Kuntala Lahiri-Dutt is digging deep to fight gender inequality

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Meet the ANU researcher creating change for women working in some of the world’s most dangerous and damaging jobs.

Elaine Obran

ANU Reporter Senior Writer

Professor Kuntala Lahiri-Dutt refuses to call herself a victim.

Born in a small town in India, Lahiri-Dutt married at the vulnerable age of 19 and fell pregnant two years later. She says her passion for feminism and gender equality can be traced back to this challenging stage of her life.

"My feminism comes from my own life, my own struggles. It also comes from my realisation of my privileges. I am the lucky one who flew over the cuckoo’s nest; most women are not able to leave unhappy relationships."

Having come from a family of educators, Lahiri-Dutt was determined to follow in their footsteps but faced a constant uphill battle against gender stereotypes and the traditional expectations of her then-husband and his family.

In her journey to reclaim her own life and achieve her dream of being an educator, Lahiri-Dutt had to navigate raising a young child on her own, while completing her PhD.

"It was very difficult. I think for the first four or five years, even after I got the job, I did not sleep at night because I had a child and because I ended the marriage due to the situation with my in-laws," she says.

"I had to raise my child on my own. Financially, emotionally, mentally - everything was on me."

But her hard work paid off.

"I focused all my energies on academic work, and consequently, within a year of completing my master’s degree, I was hired as a lecturer by a large, regional university," Lahiri-Dutt says.

"Only that economic freedom allowed me then to be the master of my life and spread my wings."

The political is personal

Lahiri-Dutt is now a Professor in the Resource, Environment and Development Program at the Crawford School of Public Policy at The Australian National University (ANU).

Earlier this year, her trailblazing research was recognised by the Australia’s Day Honours, when she was appointed as an Officer of the Order of Australia.

Respected worldwide for her expertise in natural resource management, development and innovation in gender equality, Lahiri-Dutt’s work highlights the issues faced by women in mining and remote communities across the world.

Using her own experiences and field-based research in international policy advocacy, global agencies, and engagement with civil society organisations, Lahiri-Dutt discovered her passion for elevating the voices of women who are so often silenced.

"I have to use whatever privilege I have for the benefit of other women - that is how I became a feminist," she says.

Uplifting through research

Lahiri-Dutt’s research on the impact of large-scale industrial mining in countries including India, Mongolia and Indonesia is putting gender at its core, unearthing the far-from-shiny conditions that generations of women are forced to work in.

She also researches artisanal, informal, smaller-scale mining that has spread throughout the less affluent countries like wildfire in recent decades.

"Women in some of these mining communities are the poorest, weakest and most vulnerable, but they do most of the work in addition to looking after home, the elderly, the children and any livestock the family might have," Lahiri-Dutt says.

"For example, in low-value minerals - sandstone, quartz or even black stone - the proportion of women in the labour force would be at least 60 per cent, and that’s the toughest, roughest work that still exists in the world today."

Lahiri-Dutt’s work also shows that high-value materials such as gold are often gendered. These minerals can be particularly dangerous to process, with the health of women and their children paying the devasting price.

"Gold is taken out of the soil after repeatedly washing it in water," she says. "That gold is then ’cooked’ with mercury. That mercury vapour is dangerous and can have generational impacts once it goes inside the women’s body.

"It is risky and hazardous work to say the least, and thousands of women in Asia, Pacific, Africa and Latin American countries are involved in it on a daily basis."

Lahiri-Dutt is making sure that their experiences don’t go unnoticed.

"What I decided to do is to create a body of evidence, solid evidence, that would be invincible, so indestructible that people have to listen."

With the fight for gender equality far from over, Lahiri-Dutt’s work in natural resource management has a lot to tackle - that’s not to say she shows any signs of slowing down.

Making women visible

Unlike books on farming that place men on the front covers or the agricultural science that has traditionally neglected to see or value women’s work, Lahiri-Dutt is determined to ensure that women are included in conversations about natural resources.

"When we talk about natural resource management, we think about these big forests, rivers, irrigation canals and dams. However, there is another aspect to it, and that is the household and how all those big changes affect different women and men differently," she says.

"Throughout less affluent countries, especially in rural communities, it is women who manage water; they provide food and ensure that everyone gets to eat. Women do all this at the household.

"Policymakers think in macro-scale terms, considering the big pictures of food security, water, forest and other resource planning, but they tend not to include gender as part of their conversations. Time has come that we realise this and make women more visible.

"Every woman in the most rural remote communities is the one who is really holding up their families to still survive, but they need support."

It’s in this push for visibility that Lahiri-Dutt continues her fight for gender equality with the same determination she had as a young girl in India, with both her research and advocacy creating fertile grounds for change.

"We are a long way from achieving full gender equality, even in a country like Australia - a lot more work needs to be done," Lahiri-Dutt says.

"We need to understand privilege and difference, let women escape of the victimhood and start looking at what women are doing and their own agency."