Fb Fellow Highlight: Breaking boundaries for girls and ladies in rural India

Every year, PhD students from around the world apply for the Facebook Fellowship, a program to promote and support PhD students doing innovative and relevant research in the fields of computer science and engineering.

As a continuation of our Fellowship Spotlight series, we are introducing 2020 Facebook Fellow in Social and Economic Policy Gauthami Penakalapati.

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Applications for the Facebook Fellowship program 2022 now possible Gauthami is a doctoral student in the Energy and Resources Group at UC Berkeley, advised by Dr. Isha Ray. Her research examines how social connections and gender norms affect the wellbeing of teenage girls in India. She is particularly interested in using insights from gender and feminist theory to develop meaningful programs and metrics to improve the empowerment of women and girls in global development programs. She has extensive international research experience in collaboration with UNICEF and Innovations for Poverty Action and has worked in Ghana, India, Kenya, Rwanda and Zambia. She received her bachelor’s degree in biology from the Georgia Institute of Technology and her master’s of public health from the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University.

Before Gauthami pursued her PhD, her career helped her think beyond traditional public health issues. “I was motivated to understand the ‘why’ of the circumstances,” she says. “For example, as researchers why are we only just beginning to realize the importance of integrating data from women and girls into global development programs?” Women and girls contributed. “My subjects are interdisciplinary. My research covers the interface of global health, climate adaptation and human-computer interaction. I am constantly pulling away from decolonial and feminist theories and science and technology studies because my work is both scientific and social, ”says Gauthami.

Gauthami takes a holistic, activist-oriented approach to her research and engages directly with adolescent girls in their communities in northern India. “We speak of gender equality, but how does the concept include empowerment and agency when we know that this varies from individual to individual, from community to community?” says Gauthami. Since a hands-on approach to gender equality is closely tied to local norms, Gauthami focuses on researching local approaches to gender equality so that she can suggest meaningful solutions. While it requires long-term commitment in a specific area, Gauthami feels that her approach has a positive impact on the communities she works with.

“Binary gender norms are strong in India,” she says. “And often the same gender norms dictate access to resources and technology. When you consider access to mobile devices with internet capability, there is a digital divide between men and women – 71 percent of men in India own a cell phone while only 38 percent of women do. ”According to Gauthami, these statistics support a larger one Problem: In many rural communities in India, women and girls who own or use cell phones are viewed with suspicion and suspicion. In her current research, Gauthami explores this phenomenon more deeply by examining how reliable access and use of smartphones supports girls’ individual agency and aspiration.

Unable to travel to India during the pandemic, Gauthami has spent her time collecting data for a systematic review of youth empowerment programs, focusing on publishing articles and revising lectures. However, she looks forward to returning to her field locations in Northern India as she prefers to be in direct contact with the communities she works with with the ultimate goal of developing and implementing programs and technologies that adolescent girls enjoy strengthen. She is also working on a creative project that will elevate the stories of the people of India through photography and prose.

To learn more about Gauthami Penakalapati and her research, visit her Fellowship page and website.

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