14 March 2017
Congratulations on completing your PhD. Your research focused on the diverse experiences of widowhood in Nepal. Can you tell us more about your project? What made you choose this particular topic?
Thanks, I am over the moon! Well I think the topic chose me actually. I was in my parents’ living room in 2009 where I stumbled across a Channel 4 documentary called ‘The Living Dead’. It was about the plight of Nepali widows and their fight for equality. I had been to Nepal the summer before but had no idea how difficult it was for women who were widowed. At that moment I thought ‘why did I not know about this and who else knows about this’. As it turned out not very many people know about the issues widows face, and I found that it wasn’t much discussed in academia either. So the following summer I travelled to Nepal and began what is now a six-year interest in Nepal, and Nepali widows. I undertook my undergraduate and master’s dissertations in Nepal, both focusing on widows and driven by a desire to raise awareness of widowhood. Alongside my academic work, I was also keen to step out of the ‘ivory tower’ of academia, and do something practical to support widowed women. So in 2011, along with a friend, I set up a UK based charity to fundraise for Women for Human Rights (WHR), a Nepali organisation that fights for equality on the basis of marital status. The funds collected by the charity have been used to support the education of widows’ children and to build a shelter in Nuwakot in the aftermath of the earthquake. When I look back now, I think that I was maybe a little naïve to think that I could help or make some kind of difference. Yet, I suppose this initial naivety - bundled together with a lot of enthusiasm – has led me to my PhD research.
What made you want to come to QMUL?
I did both my undergraduate research and my masters at Glasgow University. I had a brilliant time there but I felt I wanted a new adventure for my PhD. One of the Professors at Glasgow sent an email around one day saying that, apart from Glasgow, QMUL was the best place to study and research human geography (in fact, Queen Mary is in the UK top 10 for research quality). When I came for the PhD interview I really liked the atmosphere within the School; everyone was really friendly and it felt like the sort of place I would fit in. I also wanted to go somewhere where there was a breadth of geographical research and where researchers were engaging in applied research with a focus on social change.
You went back to Nepal last autumn to disseminate your research. What impact has your work had on the local community and how was it received?
Yes, I went back to Nepal in October 2016. As I was saying before, it was really important for me that this PhD wasn’t just an academic piece of work, but that it had to initiate some sort of change. Through this dissemination trip I was able to collaborate with NGO’s, government officials, activists and of course the widowed women themselves to establish how this research can be used, how these groups can better support widowed women and how they can move forward with their efforts. But I think for me the most important thing was to go back to see my ‘didis’ who participated in my research and to say thank you. In Nepali culture you refer to people through family relations even if they are not family. Didi means big sister so I call all my participants didi and they call me bahini, which means little sister. Although, sadly, some of these women are younger than me and I was their didi. Anyway, it was pretty special to see them again and take back my findings to show them. I think the most memorable moment was when one of my participants said ‘Suzy it is like you have taken a photograph of all of our lives and then written it’. For me that was the biggest compliment I could ever receive, probably more than becoming a Dr.
Have you got plans for the future to continue this strand of research or is it evolving as part of another project?
I definitely want to keep working in Nepal and with widowed and elderly people. I am currently mustering up the energy to apply for a research grant or a post doc where I hope to explore older people’s well-being within the changing Nepali culture. Basically, the traditional extended families where older people are looked after and supported by their adult children are becoming increasingly unpopular, and the younger generation is favoring to live in a more Western nuclear family structure. There are a number of reasons for this change, including the increasing pressure for both women and men to work outside of the home and the out-migration of the working age population meaning parents are left on their own. Also, rising house prices and rent in urban areas are preventing people from living in larger houses. Therefore, I want to explore how this changing culture is being negotiated within the family, and what role day care centres specifically have in supporting the well-being of older people.
You are now Research Associate in the School of Geography. What does this role involve, and what are you currently working on?
I am working on a research project about health and exercise in Tower Hamlets, more specifically exploring the processes of exclusion in accessing exercise. This is a piece of action research so once the work is completed, Tower Hamlets Council and Greenwich Leisure Limited – which is a non-for-profit sports facility –, will use the research to better support people in accessing exercise. It is really interesting and a new challenge for me to be working in Tower Hamlets as opposed to Nepal; Nepal has very much been my comfort zone! Although, I have to say I have been surprised by the many similarities with these two research interests. I am working with a number of brilliant community based organisations in the borough and I am enjoying learning more about the area and the diverse groups of people living here.
Why do you think QMUL is a good place to study or work?
Queen Mary is a great place to work or study, primarily because of its locality, its commitment to applied research and its diverse student population. We are located in the heart of east London – it is an exciting and diverse area but it does suffer from high levels of deprivation and inequality. Given this, many of the staff and students are conducting research projects with local community based organisations right on the university’s doorstep. Many of these projects are actively involving the local community and have a commitment to social change. This is reflected in the fact that Queen Mary consistently scores highly for research excellence. Finally, QMUL is one of the most diverse in Europe if not the world; apparently, there are people from 155 different countries. I think that is the best sort of learning environment you can be in.
What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
A PhD is hard work. When I was doing my PhD I really tried to make time for fun and relaxation. In my spare time I enjoy cooking, going to the theatre, yoga, running, learning British Sign Language and volunteering with the Labour Party.