Dangerous Research: PhD candidate Maria Tanyag on field work and feminist research

Maria Tanyag is a PhD candidate in International Relations with the Monash Gender, Peace and Security Centre at Monash Arts. Her PhD research explores the sexual and reproductive rights of women in post-conflict and post-disaster settings in the Philippines, and has taken her to a number of remote communities where she tries to understand how people navigate their health, and human rights, following times of disaster and conflict. We spoke to Maria about her fieldwork experience, why she loves research and why she chose Monash as the place to do her PhD.

Why did you decide to do your PhD at Monash

Monash was really my only consideration. My idea of a PhD is – although you do your own research – you’re working towards being mentored by the best possible people you can get. So this is a credit to the people at Monash and at Monash Gender, Peace and Security Centre right now because I really followed a particular supervisor who I wanted to work with.

When I started considering PhDs, Professor Jacqui True’s book The Political Economy of Violence Against Women was published. It was well received and helped create a research agenda on the political economy causes of violence against women. My Master’s research was looking at sexual and reproductive health, and I was really seeing the political economy dimensions of these issues. So there was no question, I had to do my PhD with that kind of supervisor to mentor me.

The supervisor is important, but I must also note that I got a scholarship from the university and that has made a big difference. The Faculty of Arts International Research Postgraduate scholarship covers tuition and my stipend, and that allows me to focus on the work that I do, and I’m really grateful for that.

Photo: Maria in Bangkok in March 2016, at the ASEAN civil society consultations on the Regional Plans of Action (RPAs) on the Elimination of Violence against Women and Children (EVAWC)
Photo: Maria in Bangkok in March 2016, at the ASEAN civil society consultations on the Regional Plans of Action (RPAs) on the Elimination of Violence against Women and Children (EVAWC)

Monash GPS has a critical mass of scholars specialising in gender-based violence/women peace and security, and it’s a credit to the leadership of my supervisor (Prof Jacqui True) and the other academics here, like Associate Professor Kate Lee Koo, and Dr Swati Parashar. These women have created an environment for HDRs and young researchers to continuously challenge ourselves and keep asking feminist questions.

So it’s three things that come to mind: A good supervisor, financial support available and the general research environment; having great colleagues working on the same issues is fantastic.

Why did you choose to do a PhD? You did your undergrad and a Masters degree in a similar field, so why the next step?

My first foray into research was being asked to work as a research assistant for foreign academics visiting the Philippines who needed a field researcher and interpreter. That was my first taste of doing field research and I was amazed by it. I thought, what could be a better job than one where I can spend time interviewing people and learning about their stories? And I remember wondering why these foreign academics were so interested in the Philippines: What’s so interesting about the Philippines? How does the Philippines fit into broader study?

Then, when I was doing my Masters research (which also had field interviews), I started hearing about these stories of violence inflicted on women on the basis of their reproductive identity. The Philippines has had really strict abortion laws and very little access to contraception, especially for poorer women.

The exposure to these issues for women stuck with me and I really wanted to know, how can I, with the abilities I have, try and address that problem? I know I can’t do everything but there must be something that I can do. I think the PhD allows me to ask  questions, like what are the kinds of structures in place that create these insecurities in everyday life for women and girls?

There’s so much that needs to be done, not just for promoting gender equality in the Philippines, but also other parts of the world. I suppose that’s the point of doing research, you share it so that others can learn from it, and build on the kind of work you’re doing. The PhD research is important because for research around gender equality and gender-based violence, there’s also a commitment to serve and make a difference (I know that sounds cheesy!).

I do think the PhD is distinct in that it gives you that rigorous research training. That means three and a half years of investigating the same issue and the same question, and really going in-depth about the kind of dynamics you want to address. It’s about really relentlessly pursuing a research question and finding the answers to it – and I like that.

Q: What is your PhD project on? What are you researching and investigating?

For my PhD I’m looking at sexual and reproductive health but understanding it in crises settings (in conflict and disaster). My focus is on understanding sexual and reproductive health and rights broadly. I’m specialising in the Philippines as a case study, but also linking the case with global processes and ideas.

I found that in everyday life, there are already so many barriers for women’s bodily autonomy and integrity – in the Philippines but also in many parts of the world. These barriers are all the more exacerbated in times of conflict and disaster. The common knowledge, and there’s growing literature around this, is that a primary factor for deteriorating sexual and reproductive health outcomes in crises is the weak health infrastructure (what was in place before the crisis occurs). When you unpack it, health systems actually reflect which bodies matter and how they are valued.

In the Philippines, it’s in the intersections of ethnic, indigenous, internal displacement identities where you really see extreme state sanction and discrimination of marginalised groups play out in the sexual and reproductive health space. It usually starts with women’s bodies.

I unpack that by understanding how women’s bodily autonomy and integrity is really deeply embedded within the economic devaluing of the kind of labour (social reproductive labour) that women and girls perform in the household, community and the state, but also because of cultural and religious norms that are deeply embedded and internalised by women and girls themselves.

As I’ve found in both crises settings, in times of crisis, women and girls are denied the very means of taking care of their own bodies. They end up taking care of everyone else in their communities and families, and often they put their needs at the bottom in order to care for others. I think this is because of these deeply embedded religious and cultural norms that condition women and girls to value their identities as mothers, daughters and wives based on how selfless they are, or self-sacrificing. So if you put the needs of everyone else above your own, that is ‘coded’ as a good thing. This is all the more exacerbated in times of crisis.

My findings tie into other research being done, which says that in times of crises, food insecurity is most acute for women and girls because they put the needs of the family above their own. I see this idea in policy, even in representations of what a good Filipina is: it’s to be a martyr, to be virginal and self-sacrificing. In my research I talk about that in greater depth and how that specifically links to a lack of bodily autonomy, either from individual choices that prevent women from asserting control over their own bodies, to the state level where the state literally denies them contraception or abortion because that’s how they enforce a particular representation of what a woman ought to be.

There is a growing interest in looking at sexual and reproductive health (SRH) in times of disaster and conflict but more needs to be done in addressing the distribution of resources to health. Health tends to be a lesser priority and if there is attention to it, it’s more for common assistance. Rarely do we begin to talk about sexual and reproductive health. It’s not just about breast-feeding mothers or maternal health but actually talking about how, even in times of crisis, we need to  be respecting health and bodily autonomy and pleasure.

Q: What did your fieldwork involve? What did you do while you were doing that fieldwork in the Philippines?

To understand sexual and reproductive health in crises, I chose two key case studies: I looked at conflict sites which was Mindinao in the Philippines; and I also looked at a disaster case – Tacloban in Eastern Visayas.  

I met key informants: NGO workers, women leaders from ethnic minority groups in different parts of the Philippines, government reps, international NGOs, and academics researching the same field. I did 42 interviews over the two trips. I also presented some of my findings at 2 conferences in the Philippines to get a validation of the points I was getting.

On my second trip, I was invited to present some of the findings at the (Philippines) Commission on Human Rights National Inquiry. In the Philippines right now there’s a momentum around addressing sexual and reproductive violence as a result of a CEDAW inquiry [CEDAW stands for Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women – it involves governments of countries which have signed this agreement to report on different issues. Violence against women is one of these issues]. The Commission on Human Rights, which is a national body for protecting and promoting human rights, conducted a national inquiry. The Commission asked me to participate and present some of my findings precisely because I was looking at two key sites that they were also working on.

I also attended an ASEAN meeting (in Manila and Bangkok) – there are different layers through which mobilisation and policy making is done, so I attended ASEAN meeting investigating gender-based violence for women and girls and that was another platform where I presented my research but also met these other regional NGOs in ASEAN.

My field experience has been quite rich and, again, I’m fortunate for having met all these people. Because my research was situating the Philippines from the community (or grassroots) level, I made sure that I was immersing myself, to get a sense of what are the debates happening at these different levels (local, national and regional).

Q: That sounds like a really challenging environment to do fieldwork in. What was it like trying to get interviews and contacts in different, and quite difficult, locations?

This is a topic that’s ongoing and one I keep on discussing with other people who have done research. Quite recently, I was asked to join a panel for a methods course being taught at Monash called ‘Dangerous Research’ because I was traveling to very rural areas, post-disaster and post-conflict. Although I’m a Filipino national, and I grew up and lived in the Philippines until I was 21, I’m also from the capital. I also belong to the dominant ethnic and religious group.

Doing the fieldwork for this research was still quite overwhelming for me. It was my first time traveling to these two sites which have a different language and different environments. A key recurring theme when I talk about my field work experience is how I think it was more life-changing for me than for my participants.

In Mindanao, the conflict has been ongoing for 40 years, so conflict is not a new phenomenon for the people there. When I was interviewing my key informants, I realised that the horrors of the violence perpetrated there was challenging for me to hear, but for them, there was a way in which they were normalising it.

Likewise for the post-Haiyan, post-disaster case. In 2013 the strongest super-typhoon ever recorded at that time hit the Philippines. The calamity was comparable to the Indian Ocean tsunami and the 2010 Haiti earthquake because it affected 10% of the population in the Philippines (which has about 99 million people).

Image: 'Aerial view of Tacloban after Typhoon Haiyan' from the UK Department for International Development (DFID). License: CC By 2.0
Image: ‘Aerial view of Tacloban after Typhoon Haiyan’ from the UK Department for International Development (DFID). License: CC By 2.0

Three years on, there are still communities displaced with no permanent shelter and no decent housing. I went to see some of these temporary shelters and there was also this sense of it being increasingly normalised. There are ways by which they are coping and rebuilding their lives despite this protracted displacement. For me, it was really eye-opening that something as shocking and dehumanising as this is being normalised precisely because we are failing to address the insecurities that they’re facing. 

The interviews themselves were also challenging. I was asking questions about gender-based violence and I was told a story in Mindanao of an ethnic minority girl who was sold by her parents to soldiers and of how she suffered multiple sexual assaults.

The parents had decided to sell her for the family’s own security, and she felt she had no choice because again, this is part of the self-sacrificing narrative to secure her family’s situation and have some protection. So she was bought to be a sex slave but it was coded as ‘marriage’. After that, the soldier discarded her anyway. 

Of course she was traumatised by her experience. There’s no support for people like her in the village where she lived. This is the insidiousness of it all, her parents and her family wouldn’t take her back which is so sad because she had to do that to protect her family and now because she is considered ‘dirty’, her own family won’t have her. We’re talking about a community or society with strong honour codes and women are bearers of clan identity.

We [Maria, her supervisor Prof Jacqui True and Associate Prof Sara Davies] published an article on this quite recently, in which we talk about how women’s silences around sexual and gender-based violence helps secure the peace. There’s a strategic reason why women would remain silent about the atrocities they experience, and it’s usually also to protect their families and their communities. Speaking out can incur further violence in an already fragile setting.

These stories really stuck with me because after that, I was thinking, what can research do? It’s something you constantly navigate and you hear all these stories of violence but also look at stories of positive relationships that are built. You go in expecting to see and hear all about violence and sex as a negative experience and it is true, but it also can be quite positive.  

In my post-disaster case I was seeing how sex and sexual intimacy played a strong part in the recovery after a disaster. You hear funny stories shared by my informants about how couples negotiate keeping that part of their relationship going even while in displacement, and you know that’s interesting and speaks to love and support that women give and also receive. Some stories also tell of women wanting to have sex with their husbands or younger women wanting to have sex outside of marriage. That’s quite controversial in the Philippines but it’s symbolic of how they want to start healing after a disaster and how they start having normal lives.

Now the question is, how do we ensure that we protect even those positive experiences of sex in times of crises? That’s where when you provide comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services, you’re addressing both negative experiences and also sex as a form of bonding.

Q: How do you then relate your research and wanting to make a difference to these stories you were told?

In doing research, and especially if you’re doing dangerous research, you have to reconcile yourself with the idea that there’s only so much you can do and we can’t always try and save everyone. That’s not the point of research. Sometimes just allowing a space for people to talk about their experiences can be good, and then translating that story and linking the stories to broader issues is already a key contribution.

I think good advice for any researchers is that you have to be really humble and modest about how much your research can achieve within the broader interventions because when you already come in with a modest and humble knowledge of what research can do, that’s actually where you can make a bigger difference. Rather than assuming that with this research I’m going to save the world, especially in the field, you’re going to be humbled by all the work that other people are doing to make a difference.

Photo:  Peace march in Manila for the Bangsamoro Peace Process on March 2015. Photograph supplied by Maria Tanyag.
Photo: Peace march in Manila for the Bangsamoro Peace Process on March 2015. Photograph supplied by Maria Tanyag.
Q: Are there other surprising research findings from your project?

An interesting finding that I’ve got for this research is that even in a displacement context, in IDP camps and evacuation centres, sexual relations persist and continue – and it’s not necessarily violent. The focus has been on preventing sexual violence but sex also plays an important part for recovery and social bonding among couples.

So how do we make sure that this is protected in a context where communities are in displacement for extended periods of time? In one of my case studies, the displaced communities have been in IDP camps for 3 years. In my conflict case in Mindanao, the conflict has been ongoing for 40 years and so you’ve got generations of families and communities in constant displacement.

Of course, sex and sexual relations are key components of what it means to be a human being. But if we don’t recognise that even in times of displacement, that it’s a fundamental part of human dignity, we’re missing a key dimension. For this research, it really has a strong policy implication in really targeting and rethinking the kind of assistance extended to communities in crisis to include all sexual and reproductive health needs.

Another interesting finding is that when you talk about bodily autonomy, you begin to shine a light on sexual minorities. There are so many interesting stories on LGBT youth and how much work is being done despite their exclusion from formal interventions. The frameworks are very heteronormative: when we talk about reproductive health it’s about mothers and maternal health for example.

There was one story of an LGBT group insisting that they be part of an intervention from an INGO. There was an intervention in Tacloban by an INGO that had very gender segregated program, there was a carpentry program for men and livelihood programs, manicure for women. And in these gender coded interventions, LGBT youth and lesbians were completely left out.

The story is that this group insisted and engaged with the INGO and demanded that they are included in different interventions. I think that’s a good thing about feminist research, you’re constantly looking for what’s invisible or what’s being marginalised.

Q: What are some lessons you’ve learned during your PhD that you’d like to pass along?

A tip for anyone doing a PhD or researching broadly, is to always be attentive to boundaries and artificial frameworks because when you challenge those you actually see these interesting stories and that makes for a deeper research experience.

It’s the same for the PhD and in life, you try and challenge boundaries. I’m honest about this, I’m the first female in our family to pursue higher education. University education is quite common in the Philippines because education is seen as a way you get a living, and that’s how you pursue a career. But it’s not a career to pursue higher education beyond that, and that’s a way by which we challenge boundaries.

A PhD, for a lot of women, especially from a global South background, is something that you might not see too often. When I think about this I think of a quote by Maya Angelou who says that a woman without willingly doing it, by standing up for herself, stands up for other women.

I think that just by enjoying myself in the PhD, especially because for a Filipino woman, it’s really encouraging for other young girls to pursue education and try to pursue a career that’s challenging boundaries.

Q: What’s a trait that makes a good researcher? 

I think it is to be  a relentless optimist. The PhD is three years of pursuing the same question and doing so many things to get an answer, like fieldwork and immersing yourself in reading and exposing yourself to peer review. It’s relentless optimism that makes a researcher.

I might add another trait to that:  ‘feminist curiosity’. Cynthia Enloe talked about having a feminist curiosity and obviously to be a researcher I think you have to have a sense of optimism and curiosity, to really relentlessly pursue a question and find an answer to it and then ask some more questions.

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