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Volume 50 Number 3
Committee on Women
For this issue’s interview I once again asked committee members for recommendations. Below is my conversation with Nidal Karim, PhD, Project Director at CARE USA about her background, experience and the work she does. – Eylin Palamaro Munsell, Chair, SCRA Committee on Women
Eylin Palamaro Munsell: Just to start off with, tell me a little bit about yourself, your background, your education, you know, how you came to do the work you do, that sort of thing.
Nidal Karim: I did my undergrad in psych and then was in a counseling PhD program after that. Then I discovered Community psychology halfway through and shifted over after I got my masters. So, I did my community psych doctoral degree at Michigan State and spent most of my time there working on intimate partner violence work and sexual violence work. Also, I was trying to do an international dissertation so I spent some time in Guatemala doing language study and pre-dissertation work. However, due to funding factors I decided to change and ended up doing my dissertation research domestically in Michigan with survivors of intimate partner violence.
And how did I end up where I am now? I grew up in Bangladesh and I came to the US for college. I have always been kind of like a transient and when I was at Michigan State and starting to do some work in Guatemala, I’ve always been interested in doing work internationally; so that was an opportunity to try it out. Also, at the time, there was a “Women in International Development” specialization at Michigan State. I worked there as an editor. I got a lot of exposure in addition to doing a community psychology degree. It gave me the space to really understand work in an international space around women’s rights and around development and violence. I graduated, and got a job at CDC working on IPV, sexual violence primary prevention. That was work that was domestic and a lot of that was doing monitoring and evaluation work and supporting CDC grantees, mostly domestic and sexual violence state level coalitions. While I was doing that, there was an opportunity at CARE, which is also based in Atlanta, and I was curious because I’d interned with CARE in Guatemala during grad school. So, I applied and it was a position that was specifically for gender equality work and measurement so it felt like it was right up my alley, in terms of my interests in doing gender and gender-based violence work. So, that’s how I ended up at CARE and I’ve been there about four years now.
E: First, tell me about CARE? Does it stand for something? What do they do and what does your work entail there?
N: CARE is a large, international non-profit. It works in about, I think, eighty-five countries. The CARE US headquarters is based in Atlanta. There are offices in New York and D.C. and other parts of the country. The biggest funding mechanism does flow out of the US and that’s where I work. The work within CARE is across all kinds of international development: sexual and reproductive health and rights, food security, water and sanitation, and so on. But there is a core focus on women and girls and so part of CARE’s mission and vision is focused on the rights of women and girls and looking at poverty reduction by focusing on women and girls. I work on the Gender Justice Team and it’s a small team within CARE US. When I first started at CARE, I focused mostly on looking at measuring change around gender equality work. So how do you look at empowerment and gender equality when you’re doing programing on the issue and also If you’re doing work, whether it’s in food security or reproductive health or other types of programs, why is gender equality important? How does it feed into it? We’re trying to do some of that guidance capacity building, as well as connecting the dots across different points of the organization. We’re learning and trying to generate evidence on that. I was also working specifically on a project that focuses on child marriage prevention in Nepal and Bangladesh. So, in January of last year, I transitioned into a new position as the project director for that specific initiative and that has been a project I’ve been with from the very beginning. Since it started, the focus is really on girls’ rights and empowerment as a core way of trying to address child marriage. It’s an interesting initiative because we support community-level programing in Bangladesh and Nepal, but we’ve also been doing a lot of work around advocacy with the US government and also doing advocacy and influence in the general sphere of child marriage programming globally and trying to influence how people talk about it. I guess what I got excited about with this initiative is really trying to look at root causes. I think we’re bringing a really deep feminist lens to the work of how this issue is around the fear and control of girls’ sexuality and how that really drives certain practices. So we’re trying to think about how to do programming that is actually trying to get at that and not just programming around it.
E: What are some of the specific initiatives that you’ve taken to address that, because I’d imagine that’s really culturally kind of “glued”. How do you help reframe that dialogue?
N: I think it’s been a journey and there’s not a lot of us trying to speak to that, especially with the child marriage work. The bulk of the conversations are around educational access, especially secondary education, which is really important, especially in a lot of the settings where we work. But this issue of really looking at norms around how girls are viewed and valued, and how the control and fear around their sexuality is such a key driver, is one that only a few organizations are looking into and trying to program around.
In a lot of ways, it’s also about how people here talk about it. How policy makers here talk about it and how funders talk about it. In a lot of ways, it seems like the struggle is not that different. The norms are pretty similar. Just like in the US, there’s so much controversy around comprehensive sexuality education. It’s still being debated; even though the research is so strong, it’s still the same thing. While the recommendations are so clear that having that kind of access for adolescents is really critical, it becomes sensitive about whether you’re able to do it or not. What we’ve realized is that we’ve spent a lot of time in the communities where we’re working mostly just creating space for girls and boys to come together and start questioning traditional gender roles. Again, it’s not that I think it’s something like one country versus another. Universal gender roles influence how things play out. So, a lot of what we’ve been doing is creating this space for dialogue so that people can talk about, “What does that mean?” Why can a girl not do certain things but a boy can? Or, why do parents value certain things among their daughters and not their sons? So, a lot of it has been opening up those spaces and facilitating conversation. Over time, in building the kind of trust for spaces, so then they can start having conversations around sexuality. So, it’s definitely not something you can just come in and start talking about. And, again, even before we got into the sexuality piece, it’s been hard and there’s been pushback from the elders in the community. What I think is exciting is where I can see the girls have been coming together and they’re speaking up on their own behalf. They’re saying, “We really value the way that the group’s being run.” They advocate for themselves to continue things in the community. It’s not simple, but I think it’s probably not simple anywhere to talk about things involving adolescent sexuality. There are parents anywhere in the world who might not be readily open to anybody talking to their children about sexuality and sexual rights, especially with girls.
E: It’s interesting to me that you’re starting off with dialogue. The starting point of talking about ordinary things and then from there it can snowball into other topics that maybe are harder; you’re scaffolding up. So, what drew you to this kind of work? How did you know this was the thing you wanted to focus on?
N: I think, overall, even before I knew anything about feminism or social justice, growing up where I did, I know what always felt unfair. Gender equality has been something that, even before I could intellectualize it, was something I cared about. The work that I’m doing now, in a lot of ways, serendipitously gave me an opportunity to work in Bangladesh, even though, when I started the job, this project didn’t exist. It was just something that happened. So, in some ways, I feel like it came full circle. I got this opportunity to go and be a part of work with young girls in Bangladesh.
Initially, I would say that a lot of the work I did was with women, and so the work with girls is definitely newer to me. I hadn’t worked with younger populations before, so, I think that’s something I stumbled upon and found myself getting more excited about and feeling like maybe that is more the area I’m interested in. I started out working with more adult women and issues. I guess, in some ways, it connects nicely. I feel that having been in a Community Psych program and at the CDC, doing primary prevention work, I keep dialing back to being someone who’s worked on gender-based violence. At the end of the day, when you look at primary prevention, it ends up being about things that start much earlier; around how we socialize and the norms around how we look at gender and sexuality and gender identity. So, that’s where it’s come together in this particular work. I don’t think that child marriage work is my singular passion necessarily, but I do feel like I’ve found a place where being able to bring my research head and bring programming together, I feel like that’s where my passion is around gender justice work.
E: What are the greatest challenges you face in the work you do?
N: I do feel often that there continues to be some dichotomies between research and academia and on the ground programming. I guess, in some ways, what I value in my education is that I had an opportunity to be in a community psych program where we did applied research and, so, in a lot of ways, I assumed anybody doing applied research comes from that standpoint. I think often where I struggle is with working with other researchers and academics who have very strong theoretical and research thinking that they bring to the table, but, often, they can’t grasp the reality.
E: They can’t translate that into real world challenges…
N: And, also, around research design. Again, even in the donor space and in a lot of spaces the positivistic approach to research is still considered the gold standard. In the work that we do, I find myself often having to be the person who’s advocating for other methods and approaches and trying to stand up for that; really dig into that value around what counts as evidence. That’s an area that I think is an ongoing struggle. Straddling that space is tricky.
I guess the other thing that I would say is challenging is when I was doing work domestically in the US, I thought that, because of that, I was connected locally within the work here. International development, there’s a political critique of it. Historically, it had some sort of colonial mindset. Who provides help to who and where the money comes from and who drives the decisions. So, I think there are definitely still things to struggle with in how you do this work and stay true to your values and navigate the power dynamics in a way you can still feel okay about and really create the space and voice for local communities. And, connected to that, because I do international work, I travel a lot so I haven’t really connected in the local communities. And, so, in some ways, it’s like, how do you balance that and work that out?
E: So, along with that, I can imagine doing work in this area, especially focused on child marriage, it can get emotional and intense, at times. How do you take care of yourself?
N: You know, it’s funny. I always think of how, with grad school, it almost makes you think that taking care of yourself isn’t important. You just get used to doing, doing, doing and not thinking about yourself. I do think that’s not a good thing. Recently, (I was) at the AWID Conference in Brazil, and one of the things that I really loved is that they had a whole panel on self-care. And, because this is that space where a lot of the folks are activists, it was kind of to talk about why self-care was important for activists. But, again, for all of us who do work that can be emotionally draining. What I really liked about it was something one of the speakers shared was how we often think about self-care as an individual act, like, go get a massage or go to the spa or go off and read, but talking about how self-care is also about taking care of each other as a community and thinking about how we show up for each other. So, for me, that was like a wake-up call, because, in a lot of ways, I only thought you could do self-care as a time for yourself. But it doesn’t always sync up. So, in a lot of ways, it reminded me of something that I had known about and forgotten, which was when I was doing work at Michigan State, one of my professors, Dr. Campbell, she had actually written this whole piece on self-care. How do you create a space for wellbeing when you’re doing work on issues that are sensitive and emotionally draining. Yeah, so it reminded me of that. It’s like something I remember learning and forgetting. So, in terms of self-care, I think, for me, it’s mostly about finding the time to connect and find “my people.” Making time for that in itself is a big thing.
E: Yeah, who knew community psychologists needed community?
N: It’s funny how you forget.
E: So, one last question: What would be one policy change that you would like to see that would impact what you work on?
N: For me, the piece around access to knowledge and information around your own body and sexuality, especially for girls, but also for boys, around consent. I feel like a lot of countries have a policy, it’s just that they’re not implemented. In some ways, policies that really push that forward as adolescents and children grow up understanding and learning accurately about their bodies and their rights. I feel it can transform how we interact with each other as we grow up to be adults. So, I think some of the policies are in place but not followed through. To be able to deliver those types of facilitated conversations. We see that a lot. In Nepal, it’s been compulsory to have sex-ed from a long time ago, but most teachers will skip over the chapter. They won’t do it or they don’t feel comfortable. The environment isn’t there or the people are not given the opportunities to learn and train themselves to be able to have the conversation. It’s not just about sex; it becomes about understanding yourself and your body and your rights in a way that could go such a long way, even around, say, gender-based violence.
E: Thanks for the conversation. It was really awesome to learn more about your work.
N: Thanks for reaching out.