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Challenges female surveyors face: a day in the life

Sarah Carson 8 March 2020

Our deepest thanks to the field managers who shared their experiences for this piece. All names have been changed to maintain anonymity.

Enumerator Ruqayya Ahmada Sani and respondent Hussaina Lawal during a household listing in Jigawa State, Nigeria. ©IDinsight/ Sarah Carson

For International Women’s Day, we’re featuring part one in a three-part series on female surveyors. Surveyors form the backbone of IDinsight’s work. Our research would not be possible without them, but their contributions are too often overlooked. Surveying households can be difficult work, requiring surveyors to spend months in rural areas, far from home. This work brings with it health and security challenges. Yet, it can also be rewarding: surveyors gain in-depth knowledge on topics from maternal health to cash transfers. They travel to new places and meet people with lives very different from their own. IDinsight’s team interviewed about 20 female surveyors, supervisors, and field managers across four of our global hubs to get a sense of their experiences and challenges.

What does a typical day in the life of a female field manager or surveyor in Nigeria look like? This piece will share that story. Keep an eye out for a second blog in this series in which we’ll share advice female surveyors, supervisors, and field managers have on mitigating risks for research organizations like IDinsight. In the third piece, we’ll focus on the experiences of surveyors on an all-female team in Delhi.

IDinsight has recently been leading a large-scale household survey in Northern Nigeria with an all-female team of surveyors, supervisors, and field managers. The survey is evaluating a child health program administered across three states in the region. Halfway through the survey, we had the opportunity to sit down with the project’s field managers to learn more about their experiences as women in this career. Our project’s seven field managers are all highly experienced surveyors who have moved into a supervisory position, working with IDinsight staff to ensure strong data quality among the survey teams. This will follow the story of a field manager named Faith, and her daily routine during a normal spot check in the field.

Faith usually wakes up and begins preparing for the day around 6am. In this region, it’s important for field managers and survey teams to dress very conservatively to gain respect from the communities. As one field manager described, the general guidance is essentially to “cover your body and don’t dress in a way that you stand out.” After getting ready and gathering her tablet, power bank, and anything else she needs for the day, Faith travels with IDinsight team members and fellow field managers to the surveyors’ hotel for a group debrief at 7am. During this meeting, Faith might be responsible for making logistical announcements, reviewing challenging sections of the survey, and answering questions about difficult situations that have arisen in the field.

Afterwards, Faith will select a survey team, composed of five enumerators and one supervisor, to observe for the day. She joins the team in their car on a one-to-four hour journey to the community they plan to survey. During harmattan season in Nigeria, the climate is dry and dusty; the roads are covered with haze as the team sets out. They often drive past gnarled baobab trees, camel caravans, security checkpoints, and empty fields punctuated by small towns where the team can stop for a hearty breakfast of fried plantains, pepper omelette, and tea. Some days, their destination is right on the main road; on others, they might turn off the tarmac and drive on dirt roads for dozens of kilometres before finding the correct location.

A lone baobab tree dominates the landscape around a health clinic in rural Nigeria. Scenes like this are common in the Harmattan season, when mothers often travel long distances on foot through dusty climates to bring their children to clinics for immunizations and other health services. ©IDinsight/Mallika Sobti

The first order of business upon arriving in a community is always to obtain the consent of the traditional leader of each settlement, usually a male elder. While the survey team supervisor usually does this, field managers like Faith also have plenty of experience with this process. On some days, Faith has seen communities respond better to women because they are more willing to humble themselves, act very polite, and greet everyone. As another field manager put it:

“The people there feel that for a woman to leave her home and come all the way here to their village is a very big deal. They feel privileged to have you and they know that not all men would allow a woman to come all this way to speak with them.”

This positive reaction can be helpful in gaining access to a community, because it shows the traditional leader how highly we value their participation. However, on other days, obtaining permission from the leader can be a major roadblock for all-female survey teams. Some elders judge women negatively for leaving their homes and coming to conduct interviews in outside communities, questioning their motivations and values. In fact, Faith believes that the presence of male colleagues would be most beneficial when speaking with traditional leaders.

Once the leaders grant permission for the survey team to enter the community, surveyors typically scatter throughout the area across different settlements. Some surveyors stay within walking distance of one another in a central town, while others set off on motorbike taxis to more remote and scattered areas. Faith usually selects one or two surveyors to shadow for the day, and the team supervisor circulates between the surveyors conducting spot checks.

Upon arriving at each household, Faith allows surveyors to take the lead asking for consent. Obtaining permission from individual households is often far easier than from the traditional leader. In a typical household in this area, the men are often out for most of the day cultivating their fields. With the head of household absent, men outside of the family are generally not permitted to enter the compound. Women, however, can enter each compound freely and speak to any type of household, regardless of whether the head of household is present. Faith sees this as a key advantage of being a female data collector: they can speak to and relate to anyone — women, men, and children — in a culturally appropriate way. This access was also one of the reasons the project team chose to work with an all-female team.

During each interview, Faith takes notes and submits an assessment of the surveyor’s performance. She also acts as a resource for the surveyor in answering questions and navigating confusing situations in the field. In this particular survey, the target respondents were mothers of young children. Faith typically observes that these mothers feel more comfortable speaking to other women. Another field manager, Safiya, explained further, that “women will tell other women everything, even secrets that they might not tell their husbands and secrets about their sex lives.” Despite the fact that these surveyors sometimes come from different states, social classes, religions, and upbringings from respondents, female camaraderie seems to outweigh these other factors.

Not every interview is easy, however, even those conducted with women. Faith has seen some respondents lose interest during the course of the survey, have trouble recalling the responses to the questions, or refuse to give consent if their husbands aren’t around. The days can be extremely long, as Faith and the surveyor visit between 10–20 households in one day before beginning the journey back to their hotels. But Faith and the other field managers on this project felt strongly that the biggest challenge for female data collectors in Northern Nigeria is personal security. Entering an unknown household in an unfamiliar place comes with risks. While many households they visit have mostly women present, some are composed only of men. In this line of work, surveyors are sometimes put in a situation in which they must speak with a male respondent alone for long periods of time. Travelling to remote settlements separate from the team can also be dangerous, as surveyors must place their safety in the hands of a motorbike driver. Just as traditional leaders may make assumptions about these women’s values, so too may men in the community. Especially if they are in private, these men might try to take advantage of the situation and make a sexual advance.

Over the years, the field managers and IDinsight have developed several strategies to mitigate these risks. Field managers recommend that enumerators avoid giving their phone number to respondents and take steps to ensure they are not isolated with a male respondent. In the past, they have also sometimes found success by reporting and escalating the situation to the traditional leader of the community. (Our next post will share more details on the risks faced by female enumerators and what survey teams and organizations can do to prevent these situations.)

Despite these challenges, the field managers on this project were generally positive about their experiences working in data collection.

On a personal level, Lydia appreciates this work because “it helps you understand your own privilege. You learn what a woman’s lifestyle in the village is and understand your own privilege being from the city.”

Faith agrees, adding that learning about other Nigerian women’s lives and experiences “gives me a reason to push for things empowering women and supporting other women.” They also believe their presence in these communities can serve as an example to communities of women’s potential. When children and parents see a woman doing things that women in their community cannot — speaking confidently, reading English, travelling to a new place, and using technology — they might feel inspired and want their own daughters to go to school and use a tablet one day.

In our post next week, we’ll share how these experiences are similar and different from those in other countries and what organizations like IDinsight can do to support and empower female survey teams while mitigating risks they may face.