'm so interested to see how your work has shifted over the past couple of years of course with the global pandemic, I mean what does what does PAR and health research look like or what has it looked like for you and your organization over the past couple of years?
Renu Khanna: We work with adolescents of different social groups, very poor working-class adolescents, families, their young people and also sexual minority groups. So in the Covid period, some of these adolescent peer leaders actually did local inquiries to find out who are the neediest families in their neighborhoods. Who needs the relief, nutrition, food? Whose livelihoods have been most affected and they need livelihood support. So my point is that it is these local people who are able to know the context and who know their neighborhood, who can do the most credible sort of inquiries and most accurate inquiries. So some of this was done.
The LGBTQI crew, again there was so much hunger and deprivation, and they don't have ration cards, identity cards, the government cards which would entitle them to the free ration distribution. So they did a survey of people who did not have these identity cards and made a list and went to the collector and were able to demand that these rations and this relief be given to them. So it's internal, it's all internal. This is participatory research rooted in action because it is resulting in strategies and interventions which are going to improve their situation.
And going beyond this, I mean this is a very micro experience. I have also recently been doing a three-country study in South Asia to document the response to Covid from a gender perspective. And this again is something that I found that it's local groups the state could not reach. There were so many structural barriers that they couldn't reach these remote areas and it was a local group who responded. They did assessments, rapid assessments of the situation that was existing and was able to produce reports and publicize their findings, and mobilized support for these local sorts of context. So, all of this has been happening in the Covid period very powerfully. And in fact, this has been a major learning for us - that there has to be close coordination between local community-based organizations in civil society organizations and district level and subnational administration government authority. And if that happens, then they will be effective emergency response
Jessica Oddy: Recently there's been a lot of discourse in international development and kind of global health fields around the need to, and I put in quotations, “decolonize research methodologies” and the way these kind of big systems like international development and global health work more generally. Do you think community-based PAR has a role in addressing some of the power and knowledge asymmetries that we see surfacing in these fields?
Renu Khanna: Absolutely. I think some of the examples that I just gave of this three country Covid response research is an example of that. And also the example of SAHEJ adolescent peer leaders doing surveys of the most needy people in their communities. I mean, they are the ones who have the knowledge. They are the ones who have the credibility, the trust of their communities. So absolutely as I was saying, 40 years of my experience, in terms of what I have learned, I think I owe most of my learning to local knowledge, to people who are repositories of this knowledge.
We didn't talk about one other very significant thing which we did. This is the Shodhini work. Shodhini is a woman researcher. This was feminist research on women's knowledge of their bodies and traditional remedies - local traditional remedies which they use for their gynec problems. This had never been done earlier. Ayurveda or the local health practitioners are all male - Ayurveda is a very patriarchal system of knowledge. So this happened in nine places across the country, nine different locations across the length and breadth of India. And we found amazing synchronicity and convergence on some of the remedies that the women were using for the same symptoms. It was just so amazing. This actually came out as a book published by Kali for Women. It's called Touch Me, Touch Me Not - Women, Healing and Plants. This was written way back in the 1991 or 92.
So what I'm saying is we as educated, middle class women, who have the privilege of our education and class, we learned so much from going into the forests with these local women. They would show us the plant and there's so many stories around this. They would not name the plant and we would say, why not? And they said the magic will go, the power will go. So we could photograph the plant and bring it back to the botany department and get them to identify it. We learned so much and 80% of the remedies that the women were using, we ran it through three filters. One was botany - the local botanist in the university was able to see 80% of them had the properties of the women were using them for. We ran it through Ayurveda. Same result. There were very few remedies or practices that they were doing which were actually harmful and some of them were, again, their roots are in patriarchy. Something like beating a woman, like if she is expressing, what they called hysteria, then they will beat her. The local spiritual healer will say, “I'm driving out the demons.” So those sorts of things, we say are absolutely no no’s because these are human rights violations. But 80%, even more than that of the things that you’re doing are what is codified in so-called modern science. So what I'm saying is this is decolonization. This is local knowledge which is being elevated too, and I think this is what needs to be done more and more, being elevated to knowledge. I mean being codified as knowledge and not just being left as local knowledge. This is, it deserves the status of science. as much as science.
Patricia Maguire What else would you like to say to our listeners about why attention to inclusion of intersectional feminist values matters to today's action research? Why does this combination, this coming together, why does this matter to today's action researchers?
Renu Khanna: So, I think because of so many things. One is that intersectional feminisms recognizes that women are not a single class. That is really important. One of the things that again I go back to 20 or 30 years ago is how little we knew about LGBTQI issues. Who are we to research on their issues? By we, I mean cis people. The best research is that that can be done, it can be done internally. And this is again, one little thing that we did here. There is an LGBTQI crew and we supported them. It was training given and there was documentation and handholding and all of that. We encouraged them to do the research on their own issues. so again, if you look at it from the perspective of intersectionality, it is empowering groups who are marginalized, to document their own experiences, to do their own research, put out their own findings. And so again, from the perspective of the values, so what does actually feminism add to participatory action research, I think that becomes a question.
What I learned from feminism and participatory action research is the layering; is not homogenizing. It is privileging the subaltern for instance. So some of these are important for me. This sensibility adds another layer to the sanitized participatory action research - You know, the unnuanced participatory action Research. Participatory action research that is reduced to techniques and tools. I think there's a deeper philosophy – and how do we give life to that philosophy is what I have learned through feminist practice.
Jessica OddyI just think it's such a fantastic conversation to hear. The whole the longevity of PAR and how you've worked in so many different spaces and brought it into so many different spaces.
Patricia Maguire: I think your final comment also is one of the most powerful. One of the concerns I've had in my 35 or so years working, is that participatory research not be disconnected from its radical roots; that it stays connected to the deep philosophical, theoretical beliefs about dignity and people's right to have a voice and that doing those that takes time and relationships across time. It's not a quick in-out. It takes time.
Well, unfortunately, we have to wrap it up and I want to thank you, Renu, for sharing with us the whole arc of your journey, your movement through participatory training, participatory evaluation, and participatory research to what is really, I think particularly groundbreaking now, is your approach to Gender Transformative Evaluation. I think that's something new for our listeners to hear about.
I want to thank our co-host, Jessica. You’ll want to learn more about her work using digital and participatory research methods with youth in educational emergency settings. Jess, give us your website.
Jessica Oddy: My website is www.jessoddy.com
Patricia Maguire: A huge thank you to our listeners. Please help us amplify this podcast. Share the link with your colleagues and your networks. Give us a shout out on social media.
We will have a transcript and related citations to Renu Khanna’s work will be posted.
If you have any comments or questions, email me, Patricia Maguire at firstname.lastname@example.org
That's it for this episode of Participatory Action Research Feminist Trailblazers and Good Troublemakers. Now, go and make some good trouble on your own. All right. Thank you, listeners.
Renu Khanna, a feminist women’s health and rights activist, is a trailblazer in participatory action research in women’s health. In the early 1980’s, Renu began using participatory action research as part of her broader work with SARTHI’s Women’s Health Programme. SARTHI – Social Action for Rural and Tribal Inhabitants of India - did groundbreaking work in gynecological and psychological health related to gender-based violence. Its overall purpose was to give women a meaningful voice in their own health care. For example, to incorporate traditional health practices and modern allopathic health practices, they trained pre-literate women health workers, barefoot gynecologists, to provide gynecologic services.
Renu is one of the co-founders of SAHAJ-Society for Health Alternatives, based in Vadodara (Gujarat). Renu has worked for health equity for over three decades, particularly mobilizing traditionally marginalized groups – first in tribal areas of Gujarat, the urban poor in Vadodara city, and subsequently on health issues of sexual minorities, people living with disabilities, and adolescents.
Renu has over four decades of experience as a trainer, action researcher, evaluator, and policy analyst in India. She is on the governing boards and steering committees of several national and international organizations and networks, including the Steering Committee of COPASAH. She is a Joint National Convenor of Jan Swasthya Abhiyan - the People’s Health Movement of India - and a founder member of CommonHealth Coalition of Maternal Neonatal Health and Safe Abortion. She's part of a coalition of feminist evaluators who are promoting gender transformative research and evaluation.
Khanna, Renu & Price, Janet (1994). Female sexuality, regulation, and resistance. In Caroline Sweetman and Kate de Sellncourt (Eds). Population and reproductive rights. pp. 29-34. Oxford, UK: Oxfam.
Renu Khanna (1996). Participatory action research (PAR) in women’s health: SARTHI, India. In Korrie De Koning and Marion Martin (Eds.). Participatory research in health: Issues and
experiences. pp.62-72. London: ZED Books.
Renu Khanna (1997). Dilemmas and conflicts in clinical research on women's reproductive health. Reproductive Health Matter, V 5, No 9, 168-173.
Khanna, R. (2012). A feminist, gender and rights perspective for evaluation of women's health programmes. Indian Journal of Gender Studies, Vol 19, 2, 259-278.
Shukla, Abhay; Khanna, Renu; & Jadhav, Nitin. (2018). Using community-based evidence for decentralizated health planning: insights from Maharashra. Health policy and Planning.33:e34-e45.
Comrie-Thomson, Liz; Tokhi, Mariam; Ampt, Frances; Portela, Anayda; Chersich, Matthew; Khanna, Renu & Luchters, Stanley. (2015). Challenging gender inequity through male involvement in maternal and newborn health: critical assessment of an emerging evidence base. Culture, health, and sexuality. Vol 17, sup2, 177-189.
Khanna, Renu, Murthy, Ranjani, & Zaveri, Sonal. (2016) Gender Transformative Evaluations: Principles and frameworks. Shraddha Chigateri & Shiny Saha (Eds). A resource pack on gender transformative evaluations. pp. 16-37. New Delhi, India: Institute of Social Studies Trust
Khanna, Renu interview with Andréia Azevedo Soares (July 1, 2021) Giving women a voice in health and health care. Bulletin of the World Health Organization, 99(7), 484–485. https://doi.org/10.2471/BLT.21.030721